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It’s the politics, stupid

The US government shutdown will enter its 14th day on Monday, and the debt-ceiling deadline is on Thursday. Both political parties continue to blame one another. Some Democrats and their supporters, in particular, believe they are "winning" because certain polls, such as last week's NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, find that more Americans blame the Republicans for the stand-off than their party.

This view is myopic. Whether one party or another gets the lion's share of the blame misses the fact that all sides have not distinguished themselves in the latest conflict. The public viewed the political class as a whole negatively before the shutdown, and now have an even lower opinion of them.

As an Associated Press-GfK poll found, Americans "placed the brunt of the blame on Republicans but finds no one standing tall in Washington." The AP added: "There's plenty of disdain to go round." The approval rating for Congress - that is, both parties - reached an all-time low of 5 percent (yes, 5 percent!).

A different NBC/Wall Street Journal poll this past week - on public confidence in the parties - also captured the bigger picture. The poll found that for the first time a majority - 60 percent - of Americans would defeat and replace every member of Congress if they could. That's a clear vote for "throw all the bums out". Nearly half do not identify with either party.

Here's an anecdote that highlights what is happening today. If you drive around Americans suburbs this week, you'll see signs in people's yards for local government candidates who will be up for election in early November. They are mostly standing on Democrat or Republican tickets,  but you won't know that from the posters, which do not disclose the party; the candidates do not want to be associated with a party. Whereas signs used to be red, white and blue, like the American flag, you now see green, yellow, maroon, and various color combinations, which is a clear indication that candidates are running as far as they can from Washington.

Moreover, public disdain for their elected representatives reflect broader pessimism about politics. Again, the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll on public confidence found that 78 percent believe the country is headed in wrong direction - a record high. That level of disenchantment - nearly 8 in 10 - is unheard of at a time when there is neither an economic crisis (sure, growth is not great, but it has stabilized) nor a war.  Indeed, whereas in the past we often saw an economic crisis leading to a political crisis, today this seems reversed: the biggest obstacle to economic progress is the stagnation in politics.

It is not an overstatement to say that there is a genuine political crisis in the US. No, it's not the kind of crisis that blows up over a single event (not even events like a government shutdown or debt ceiling vote). It is rather a steady erosion in trust and support for political parties and elected officials, an erosion that shows no signs of letting up.

As we head towards Thursday's debt-ceiling deadline, the conventional wisdom is that Congress and the White House will reach a deal that will raise the debt limit, and possibly halt the shutdown, for a few weeks or months. As always, there will be talk of winners and losers. But the real underlying crisis in political leadership will not be resolved by patchwork deals and hollow declarations of victory.

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