Maybe America Wasn’t Such A Good Idea After All

Time and again over the past several years I’ve lamented the scope of government dysfunction in America.

Noting that the country’s political process is defined by gridlock hardly counts as a novel observation, but my contention is that the country has no functioning government to speak of.

What sets my assessment apart from the dire accounts of the country’s fracturing democracy is the absence of hyperbole and the dispassionate cadence. When I say the country has no functioning government, I mean it literally. And it just is what it is.

Sure, there’s a bureaucracy that works ok, depending on what it is you’re trying to do. Even there, though, I’d note that having a good experience with American bureaucracy generally leaves one pleasantly surprised. That doesn’t say much for expectations. Still, if I want to renew my driver’s license (for example), I can do it.

And, sure, there are some competent technocrats and more semi-competent ones and innumerable faceless government workers whose daily duties are such that doing the job well is simply more convenient for them than screwing it up. I’m reminded of my experience with a local postal branch — the clerks do their job efficiently because the more efficient they are, the quicker they can clear the line and reduce their own stress level.

But at the highest levels of government, America doesn’t really function. The job of a Congressperson isn’t so much to advance his or her own party’s agenda as much as it is to stymie the opposition. Success isn’t measured by legislation passed or facilitated, it’s defined by how difficult you make it for the other party to pass legislation.

Voters are buying into this. It’s reflected in social media vitriol and the quest to “own” other citizens not by doing something worth doing, but by perpetuating a never-ending cycle of petty slights.

In the 90s, “dunking on” someone was almost always a reference to an ESPN highlight. It wasn’t a metaphor. These days, even highly educated Americans spend an inordinate amount of time attempting to figuratively “dunk on” their fellow citizens by scouring Twitter feeds in search of something to lampoon. It’s a comically absurd state of affairs, and speaks to the notion that agitating and otherwise belittling other people is America’s unofficial national pastime.

Little wonder, then, that lawmakers spend their days doing the same, both on social media and on Capitol Hill.

I mentioned last weekend that wasting time on the debt ceiling drama was… well, a waste of time. But in “To The Brink. For The Sheer Hell Of It,” I did note that although dignifying the situation with additional editorializing was mostly pointless, it was perhaps worth documenting various soundbites from Congress for posterity. Someday, we may look back on this week as yet another low point for American politics. It’s not just inter-party bickering that plagues the process. Intra-party intransigence is becoming equally, if not more, problematic.

Democrats are increasingly prone to using the “moderate” shield to impede the Progressive agenda. The leadership has generally come around to the self-evident conclusion that “Progressive” is becoming synonymous with “reality” and “modernity,” at least on many key issues, but nevertheless refuses to play hardball to advance the agenda (e.g., by abolishing the filibuster).

And it’s not just about advancing an agenda. The Democratic leadership is similarly reluctant even when it comes to averting calamity. “Biden opposes changing Senate rules to raise debt limit,” headlines read Tuesday. A less generous headline might say, “Beltway wall fixture refuses to alter rules of chamber he loves even if it means chancing catastrophic national default.”

Republicans, meanwhile, are split into two distinct factions. One is committed to traditional “values,” a euphemism for impeding anything that even looks like progress, especially as it relates to social justice initiatives and wealth redistribution. The other is a personality cult loyal to an exiled pseudo-dictator whose only redeeming quality is a penchant for buffoonery that takes the edge off his explicit and, in some cases, avowed, aspirations to autocracy.

There’s some overlap between the two GOP factions, especially when it comes to disenfranchising voters. That’s going to become thorny in 2022 and 2024, however. That doesn’t seem to occur to many Republican lawmakers. When the former president is bent on ousting incumbents from his own party, it’s not as simple as redrawing maps to effectively rig the vote. In some locales, there will be two GOP candidates, one loyal to Trump, the other to the establishment. While some key Republicans would clearly be fine with a chamber full of Marjorie Taylor Greenes, others would be aghast.

When it comes to the debt ceiling, consider the following thoughtful take from an article published Tuesday in The New York Times:

Things feel different this time, though — not because we’re at any more risk of default, but because of what the details of the fight show about the danger of government dysfunction.

[T]his time there’s no demand from the Republicans, no attempt to win concessions from the Democrats. They simply refuse to engage with the issue. And the Democrats, who see the mounting debt as at least partly the result of Donald Trump’s 2017 tax cuts, but who could also act unilaterally to raise the limit, are holding out, in hope of forcing the Republicans to vote for the debt increase and therefore own a piece of it.

The whole situation has a darkly comic, Strangelovian aura about it, if “Dr. Strangelove” were about fiscal policy instead of nuclear Armageddon.

In a world where significant parts of both parties believe that having the other in the majority is tantamount to a communist (or fascist) coup, it’s not hard to imagine one party deciding to sabotage the other by pushing the country into default.

