Minnesota shutdown broadens the blue-red chasm in US politics

Minnesotans have breathed a sigh of relief after the state’s Republican-led legislature signed off on a budget deal negotiated with Democratic Governor Mark Dayton, ending a three-week state government shutdown.

While almost inconceivable in Australian politics, government shutdowns happen occasionally in the United States. They occur when a state legislature and governor are unable to agree on a budget to finance the next fiscal year’s spending, and result in the closure of all but the most essential state government services.

It’s a situation not unlike the current impasse in Washington, where President Barack Obama and Republican congressional members have been unable to reach a compromise on a way to raise the country’s debt ceiling.

In Minnesota’s case, more than 22,000 state employees were furloughed when the state’s politicians were unable to agree on how to plug a US$5bn debt hole before the start of the next financial year.

So while Minnesotans were relieved that the deal was struck, we were also disappointed that the solution was to shift the problem forward by delaying school aid payments and borrowing from the future revenue of a state levy on the tobacco industry.

Nonetheless, our services will be restored – state camp grounds and rest stops can reopen, people will be able to buy fishing and hunting licenses again, and beer will continue to be available to our residents and visitors.

How did Minnesota get to this point, and what does it mean for the future? Minnesota is trapped as the rest of the nation in a red-blue split, where Republicans (red) refuse to raise taxes of any kind and Democrats (blue) are left with the job of defending government services and the social safety net.

We have somehow arrived at an Orwellian world where the public, instead of being fed 1984-style messages by a Big-Brother state, have a choice of red messages via Fox News or blue message on the MSNBC news network – all designed to keep the masses in line.

Even those media outlets that have tried to be more balanced have been forced to reference the pablum the red and blue media are feeding us. And the political leaders who know better are trapped by the stories that are being propagated and the need to pay attention to a purposely misinformed electorate.

The problem goes back to 9/11, when US citizens were profoundly traumatised and the country made the decision to go to war in Iraq, leaving much of the rest of the world doubtful, if not totally opposed, to the wisdom of this course of action.

The decision to go to war has meant significant sacrifices by those in the US military and their families. It would seem that the rest of the country should have shared in this sacrifice by paying higher taxes to pay for the war, but we were not asked to do so.

Now we have a large war debt and continue to have costs of fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the costs and loss of revenue due to the Great Recession. The US economy is now recovering but at a slower pace than necessary to get us back to full employment and much slower than necessary to pay for a continuation of federal, state and local government services at current levels.

Those running for elected office have tried to simplify the problem and avoid the short term pain by suggesting that we can solve our troubles by getting rid of a few wasteful government programs or by raising taxes on the rich.

Unfortunately, to solve this problem we have to cut virtually all government programs as well as raise taxes on everybody – a very unpopular position for a politician to take if he or she wants to get re-elected.

So the easiest solution is to postpone the problem, as we have done in Minnesota. This is the way the US federal government will continue to go as well until the public stops listening to the red and blue messages of Fox News and MSNBC and starts to get real about our situation.

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