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The United States government shutdown has been over for a few weeks, and many pundits claim that Trump “lost” the showdown, pointing to approval ratings and polls.

This is probably correct on the short term, but it’s also short-sighted and misses the bigger picture, which is one of narrative. The Republican narrative states that the government is bad at running things, and should therefore be small. The Democratic narrative is that the government is generally looking out for the common interest and often a force for good.

Which narrative will benefit from a government shutdown? That Trump himself steered towards a shutdown because of his personality … issues … doesn’t strike me as important for the long-term perception. People will just remember “D.C. couldn’t get its act together and the government shut down!” and “both sides are to blame!”

Point in case: people already seem to have forgotten about how awful George W. Bush was, or that the Affordable Care Act failed in large part because the Republicans did everything they could to sabotage it.

This concept doesn’t just apply to the government shutdown. In general the Republicans will benefit from a disorderly run government, which is one reason they spend so much effort obstructing it, they can then “prove” their point that “government doesn’t work”.

Anti-government parties having a vested interest in a badly run government isn’t unique to U.S. politics either. This is just a well-known recent example.

None of this means that everything government does is automatically good (it’s not), or that the Democrats don’t mismanage government, too (they do). The issue is complex and there are no quick ’n fast answers. But there is an unequal playing field; it’s hard to run a large organisation – including government – well, but it’s almost trivial to run it in to the ground.

Think about this next time you find yourself thinking “government is messing things up again!” Why did it fail? And could it have worked if there was more commitment? Also see Being right: just because the conclusion is correct (“government messed things up”) doesn’t mean the reasoning is correct (“it failed because government is inefficient, mismanaged, etc.”)

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