Thoughts on the January 2019 Border Wall Shutdown


There are no shortage of opinions on this issue. Here are mine:

  1. In a democratic political system, elected officials ought to try to accomplish the things that they campaigned on. This is an important part of democratic responsiveness and accountability: candidates have platforms and when elected, they should try to enact their platform as best they can so as to be responsive to the voters who elected them which (most of the time) are a majority of the electorate. Thus, from a democratic theory perspective, it is not completely unreasonable for President Trump to try to get his Border Wall using the mechanisms that he has available to him, as it was a central part of his campaign.
  2. Important caveats include: 1) President Trump was not elected by a majority (or even a plurality) of voters, and thus from a democratic theory perspective, to enact his platform would be to some degree unresponsive to the electorate. That is not the president’s fault, though, but a feature of the Electoral College system that distorts the link between public preferences and government policy/representation, and 2) An important part of President Trump’s presidential campaign was promising that Mexico would pay for the Border Wall, not the U.S. taxpayer. Despite his dubious assertions about the NAFTA renegotiation effectively paying for the Wall, to turn around and require that American taxpayers pay for the Border Wall would also not be in harmony with democratic responsiveness.
  3. Back to Point 1, the Democratic House majority was also arguably elected in part as a negative referendum on President Trump’s administration and policies. Thus, it is also not unreasonable for the Democratic House to try to oppose the president’s Border Wall through the mechanisms that they have available to them, especially given that the president explicitly promised multiple times during the campaign that funding the Wall would not be the responsibility of American taxpayers. In essence, House Democrats are helping keep the president accountable to the specifics of his campaign promises when it comes to Border Wall funding.
  4. Generally speaking, governing by shutdown is not a healthy way for democracies to go about their business. In my view, funding basic government services should take place separately from other issues such as this. If President Trump wants the U.S. taxpayers to pay for the Border Wall, he should ask Congress to introduce and pass a bill separate from bills required to fund basic government services. During the first two years of the Trump administration, the GOP Congress regularly declined to pass a bill to fund the president’s Border Wall. Very few of them, including Congressional Republicans, wanted to move on it. Of course, it is common for presidents to look for creative ways to circumvent the legislative process when they are not able to accomplish their goals (Obama did this on immigration, Bush did it with a variety of executive orders and signing statements, etc.). President Trump is currently choosing a route that ties the fate of his Border Wall to the livelihoods of nearly a million federal workers. I simply disagree that the federal workforce should be the victim of the president’s efforts to achieve his Border Wall proposal.
  5. President Trump recently offered a compromise of Border Wall funding paired with a DACA extension. I agree with those who say that this is a pittance compromise gesture instead of a sincere compromise attempt. Nonetheless, I’d recommend to House Democrats that instead of ignoring it, they respond with a counter-offer, perhaps agreeing to the DACA question and saying “we’ll give you 5% of what you’re asking for the Border Wall,” and then continuing to negotiate from there. How much would Trump be willing to give up for even a portion of funding his Border Wall goal?
  6. There is a massive amount of evidence that most undocumented immigration to the United States currently comes from visa overstays from people coming from Asia by plane, not border crossings by people coming from Latin America. From a purely pragmatic perspective, the Border Wall is a solution in search of a “problem” that is arguably a very small piece of the national security picture.
  7. Reasonable people can disagree over the motives of those who support Trump’s Border Wall. I do not believe the evidence persuasive that support for the Wall is exclusively the result of racial/ethnic animus toward our neighbors to the south. That said, I think it also disingenuous to argue that support for the Wall is not motivated by racial prejudice and cultural anxieties for many, if not most, Wall supporters. That has to be factored in to the picture.
  8. Symbols and optics aren’t everything, of course, but they matter and are important. What does the Wall symbolize? Nothing that I believe to be in harmony with American values and ideals (as imperfect as America is at embodying its own ideals throughout its history).
  9. From a personal perspective, I have spent a good portion of my life working and associating with Spanish-speaking immigrants. I did mission work with Latino immigrants in the U.S. during college. My family and I lived in Mexico for a year and have many good friends there whom we love dearly. Much of my professional research has focused on the contours of immigration policy attitudes in the United States. Policy and politics aside, my heart aches that one of the top priorities of the chief representative of my country’s values is to pursue a political symbol of antipathy and hostility toward my dear friends.

In sum, while I strongly disagree with the Border Wall from both a policy and moral perspective, the president’s persistent attempt to enact one of his central campaign platforms is not entirely illegitimate from a democratic theory perspective, but neither are the efforts of House Democrats to oppose it. Regardless of the legitimacy of the attempt, I disagree with the president’s chosen method to pursue his campaign platform as governance by shutdown (especially when federal workers are bearing the brunt of the cost) is not a healthy way to pursue public policy goals in a democratic political system.


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