Now that this summer's debt ceiling debate has mercifully come to an end, everything is fine, right? In a word: No. As that slow-moving train wreck should have made clear, our government is worse than dysfunctional. It is now broken beyond repair.
Before the summer of 2011, the U.S. Congress had managed to raise the debt ceiling without the threat of default more than 100 times in both Republican and Democratic administrations. But a minority of Republicans in the House, elected by an even smaller minority of the electorate, held the credit worthiness of the U.S. as a hostage. As Diane Rehm of NPR pointed out, only "16% of the US population voted in 2010" to elect the 87 freshmen Tea Party representatives.
But the real problem isn't the Tea Party, as moronic as they are. It's our electoral system itself that makes these kinds of swings from one political party to another likely. Midterms always have substantially fewer voters than presidential elections. For example, in 2008 about 63% of eligible voters turned out. Contrast that with 2010, when only about 41% showed up at the polls.
Because there are fewer voters, a movement with deep pockets can win if they can get their disgruntled voters to the voting booths, and if their representatives are unrepresentative of the population as a whole and go against the majority's will, so be it. There is nothing in the American electoral system to stop that from happening and everything to encourage it.
Many argue that the problem with Congress now stems from most representatives coming from safe districts, so there is no incentive to moderate one's views. Republicans and Democrats have to appeal to their respective bases so are more ideological, less amenable to compromise or so the argument goes.
There is some truth to this, but it could easily be solved by either having representatives elected through proportional representation or by taking politics out of redrawing congressional districts by having a non-partisan committee reconfigure districts so both political parties are competitive. But the fact is, the majority of states will never try either of these remedies. And don't waste your time expecting Congress to reform itself. Congress is broken; it won't fix itself.
The 112th Congress may well be, in the words of Norm Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, "the worst Congress ever," but the dysfunction that plagues the American system is nothing new.
The problem with our government is not a temporary one caused by a bunch of Tea Party radicals funded by the super-rich. As writer Daniel Lazare pointed out 15-years ago in The Frozen Republic: the history of our system is one where "failure is the norm, success the exception, and bursts of activity are followed by long periods of crippling gridlock."
Take the past 35 years, most of my adult life. The examples of our government's dysfunction are legion. By my count, U.S. troops were sent to fight in at least 7 major conflicts, none of them declared wars by Congress and all together costing the US taxpayer trillions of dollars, not to mention that 20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union we have hundreds of bases all over the world, protecting some countries from threats that no longer even exist. Also during that time, we've had to endure long-periods of legislative paralysis; two Presidents who were impeached or almost impeached (Nixon and Clinton); one government shutdown; and an election that was in doubt for 36 days until the Supreme Court (s)elected the man who came in second place in the voting.
The whole 2000 fiasco should have been a huge warning sign to all of us as to how broken our system is. No other modern democracy has elections that remain in doubt for weeks, using ballots that are difficult to read, while at the same time allowing some votes to count more than others because of an arcane method of tabulating votes adopted because of a political compromise (the Connecticut Compromise) more than 200 years ago. In modern democracies, the first-place vote-getter wins. Period. It is straightforward, transparent and clear, as every good government is and ours, unfortunately, is not.
But what is most striking about this continued misgovernance is not only its political consequences, but its real and direct impact on each of us. Since 1980 our economy has doubled, yet the average person's wages have remained largely stagnant. Also, in almost any measure our country lags behind other western democracies. We have comparatively astronomical rates of crime, infant mortality, and percentage of the population incarcerated, while having a rate of voter participation and a gap between the rich and poor that rival most third world countries.
The CIA's World Fact Book ranks the U.S. as the 42nd most unequal country in the world. And get this: we have now a greater gap between rich and poor than such bastions of democracy as Cameroon, the Ivory Coast, Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen. And as the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance has pointed out, we have a lower voter turnout than almost any other western democracy. How can we say that our government has the consent of the governed when most people don't even bother to vote?
What is most galling is that none of our problems are unsolvable. Yet having observed our government for some time, I know that year after year very little of any real substance gets done to resolve the serious issues we face.
For instance, there is any number of possible solutions for low-voter turnout. We could increase participation easily by automatically registering citizens to vote as is done in other countries or ticketing non-voters as is done in Australia or by going to proportional representation in the House. None of these reforms would require any change to our constitution, but the likelihood of any such reforms ever passing is almost nil, regardless as to which party is in power.
The fact is that now we are going in the opposite direction. Many states with the help of the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have passed ID laws that will drive voter participation even lower.As a citizen and as an observer of American politics for the past 4 decades, I have never been less hopeful about my country's future than I am now. We have a myriad of incredible challenges facing us. Take just three: education, infrastructure, and health care. As a long-time high school teacher, it pains me to say that according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development international education rankings "the United States has fallen to "average." Also, the American Society of Civil Engineers has given the US the grade of a D on their Report Card on Infrastructure. In healthcare, as Robert Reich, former secretary of labor, has written: " Americans spend more on health care per person than any other advanced nation and get less for our money."
So does any one out there honestly believe that our political system in its present state is up for fixing any of these problems? The simple answer is a resounding: NO! Public figures from CNN's Fareed Zakaria to Canada's top diplomat in the U.S. Ambassador Frank McKenna have publicly stated that our government is dysfunctional. And most Americans agree. A recent Gallup poll says that only 42% of the American public believes our form of government works. In this the majority is right.
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