Dysfunctional America, America the angry. How did it happen? By Ray Moseley
People around the world who have admired the United States for its economic vigor, its inventiveness, its open society, its great universities, its leadership in world affairs and even its popular culture are now, in many cases, wondering how it all went wrong.
Is the political paralysis in Washington over raising the national debt limit a consequence of a nation in decline, or is decline a result of dysfunctional politics?
Undoubtedly, a combination of the two.
As an American who has lived most of his adult life abroad, I have difficulty in recognizing in the America of today the country in which I grew up. It is an angry country, seemingly unhappy with itself.
The changes that have taken place, transforming a confident and often generous behemoth into a country riven by internal conflict and ideological extremism, have not come about by chance.
The causes are complex but one feature that stands out is the transformation that has taken place in the Republican Party.
Democrats and Republicans always have had a different vision of the kind of country they want America to be. But for a considerable period after World War II, they debated and fought out their differences in a civilized manner and with a degree of mutual respect.
A high point in Democrat-Republican comity occurred toward the end of the war when Republican Sen. Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, a long-standing critic of President Franklin Roosevelt’s domestic New Deal program, publicly announced his conversion from isolationism to internationalism.
As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1947, he cooperated with the Truman administration in securing bipartisan support for the Truman Doctrine that helped save Greece from Communist takeover, the Marshall Plan that rescued Europe’s shattered economies and NATO.
These were developments that shaped much of the history of the Cold War and led to the eventual collapse of the Soviet-American confrontation that held the world in the grip of fear for more than four decades.
Over the years, Vandenberg’s brand of moderate Republicanism was followed by such luminaries as former Vice President Nelson Rockefeller and Indiana Senator Richard Lugar.
The kind of two-party cooperation they sometimes fostered is inconceivable in today’s America, and “moderate Republican” is a species of politician that seems almost extinct; Senator Lugar a notable exception.
During the postwar period, a “them” vs. “us” attitude took hold in the United States, thanks in large part to Republican ideologues.
They began to demonize the term “liberal” until anyone of liberal outlook came to be regarded by their followers as not merely different but as rather sinister and virtually un-American. The Democrats, unaccustomed to playing that game, allowed it to happen. They did not fight back but sometimes behaved as though they agreed “liberal” was a dirty word with which they did not want to be tainted.
The “them” vs. “us” attitude was reinforced by the social revolution that began in the 1960s. The Republicans became the party of anti-abortion, anti-homosexual and to some degree anti-feminist zealotry, tied in many cases to Christian fundamentalism. The Democrats, in their eyes, represented moral degeneracy or excess.
People on both sides of the political divide began talking of “taking our country back,” as though their opponents were alien conquerors.
Then Republican President Ronald Reagan began to preach the notion that there was something inherently evil or bad about the federal government. The government, he repeatedly told his followers, was not the solution to the nation’s ills; government was the problem.
In fact, Mr. Reagan did not reduce the size of government and, although he raised taxes on several occasions, he became the inspiration for an influential anti-tax movement inside the Republican Party.
Greed had found a justification. The wicked federal government was taking “our” hard-earned dollars and spending them on welfare bums, ungrateful foreign nations and the even more wicked United Nations.
Just as bad, federal regulation dating back to the Roosevelt years was crippling economic freedom and the growth of business.
This outlook has permeated thinking in a growing segment of American society, to the point that even some middle-income people who are struggling with the effects of recession are prepared to defend the tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires that President George W. Bush originated.
Many Americans who do not travel outside the country probably would be surprised to see how shabby their country looks, in important respects, alongside other developed nations as a result of the low-tax philosophy that prevails. American highways, bridges, airports, schools and other infrastructure are in terrible shape and can only be put right by government money that is not available.
During the Reagan administration, the Republican assault on non-Republican thinking led to abolition of the so-called Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcasters to present an honest, equitable and balanced reporting of competing political ideas.
Out of this grew conservative talk radio and Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Broadcasting, the latter with only a pretence of nonpartisanship. The American airwaves are now filled with a propagandistic outpouring unprecedented in the nation’s history, predominantly from the right but also present in some broadcast outlets seeking to counter the rightist onslaught.
This development coincided with a Republican determination not to respect the outcome of elections that do not produce a Republican victory. Barack Obama’s election as president became the most significant manifestation of that.
Not only did Republicans collectively decide to oppose virtually everything he favored, and to hope openly that his presidency would fail, but their media outlets set out to try to undermine the legitimacy of his election and his personal integrity. He was not American-born. He was a secret Muslim. He was, at one and the same time, a Nazi and a Socialist.
The Democratic response to this, as to the earlier demonization of liberals, has been faint-hearted.
Anyone wanting to examine the reasons for American decline also has to look at the Congress, the most dysfunctional of American institutions.
In recent decades, it can hardly be said that Congress represents the will of the people. It represents special interests that provide the huge sums of money needed for congressional elections. Lobbyists, not voters, determine the shape of much legislation.
It doesn’t help that the framers of the American Constitution limited members of the House of Representatives to two-year terms. That has made them more dependent than senators on campaign contributions and thus more reliant on special interests.
It also means that a president who wins a four-year term with his own party in control of Congress can find himself thwarted in his last two years by a mid-term election in which the opposition party gains control.
The mid-term election of 2010 not only produced a Republican majority in the House but also the victory of many nominal Republicans adhering to Tea Party principles that have been developed and encouraged by the powerful conservative media. It is the Tea Party view that has held the Republican Party to a rigid refusal to compromise in the current crisis over raising the national debt limit.
The Tea Party, a minority, may prevail. If so, it will pay the price of its intransigence and its economic ignorance. But so will America, and so will the world.
(Ray Moseley is a London-based former chief European correspondent of the Chicago Tribune. He can be reached at [email protected])