A shutdown of the U.S. government could reshape the American political landscape and send a signal abroad that the U.S. is too preoccupied with its own internal problems.

U.S. Government shutdown: Who will win and lose? Pictured: Congresman Dana Rohrabacher. Photo: AP

Only once before has Congress acted to shut down the U.S. government. That was in 1995, and the consequences were clear: Even though the shutdown did not last very long, affect a large number of Americans or radically disturb the financial markets, Americans blamed the Republicans for taking what was then an unprecedented step. As a result, they voted the Democrats back into control in the next election.

And while it is far from clear as of this writing whether Congress will, in fact, force a shutdown, most discussions about it are focusing, first and foremost, on whether this time around the shutdown will have the same consequences for both political parties. There is also concern that this shutdown would have a broader impact now than in 1995.

Over the last two decades, at least three things have changed that may not result in the same consequences for the two parties.  First of all, American politics is far more polarized now than it was 17 years ago, with those on the right having decided that the political destruction of President Obama and his health care plan is more important than anything else.  Consequently, any collateral damage in the pursuit of that goal is more acceptable now than it was two decades ago.

Second, thanks to the Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court, those on the right are in a position to pour almost unlimited sums of money into their media outlets both to help define how many Americans will view whatever happens and to send a message to those on the right who might break ranks and “compromise” with the Democrats and the Obama Administration that they will pay a serious political price.

And third, and perhaps most importantly, precisely because a shutdown has happened before and the sky did not fall, many Americans are likely to view this latest act of brinksmanship as the new normal, as something that may be entertaining or appalling but that doesn’t matter much to them.

These conclusions could all go out the window, of course, if the shutdown lasts very long and if President Obama and the Democrats go on an offensive of their own to help ensure that the right will not be able to define this event as it has in large measure done up to now.  That seems unlikely at least from the president whose style is anything but combative: One cannot imagine him delivering an FDR-like address about “malefactors of great wealth.”  But the campaign for his successor has already begun, and at least some of those running for the Democratic nomination may see that as an opening for themselves.

A shutdown, if it happens, will have three broader consequences. First, it will further undercut the authority of all political institutions among Americans, making the future appear more uncertain than it now is.  Second, it will raise questions about what will happen with the debt ceiling debate in a few weeks, and this has the potential to rile the financial markets. 

And third, it will suggest to other countries that the U.S. is now so preoccupied with its own problems that there is an opening for them, thus making an already dangerous world more dangerous still. In particular, the United States may very well be more willing to defer to major regional powers such as Russia in their relations with their neighbors and less willing to take a more active role in resolving conflicts with Iran and Syria.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.