America in Decline?
Once again in the United States, there’s a growing sense among citizens, journalists and academics that the problems we face as a nation are becoming too large to solve. Recession, health care, war, immigration, national security, and the deficit are just a few of the issues the country must address in order to move forward. Yet, as the challenges increase in number and severity, it seems more and more that our political institutions and political culture are not equipped to deal seriously with them.
From the growing Tea Party movement on the Right to the blogosphere on the Left (and many in the middle), there continues to be a sense that the pursuit of short-term political victory matters more than long-term problem-solving. While this theme is not something new to the United States, as almost every generation has faced challenges, the breadth of these problems and the lack of progress in dealing with them is striking.
James Fallows, a writer for the current events magazine The Atlantic, talked about this at length in his January article entitled, “How America Can Rise Again.” In the piece, he provides an exhaustive review of previous bleak times in our nation’s history, and explains how our nation’s strengths helped us overcome those challenges at the time.
While he expresses concern that this time around might be different, he also provides a fairly optimistic solution. He concludes that the “government is old and broken and dysfunctional, and may even be beyond repair. […] Our only sane choice is to muddle through. As human beings, we ultimately become old and broken and dysfunctional—but in the meantime it makes a difference if we try. Our American republic may prove to be doomed, but it will make a difference if we improvise and strive to make the best of the path through our time—and our children’s, and their grandchildren’s—rather than succumb" (Fallows, 2010).
However, there is a great deal of skepticism as to whether this “solution” will work this time. Addressing and solving today’s problems requires strong political leadership and courage, while instead, Americans see hyper-partisanship, election-cycle politics, the mainstream media’s focus on the “horse race” and scandal, an intractable opposition (the Republicans in Congress), and an impotent majority (the Democrats in Congress).
In addition, the recent Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission only furthers that skepticism by fundamentally changing the way that political campaigns will be funded. By giving corporations identical First Amendment protections as individual citizens, the decision will allow these corporations to spend money on elections largely without restriction.
This is all taking place in the context of the historic 2008 election where, if nothing else, the election of America’s first black president created a sense of possibility that had not existed before. But, more important than the color of Obama’s skin was the substance of his message—a message of change, transformation, and hope, that resonated with existing voters and inspired millions of new voters to register. Yet, a little less than a year into his administration, people on opposite ends of the spectrum are disappointed because they feel the president has done either too much or not enough.
This dissatisfaction is borne out in all of the most recent polls regarding support for Obama, Democrats in Congress or the country’s direction (Real Clear Politics, 2010). The trends are bad for those controlling the levers of government power. As sentiment like this usually does, it will more than likely bring a “throw the bums out” mentality to the upcoming 2010 midterm elections, even more so than usual. This is also being reflected in polls (CNN Political Ticker, 2010).
Although it’s still early, if this is what in fact happens, the Republicans will gain strength in both houses of Congress, and seemingly take from that a lesson that inaction, whether good for the country or not, is better than action that is bad for their party. Democrats, on the other hand, will receive a much murkier lesson because they’ll have been hurt by both their action and their inaction. As a result, there will be a Republican Party bolstered by obstructing the Democrats and a Democratic Party even further weakened. This will create a political atmosphere that’s much more poisonous and much less able to solve the growing problems our country is facing.
Once again, this is an important time in our nation’s history. The leaders of both parties will either emerge to make policy changes that address some of our nation’s problems in a rational and intelligent manner, or the failure to do so will lead to even greater challenges ahead (and greater public dissatisfaction as a result). Maybe Fallows is correct to say that our government has to show that it’s earnestly trying to better itself, at the very least, rather than just going about “business as usual.” That may help turn the tide. But don’t be so sure.
Fallows, J. (2010, January-February). How America Can Rise Again. The Atlantic. Retrieved February 3, 2010.
Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010, No. 08-205).
Real Clear Politics. (2010, January-February). State of the Union. Retrieved February 3, 2010.
CNN Political Ticker. (2010, February 16). CNN Poll: Anti-incumbent fever at record high. Retrieved February 3, 2010.