We’re witnessing the slow-motion unraveling of American government. The legislature doesn’t function, not even when it comes to routine tasks such as servicing Treasury notes and bonds or ensuring the government is funded.

Don’t let it be lost on you in all of this that it’s not about money. That’s everywhere and always a charade. If the US absolutely has to conduct an expensive military operation (say, if one of Pyongyang’s missile tests goes awry and Kim inadvertently hits Tokyo with one of his toy rockets), there won’t be any debate about how to fund it.

Speaking of military operations, there was something tragically ironic about the Pentagon’s transparency around the errant drone strike during which — and I don’t know a nicer way to put this — the US military murdered 10 people including seven children. We all know the drone program is beset with problems and that innocents are frequently killed as a result of intelligence mistakes or simply because someone decides chancing collateral damage is worth it if it means eliminating some particularly nefarious individual. Thanks in no small part to an (ongoing) Times investigation, the military likely saw no alternative but to simply come out and publicly admit the mistake.

But instead of winning plaudits for transparency, it only served to open people’s eyes to something the public has become accustomed to ignoring — namely, the vast amount of human suffering caused by the two-decade war on terror. The following excerpts are from a truly damning article in The New Yorker recounting the experience of Afghans in Sangin over the course of the US occupation:

[I]n 2019, as the US was holding talks with Taliban leaders in Doha, Qatar, the Afghan government and American forces moved jointly on Sangin one last time. That January, they launched perhaps the most devastating assault that the valley witnessed in the entire war. Shakira and other villagers fled for the desert, but not everyone could escape. Ahmed Noor Mohammad, who owned a pay-phone business, decided to wait to evacuate, because his twin sons were ill. His family went to bed to the sound of distant artillery. That night, an American bomb slammed into the room where the twin boys were sleeping, killing them. A second bomb hit an adjacent room, killing Mohammad’s father and many others, eight of them children.

The next day, at the funeral, another air strike killed six mourners. In a nearby village, a gunship struck down three children. The following day, four more children were shot dead. Elsewhere in Sangin, an air strike hit an Islamic school, killing a child. A week later, twelve guests at a wedding were killed in an air raid.

After the bombing, Mohammad’s brother travelled to Kandahar to report the massacres to the United Nations and to the Afghan government. When no justice was forthcoming, he joined the Taliban.

War is everywhere and always hell, but plainly, that kind of sequence is suggestive of systematic war crimes. The linked article is a chronicle of such horrors.

At the end of the day, America is failing on virtually every front. It’s failing internationally, it’s failing domestically and it’s failing in a historical sense. The Founders’ grand “experiment” in democratic self-governance seems dangerously close to an unceremonious denouement.

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, bloody rebellion and slave labor is a shaky foundation on which to build a stable, enduring liberal democracy.

Leave a Reply to metalcurrencyCancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

12 thoughts on “Maybe America Wasn’t Such A Good Idea After All

  1. Narcissism has become a vogue descriptor for “others” the past few years in the United States no thanks in part to the NPD tendencies of a certain former president. I myself have encountered several narcissists in my life and have often wondered how widespread this mental illness is. With the growing social media platforms it is becoming more clear to me that we are largely a society built by narcissists for narcissists. The idea of “dunking” or “owning” speaks to a competitive view of interactions, that you can somehow “win” at anything. This is a viewpoint that narcists often take. That they have to always be winning and that anything they do has a winner/loser outcome. Keeping up with the Jones’s is a great example of a veiled view that you can somehow “dunk” on your neighbors or beat them by owning better stuff than they do. Nihilism and narcissism are often associated mental disorders, what we have with the two parties is a combination of them. The one party thinks it can win and it is better than the other party but also doesn’t care about anything that isn’t important to it. Minorities being murdered in the streets doesn’t matter to people on the right but fetuses being aborted is murder that requires immediate attention. Joblessness and blight in the Midwest due to major manufacturers abandoning communities that relied on them for everything don’t matter to people on the left because they don’t live there. Humans are only humans if they agree with the side you’re on. And if we bomb a family somewhere we don’t live for the cause of “fighting terror”, well things happen. That is to say we as a society largely don’t care about those people we murdered because they aren’t Americans on the correct side of a political fight. The great irony of the war on terror is that we went over there to fight terrorists and ended up creating more of them than had ever existed before by wiping out innocent people. Now we have thousands of people who feel so much contempt for the United States for killing their loved ones that we are certainly going to have to worry about terrorism around the clock for the rest of our lives. I agree, maybe this place was a terrible idea.

  2. I can remember back when George W was elected, and Gore lost, a family friend told me that it was a good thing because we don’t want someone who’s too smart.

    At the time, that statement baffled me, but I let it pass because you know, who can say why people will say stupid things. In retrospect, it was a harbinger of things to come.

