What is tragic is that the promise of "American Democracy" has been reduced to the current situation. I will not comment on the reasons for the shut down. Republican obstructionism is well enough documented elsewhere. What I will do is argue against hopping wholeheartedly upon the "anti-government" bandwagon. Within the context of the political crisis a lot of people's usually inactive political brains start working and thinking. That is good. But a legitimate dissatisfaction with the the childlike fanatics in Congress gets, like everything else, filtered and interpreted first and loudest by a lot of people with money and terrible priorities, much like anything else you've ever read about in the news.
In the context of the shut down, an "anarchist" coloring to outspoken critique has been adopted by many with far from libertarian values. The good part of this is it shows how problematical "anarchism" can be, when the corporate agenda tired of anyone rich being taxed or having to respect environmental protections or support programs that help working people is able to appropriate the language of "anarchism" with so such effectiveness in its critique of "government." I can't help but fear that behind each smart and well meaning person's assertion that "the shutdown proves government doesn't work" is a Newt Gingrich smugly rubbing his hands together and licking his chops, imaging how even more citizen cynicism will allow him get away with laying off even more teachers, OSHA inspectors, park rangers, and EPA employees.
Millions of ordinary people work for the government. And in the middle of a terrible economy a lot of them don't know when they're going to get their next paycheck. That is nothing to celebrate.
Thus, let us take a moment to appreciate the many things the government does GOOD.
First, let's thank our teachers. Government runs free public education. That is a revolutionary concept. Education used to be something only people with lots of money could afford and everyone else's kids were destined for the coal mine the saw mill or the textile factory from the day they were born and had very little alternatives otherwise. It was also a lot harder for them to tell when they were being cheated at pay time because they couldn't read and had trouble with math. Government changed that and shaped American into a literate society.
Today, teachers are often underpaid and have to do a lot of work much of it outside the class room and very underrecognized. They often use their own time and resources to provide things that underfunding of schools doesn't get for students. A teacher will scan the readings from a book and put them online in case you cannot afford a book. A teacher will buy paper if the school doesn't provide it. A teacher will put in countless hours at home to grade your paper and add some comments that might help you write better. And you don't even have to pay for it!
Breakfasts and lunches served in schools also provide millions of children the only nutritious meal they might get in a day. That makes a world of difference to survival, not to mention cognitive development. Today, state and federal governments run food banks and pantries and distribute food stamps to people with no jobs or people whose jobs don't pay them enough to buy food. Food stamps has one of the lowest rates of abuse of any government program. It's literally kept several million of us alive in the past few years who never thought we'd have to use them, and provided a much needed psychological boost when things have seen the most hopeless.
Governments also run public libraries, archives, and historical societies. In addition to paying for their operation because they private sector won't, government librarians and archivists have developed professional standards, sophisticated universal data retrieval systems, and plans for long term storage of sensitive objects and special collections. Government archives provide records that we own what we own, and that we lived where we lived. Serial numbers and records of paid property taxes makes it harder for people to steal things from us, whether it's a camera stolen out of your car or if you are a Native American trying to prove a historic claim to land someone is trying to take away, develop, or trash. If you're eligible for compensation because you've got health problems from mining uranium or being exposed to asbestos at work, government archives can prove you lived and worked where you say you did and get you that compensation.
Public libraries are the practical expression of the idea of democracy at its best as. At the most basic level, when it is cold outside (or too hot!) and you don't have shelter, you can go into a library where it is warm (or air conditioned) and just survive for a while. You can use a restroom and get some water to drink. When you are down on your luck the public library may be more likely to help you than many people who call themselves your friend, and is certainly more likely to help you than your old boss in the private sector which probably has something to do with the reason you are down on your luck in the first place.
Beyond these immediate needs the library embodies the very best of enlightenment ideals of education and advancement. You can learn about your society. You can meet with others to do events. You can figure out what things used to be like, why they are like they are, and how they might be different. You can type up and print a resume. You can do a job search online if you don't own a computer or you aren't able to pay for the internet or if your private sector built laptop stopped working after three years like it was planned to. You can also retrain yourself at a library. You can take your Food Handlers' and Alcohol Serving classes online at a library. You can also learn how to work in a new industry. A lot of people work in the restaurant industry. That server whose able to make money selling wine and food to people by talking about it, how is he know all that stuff? It's probably because he sat down and read about it somewhere. Even if he doesn't know every detail about the manufacture of wine and food itself, the psychological tricks he uses to get people to drive up their tickets may have come from a psychology. Maybe he learned them in a library.
Another example of government at its best is the National Park System, "American's best idea."
Park Rangers at National Parks and monuments pick up the trash. That forest grove or sandy beach you think is so pretty? It didn't look like that yesterday. A government employee walked out there and cleaned it up after private citizen defecated behind a bush and left food packaging around. Places that look like wilderness today do so because they are "managed" as wilderness. Native plants are reintroduced to keep destructive invasives out. Tamarisk removal or the eradication of cheat grass and its replacement by tall healthy native grasses are not things most citizens seem willing to volunteer their time towards. Old mining sites are reclaimed, their toxins and hazards mitigated. Fragile soil crusts are protected, studied, and advocated for. Ecological and historical lessons are shared with the public.
