Ungovernable

Tom Friedman in the NYT: "But while our culture of imagination is still vibrant, the other critical factor that still differentiates countries today — and is not a commodity — is good governance, which can harness creativity. And that we may be losing. I am talking about the ability of a society’s leaders to think long term, address their problems with the optimal legislation and attract capable people into government. What I increasingly fear today is that America is only able to produce “suboptimal” responses to its biggest problems — education, debt, financial regulation, health care, energy and environment.

Why? Because at least six things have come together to fracture our public space and paralyze our ability to forge optimal solutions: 1) Money in politics has become so pervasive that lawmakers have to spend most of their time raising it, selling their souls to those who have it or defending themselves from the smallest interest groups with deep pockets that can trump the national interest.

2) The gerrymandering of political districts means politicians of each party can now choose their own voters and never have to appeal to the center.

3) The cable TV culture encourages shouting and segregating people into their own political echo chambers.

4) A permanent presidential campaign leaves little time for governing.

5) The Internet, which, at its best, provides a check on elites and establishments and opens the way for new voices and, which, at its worst provides a home for every extreme view and spawns digital lynch mobs from across the political spectrum that attack anyone who departs from their specific orthodoxy.

6) A U.S. business community that has become so globalized that it only comes to Washington to lobby for its own narrow interests; it rarely speaks out anymore in defense of national issues like health care, education and open markets.

These six factors are pushing our system, which was designed to have divided powers and to force compromises, into the realm of paralysis. To get anything big done now, we have to generate so many compromises — couched in 1,000-plus-page bills — with so many different interest groups that the solutions are totally suboptimal. We just get the sum of all interest groups.

{...} we need better leaders. The real answer is that we need better citizens. We need citizens who will convey to their leaders that they are ready to sacrifice, even pay, yes, higher taxes, and will not punish politicians who ask them to do the hard things. Otherwise, folks, we’re in trouble. A great power that can only produce suboptimal responses to its biggest challenges will, in time, fade from being a great power — no matter how much imagination it generates."

This is becoming a new meme out there, the fear that maybe the US is becoming ungovernable. We have such deadlock -- in DC as well as Sacramento -- that the American experiment is starting to come unglued. Everyone acknowledges, for example, that health care has to be fixed, but the political penalty for trying to fix it is so high that it creates a huge disincentive. It's so much easier to complain from the margins than to actually make positive change. And the cynicism in the country is so pervasive that it's easy to generate opposition on either side. Maybe the cyclical aspect of our government encourages this kind of deadlock, because which ever party is out of power will just endeavor to grind everything to a halt and wait out the clock until the wheel turns around and they come back into power, at which point the other side starts to slow things down. I think Friedman's conclusion is the right one, we need leaders to point this dynamic out and to appeal to the vibrant center. Compromise shouldn't always be considered a dirty word -- we can reach an agreement and rebuild our national consensus. But such a prospect is looking pretty dim out there right now.

Add new comment