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What’s The Trouble With The U.S.A.?

April 17, 2012

Americans dearly love to hate Washington. It’s like a national pass time, or something. And I get it, really I do. What’s to love about the partisan rancor, the polarization, the grid-lock?

But here’s the thing: Washington doesn’t actually exist in a bubble. The partisan rancor and the polarization you see and despise in Washington? It’s there because it’s also in your home state, county & town. Your representatives are there because they were elected by you. Who else can you blame? (Oh, I know — that guy in that other district or state who voted the wrong way.)

The sad truth about the American citizenry is that it loves to despise a government that is mostly a reflection of itself.  As long as we are bitterly divided, so will be our government. A logical question would be to ask why we are so deeply divided.

We have a democratic system built to rely on cooperation, and meant to discourage the rampant tyranny of factions. Yet, we need only to look at the US Senate, which has become not a majority-rule democratic body, but a 60-vote body due to the abuse of the filibuster by an ideological faction.

More deeply, though, we must ask why the public is so polarized politically. Ed Luce, author of the book, Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent, has some answers, perhaps, in an interview with Foreign Policy:

FP: Among the things that makes your book great is that you went out and you reported on America. You saw people, spoke to them — followed in Tocqueville’s footsteps, as some have suggested. Something’s broken; you don’t want to blame it all on Washington. What’s wrong with the American people?

EL: That’s a very good question. And I attempt to answer that in different ways, partly though politics. Americans don’t participate in politics, or those who do don’t particularly want to and the rest don’t seem to give a damn. And there’s a kind of self-fulfillingness to that. And they do give a damn, and I can understand why they’re alienated. But their very alienation reinforces what it is that alienates them.

So you’ve got this kind of weird tandem of apathy versus fanaticism that reinforce each other. But what I found most interesting, and continue to find most interesting, is the education problem — the problem of K through 12 and the lack of early childhood learning for those at less advantaged levels, the problems with student loans and with community colleges. I think it’s a portal onto America’s competitiveness problem. But it’s also a cultural problem.


FP: The other point is pragmatism. Do the Americans today have the spirit necessary to tackle these problems?

EL: I think there’s demand for it. Americans might be ignorant about the Middle East or Europe, but they’re certainly aware of their own situation. They are certainly aware of the problems here. And I think, as [GE CEO] Jeff Immelt said, if globalization were put to a referendum in America, it would lose — which is troubling, and it’s one measure of the degree of alarm and distemper felt out there, which I come across the whole time whenever I’m outside of the Beltway.

The question of whether that pragmatic instinct that Tocqueville best described is now missing is more a question about whether the market signals are working in American politics anymore. Because the consumers want some kind of change; they want some kind of recognition of the degree of pain and strain they feel nowadays in their lives, to which they are not accustomed. The system seems unable to respond. Democracy is a market as well, and it doesn’t seem to be working.

So the question is what stops democracy from being a market in America? To answer that we go back to the world of money in politics; we go back to the world of Latin Americanization of American society; we go back to some of the institutional factors like gerrymandering. But we also go back again to the American people, to the consumers.

Too few people participate; too few people are informed; too few people have the energy at the end of a long day slogging for declining wages to unplug from Dancing With The Stars long enough to get informed.

Too many people lazily take the word of a carelessly forwarded, fact-deficient email; too many people are contemptuous of education and knowledge; too many people are so terrified for their own future that it becomes easy to accept the “other” as a scapegoat; too many people have been beaten down so much that they unquestioningly believe that the guy with the big bucks must be right; too many people just feel powerless.

Solutions? That’s a tougher nut to crack, but the problems are plain to see.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 20, 2012 12:01 pm

    I see too many significant differences between Republicans and Democrats. When I look at the 10 major political issues I’m concerned with that I see at the National level and decide how I feel about them, on all of them I agree with the Republican position.

  2. April 17, 2012 12:26 pm

    I don’t know what year George Carlin wrote it, but this sounds like his bit, “Maybe the government doesn’t suck, maybe we suck.”

    However, I don’t believe the people he was hoping to reach will think he was talking to them.

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