The last US government shutdown was not inevitable. Nor is the next, which will come in just over a week. They both could have been avoided if both sides cared more about achieving their own objectives than harming the other side and, as a consequence, the American people. That so far, we Americans have faced almost a month of the shutdown is a manifestation of a toxic problem in US politics: mutual demonization. Such demonization will not only paralyze the country, it may destroy it. To stop this, both parties need to do two things: begin really negotiating and, just as urgently, address the demonization that has paralyzed the country.

A negotiated solution is available if both parties want it. President Donald Trump has finally actually defied his base with a productive path to solving the problem. His offer of trading a three-year extension of the freeze on government action against the 3.6 million Dreamers’ (those who entered the US illegally before the age of 18) status may be inadequate for the Democrats, but it is a concession. The Democrats in a normal world would respond by expanding the parameters of the discussion.

The Democrats may not want to fund Trump’s US$5.7 billion demand for a border wall in exchange for a mere extension, but they should smartly use the opening offer. If this were a negotiation between such adversaries as president Ronald Reagan and then-Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, or president George H Bush and Senate majority leader George Mitchell, the solution would have been ironed out long ago.

The negotiations could and should look something like this. The Democrats should not only appropriate the $5.7 billion, but offer to round it up to $6 billion; after all, this is less than a half a day of the government budget. New York spent more than that on 3 kilometers of subway for the Q Line. They should offer the same funding for next year as well, that is until the end of the president’s term, and agree upon an extended budget though January 2021 to assure that there are no more shutdowns in this Congress. In exchange they should demand that Trump agree to a permanent solution for the Dreamers.

In offering these terms they can emphasize to their base that the wall is a stupid waste of money, but bad and expensive policies are common enough in Washington on both sides of the aisle. The Democrats would emerge as heroes if they achieved permanent legal status for the Dreamers, and President Trump could get his big and beautiful wall and tell his base that it is unrealistic to deport 3.6 million people even if their parents did bring them in illegally. Such a compromise would probably still pass both the House and the Senate with veto-proof majorities even without President Trump. But this will only happen if both parties stop demonizing each other.

Mutual demonization has led both parties to confuse immoral policies with policies they oppose. Actually, there is only one moral issue in the current impasse. Contrary to the view of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the wall isn’t immoral. A country is allowed to define and protect its national sovereignty. Immigration is a policy decision to be decided by the people, and by electing Trump the American people made a choice, and it is appropriate for him to have input. We can’t keep having political policies that thrill 50+% of the population and infuriate 50-%.

I personally think the wall is ineffective and bad policy, but that is a different matter than it being evil. On the other hand, keeping 3.6 million people in legal and existential limbo is immoral. If the Democrats don’t use this opportunity to try to fix it, then they are also complicit.

People living in America must be integrated into the legal system and the polity. At this point granting Dreamers a path to citizenship is the most humane option. Policymakers should also address the failures of the immigration system that led to so many children becoming Dreamers in the first place, but that will need to await a day after we get past our current polarization. Except for the indigenous Americans, we are all immigrants to the United States. Yet because each side is currently convinced the other side is evil, these points have been lost.

Most observers seem surprised at how fast political tension has become so toxic. A surprising source, namely the Bible, explains that our current polarization is exactly what we should have expected and that this is only the beginning. The Bible explains that demonization is a symptom of the gross self-deception it calls idolatry. Idolatry is not about bending down to statues. It is the false attribution of divine authority and power to finite people and processes.

The history of politics is filled with leaders or parties who deify themselves and create whole ideologies to sustain this false deification. To do so they must consistently deceive themselves and demonize others who contradict them. In America today we may not yet have full-blown idolatry, but both the Democrats and Republicans are guilty of implicit deification of themselves and demonization of the other. In such a climate there is no room for governance, only civil war.

To get out of this mess we must return to some clarity about ourselves and the other side by treating one another as adversaries who are also fellow Americans and humans and not as enemies to be destroyed. That is why the Bible’s creation story describes all humanity as brothers and sisters, which is the basis for the Golden Rule.

These government shutdowns are a test. If we don’t rouse ourselves and our country from our current idolatrous haze, the worst is yet to come.


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Scott Shay

Scott A Shay is the author of In Good Faith: Questioning Religion and Atheism (Post Hill Press, September 2018) and chairman and co-founder of Signature Bank of New York.

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