On BLM lands government employees provide what little protection there is for one eighth of the landmass of the country. The precursor to the BLM was the grazing service, formed in 1934 when public lands were treated rather differently. Ranchers couldn't make a living or feed hungry people because the range was overgrazed. Mining companies abandoned toxic waste when ever they wanted and contaminated watersheds. Those adorable wild burrows and majestic wild horses weren't placed in adoption programs to prevent their destructive environmental impacts. They were shot and left to die. If a forest fire threatened your home, you were on your own. If the places you went on vacation were covered in feces, toilet paper, cigarette buts, and trash, no one was going to help you clean it up.
The BLM is a controversial agency today in large part through its support of the oil and gas industries. These criticisms are fair, as oil and gas extraction is environmentally destructive as well as irresponsible in their contribution to carbon emissions. In defense of the BLM, every single person who criticizes oil and gas extraction benefits from those industries several times a day. While society decides to use a resource, the agencies in charge of the places those resources exist is going to allow them to be used. New directions need to come from political leaders and citizen's adoption of alternatives before current infrastructure can be abandoned. To the agency's credit, a lot of work goes into the mitigation of development's impacts, particularly by BLM archeologists. To the extent that the agency may make poor decisions regarding resource management (and plenty of poor decisions have been made), I remind the reader that it does not exist in vacuum. The Department of the Interior under which it operates is subjected to the same corruptible influences as any other executive agency.
On my own personal journey through life, government has been there in a lot of ways that no one else has, and I have never been a government employee. When I was homeless I was able to use the bathroom, wash my face, and stay warm at the public library. When I decided to go back to school, I checked out a GRE book for free from a public library and used it to do well on a test. The historical research I did in public libraries, which I started doing when I didn't have job because it seemed like an interesting way to pass the time, led me to produce enough work of sufficient quality which has convinced a major university to fund my studies there and allow me to be a teaching assistant. Now I have a shot at better pay and more career options besides working for restaurants forever. Thank you, Grand County Public Library.
During the past five years I enjoyed a rewarding career as a concessionaire in National Parks and on BLM managed lands because the government cared enough about those places to preserve them. The rivers I worked on were there because Park Service Rangers in Dinosaur National Monument, along with their allies in the boating community, took their jobs as stewards seriously enough to keep an unnecessary dam from burying the Green and Yampa River Canyons. People paid me money to take them down wilderness river sections because those places were beautiful and special. In Desolation Canyon BLM rangers in the 70s were able to convince their agency to manage that section as wilderness. As a result the trash gets picked up, the historic and archeological sites are preserved, and the oil and gas rigs are kept from penetrating it. Today Desolation Canyon is a designated National Historic Landmark, one of the ecologically healthiest parts of the Colorado River system, and one of the most popular boating destinations on the Colorado Plateau.
Like a ranger being able to graze on land protected from overuse, myself and whole lot of other people have found jobs in a multi billion dollar tourist industry because the government has managed to save enough of our most special places from being trashed by self interested, private individuals. Beyond the monetary value of this industry, the life lessons people learn in wilderness settings about working together, self reliance, ecology, preparedness, situation assessment, planning, and accomplishment are worth every bit as much as what people are learning from books in school.
As a Park Service concessionaire and an occasional volunteer BLM Ranger, I am NOT happy about the government "shutting down." That doesn't mean I'm not happy to see the clowns in congress out of their chairs for a while. In fact, I think that's something we need more of. That doesn't mean abandoning the idea of government, but it means recognizing there is a need to take it back. The World War II Veterans guarding the WWII Veteran's Memorial are showing the way forward. No, we do not personally need to guard every single building or place shut down by the government. We've got busy lives. There's park rangers for that. But what we do need to do is to assert that the people running the government are doing it wrong, and that we have a responsibility as citizens to step up and reclaim ownership over our "representative" government.
The problem with government isn't that it exists but that its specific structure as presently configured is very elitist. The two party system is far worse than a "clumsy" democracy. It is a corporate political dictatorship that allows those with very much money to have a disproportionate say. The Citizens United decision that allows no limits to the price and openness with which one might purchase a politician does not so much change anything as much as it makes more efficient what has been going on for a long time. The state and political parties intertwine their structures and exclude alternatives to their rule in a very similar way to the old Soviet Union. The media colludes with them to black out fresh ideas and third party bids. The primary system and the role of money in elections insures only those who can convince a large number of wealthy people that they will represent their interests will even get their names heard. Instead of rule by intelligent, respected, and accountable fellow citizens, the spectacle is one of jesters before a king.
In spite of this, government does do great things and can continue to do great things. Much of it is in fact a largely helpful system of cooperative planning, sharing, and mutual assistance. The problem isn't with the idea of working together with your fellow citizens to fund projects you need or being able to vote on things. The problem is that if you have a good idea about how what needs to be done, what needs to be funded, and what your community's priorities should be, you'll never be able to influence this government unless you have lots of money yourself, or you convince enough people who do that you are ready to "play ball."
This should be an opportunity for citizens to take back lost control and reject the hegemony of the two party system. We should begin thinking about alternatives. We should not be passive, as we have been for so long, while self interested capitalists use "anarchist" coloring to further advance an agenda of privatization and corporate control. Like the veterans, we need to defend what is ours.