When the Political System Breaks, Other Stuff Breaks Too

A political system that runs on point-scoring and gaming the news cycle cannot anticipate problems. It cannot even clean up messes and fix stuff that's already obviously broken.
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What should President Obama do now? Most of the advice he's getting in the mediasphere, needless to say, is bad -- so I'm not going to add to it. But Scott Brown's win in the Massachusetts Senate race does raise a bigger question: is the system broken? I fear the answer is yes.

Thanks to a combination of arbitrary Senate rules, political polarization, and the Republican Party's near-total disengagement from substantive policy debate, it's now impossible to pass ambitious legislation of any kind - even if there is a unambiguous public support for it.

Is that necessarily bad? There's a legitimate argument that divided government does less damage, and that its persistence reflects the temperamental conservatism of the American public. But I don't think this idea stands up well given recent history. Democrats and Republicans, at each other's throats, getting nothing done - that's America! Well, that was America for most of the past 20 years. Look where it got us. And now, I'd argue that we've entered a particularly dangerous and uncertain phase in our history. We need a political system that can respond to it.

Our problems are very big, and a gridlocked system guarantees that they get even bigger - and, in some cases, blow up in our faces. They include rising economic insecurity, including the patchy and overpriced health insurance system that Obama is trying, maladroitly, to fix. Climate change, which may well lead to a series of cascading environmental, agricultural and natural disasters over the coming decades, and which requires concrete government action starting yesterday. A financial system that is intrinsically corrupt, resistant to government intervention, and prone to irresponsible, bubble-creating behavior. A national infrastructure that is either falling apart or unsuited to changing conditions (see, for example, the New Orleans levees). Severe structural problems in the nation's budget, debt service and social safety net.

Some of these problems are perennials. We confronted past crises and survived. That's cause for some hope that the system, when backed against the wall, will ultimately act constructively (as with Reagan's Social Security commission, to cite a modest example).

But most of these problems cannot be solved by bipartisan commissions. They require executive leadership to mobilize the public and national resources, in concert with congressional action. And today, after eight years of Bush and a year of Obama, can you envision that happening for anything short of a shooting war or a second 9/11?

There's a rough majority consensus on a lot of the problems the country faces. But start running them through the congressional and media gauntlet, and things get hopelessly bogged down - see health care reform. What happened there is partly Obama's fault, of course. As Ezra Klein notes, he spent so much time mastering the inside game of Baucusland that he lost sight of the outside game of galvanizing the public. And of course the sorry state of the economy is primarily to blame for Obama's political problems. But the system shouldn't just seize up in a crisis, and in this case it has.

James Fallows got at this issue in his recent Atlantic essay How America Can Rise Again (though he never really answers that question). The problem isn't America, which is doing OK. It's American government, which is a joke:

What I have been calling "going to hell" really means a failure to adapt: increasing difficulty in focusing on issues beyond the immediate news cycle, and an increasing gap between the real challenges and opportunities of the time and our attention, resources, and best efforts.

A political system that runs on point-scoring and gaming the news cycle cannot anticipate problems. It cannot even clean up messes and fix stuff that's already obviously broken. And as stresses rise, our existing government-run or government-dependent systems - fiscal, social, infrastructure, military - are increasingly going to find themselves in danger of breakdowns. Some will be manageable. But some will be catastrophic.

This post first appeared on my True/Slant blog.

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