    Now this question regarding democracy is a bit disturbing. If it’s not democracy, then what’s the alternative?

    I have to assume, that our original democracy, with greats such as Jefferson and Madison at the helm, would not be suffering some of the problems that we are now.

    I am thinking of the following quote by Isaac Asimov

    “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

    Maybe the problem is not democracy, per se — maybe the problem is just that our specific leaders are morons. We need a modern day Jefferson at the helm.

    1. The election of 1800 (which resulted in Jefferson’s election) was a fraught affair riven by the worst kind of scurrilous allegations and factionalism. (It also ended what remained of the friendship between Burr and Hamilton and set the stage for their duel three years later.) The still-young constitutional system survived, barely, and would be tested many more times (1824, 1860, 1876, to name a few) over the next hundred years. At the risk of sounding like a cynic, one might say it’s a feature of the system rather than a bug.

    2. I mean the alternative which we are accelerating towards is Neo-Feudalism. A return to a landed aristocracy which owns everything and installs an effective ruler as their servant to keep the population in line. Facism it would seem is too much to hope for, a big bad which somehow we will manage to surpass. Citizens will have regressed to consumers and then to serfs, chattel slaves tied to the land or worse yet a new Romany people in north america. The clock is running out on anything else and all the real power is pushing in that direction.

  3. Most of the Founders feared the mob (aka democracy) and had no interest in extending the suffrage to anyone other than white men of property. We’ve come a long way in 24i years, and have a ways to go, but I believe we’ll get there.

  4. When I went to college in the early 1960s my school had such a dominating fraternity system that not being a member somewhere meant you had no place to sleep. Fortunately, geeks like me had an option, a chapter of one of only two totally democratic fraternities in the country. All votes for governance, membership, and other important transactional policies were decided by a simple majority vote of the members. As my four years proceeded I got a great lesson in how easy it is for democracy to unravel. In 1965 two of us ran for the presidency of the house for ’65-’66, myself and a very nice, smart, pre-med guy who was also in Air Force ROTC. The election process, campaign and vote was a disaster. Neither of us who were running cared whether we won or the other guy did. Turned out our classmates decided they didn’t like either one of us so we both lost to “no name.” I forget who was finally chosen in the second election; I actually couldn’t have cared less. That fall, I met the woman who would be my wife for 54 years and we had other things on our mind so we let others do their thing. As it happened that whole year was a metaphor for life in America for the last two or three decades. Democracy is very hard. For it to work we need the population to be composed of good people willing to give up many minor rights to grease the wheels of government. Much research in group behavior now shows that will never happen here. We are the most selfish of all the developed nations.

    To get a view of our future I suggest people review the history of 20th century Italy. A fragmented country, barely able to govern or manage itself, tried to find a cure for its troubles by choosing to be governed by a “lovable” fascist autocrat, Benito Mussolini. He turned out to be about as flaky as you all know who so after WWII the country tried a hybrid form of elected parliamentary government. Because none of the Italian people could seem to let go of their petty personal interests, since the end of the war the county has had 66 new governments, 1.14 new ones per year!! To quote an HG Wells movie title, this transition to madness may well carry a more universal look at “Things To Come” in our deteriorating democracy.

  5. Humans have spent much time on managing species. Domesticated animals come to mind. However, we’ve never come up with a good way to manage ourselves for probably ten thousand years. Every new system tried brings celebrations in the streets which, before too long, become riots. I see no reason why American democracy is different and everything happening now confirms it isn’t.

  6. Democracy in the US is failing BECAUSE we are all so different. Republicans want “traditional values” where white men ruled the roost and the wife was home barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen having dinner ready at 6pm sharp. Democrats are the big tent party trying to be all things to all people and end up being nothing to everyone as they simply cannot agree on anything and there is a problem with how to approach everything! The Venn Diagram of these two parties could not be further apart!

    Democracy works when there are common threads that guide our actions like decency. We could disagree on the path forward on an issue but we all had a baseline understanding that something needed to be done… Now we can’t agree on anything and both sides are so caught up in “dunking” on the other to the point that they are willing to let the whole thing crumble just to say that it was the other sides fault.

    Maybe we are reaching a stage that infighting has become too big a problem to progress of any kind and we do need a leader with a 8-12 year vision of how we move forward. Then we focus on the tactical steps on how to get there with a set of options but doing nothing is not an option.

  7. Good article and good comments. I fell American politics is a bad marriage between 2 dysfunctional people. Each is waiting for the other to step up and be the grownup in the relationship. That doesn’t mean these 2 parties are equally bad, but it means they are both behaving badly. I think things are going to have to become
    quite unstable for this situation to change.

  8. H. L. Mencken said it all about Trump and his supporters in 1920..
    “On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their hearts desire at last, and the white house will be occupied by a downright fool and a complete narcissistic moron.”

NEWSROOM crewneck & prints