When I am asked why I became an American citizen, I usually say, in a moment of bliss I saw in the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, and everything written by Jefferson, Adams and Lincoln, the closest thing to a secular bible I could believe in. Even during my leftist youth I understood instinctively, that because of America’s inherent dynamic political culture and traditions, the Soviet Union had no chance of prevailing. It was the combination of Jefferson and Lewis Armstrong, Adams and Orson Welles, Lincoln and William Faulkner, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Steve Jobs, Hollywood and Harvard, that made the U.S. exceptional and victorious.
That is what made America appealing to a young Lebanese student in the early 1970s who was fascinated and at times even amused by its political and social paradoxes. How could you explain to the perplexed, a Democratic party where the likes of a segregationist George Wallace and a liberal Ted Kennedy could cohabitate? A moderate Nelson Rockefeller and an arch conservative like Barry Goldwater under the same Republican tent? To this innocent abroad, America looked intensely traditional, while hurtling itself into the future, exploring uncharted horizons. At times it was intolerant, yet very generous and welcoming of outsiders. In stunning speed, an imperious president was impeached; a severe economic and energy crisis took its toll and an ugly contentious war ended ignominiously. The shocks were absorbed, the center did not teeter and the system survived. What a country!
The government shutdown
Shutting down the government is uniquely an American phenomenon and there is nothing like it in the well-established Western democracies’ or the new emerging ones throughout the world.Hisham Melhem
The current government shutdown shows that the U.S. is also exceptional in an almost nihilistic way. The Republican Party, which has been shrinking steadily geographically to the South and ideologically to its very conservative core, has managed in recent years to marginalize itself to the point where a brigade of firebrands in congress known as the “Tea Party” wages a quixotic ideological war against what it sees as the evil of ‘big government.’ The members of this group sound and act more as members of a cult, or an extreme religious sect than a political party. To them, compromise is a dirty word, reconciliation is tantamount to treason. It does not matter to them to achieve realistic, if not perfect political solutions, because they wrap themselves with ideological purity and indignant self- righteousness. In the current struggle, they seem to deserve the label ‘anarchists’ bestowed on them by the Democratic majority leader in the Senate Harry Reid , because they are willing to literally shut the government down, and threatens to force the Federal government to default on its debts rather than increase the debt ceiling.
Shutting down the government is uniquely an American phenomenon and there is nothing like it in the well-established Western democracies’ or the new emerging ones throughout the world. Even in ‘failed states’ or those infected with the disease of military coups, governments do not officially announce that they are ‘closed’ to business.
When I began my career as a journalist covering and interpreting the U.S. to the Arabs more than 30 years ago, I was struck by this uniquely and then relatively new American paradox; politicians demonizing Washington while being seduced by its sinful pleasures. A new tradition was born with Ronald Reagan, and the old healthy skepticism of centralized authority, an integral part of our political DNA was replaced by hatred of the Federal government. An attendant loathing went in tandem, that of the concept of taxation, as if government or even civilization, to paraphrase Oliver Wendel Holmes, is possible without taxes.
Another fascinating facet of the American political system that strikes outsiders is the electoral system. A crazy, arbitrary system of gerrymandering that undermines open competition and deepens party monopoly. (Less than 10% of House seats are truly competitive). The primary system is too long, too costly and gives a minority of ‘true believers’ too much power. And since most primaries are closed to independents or other party members, and voting in primary elections is abysmally small the extremist ‘base’ in the party, particularly on the Republican side prevails. Senate rules require a ‘supermajority’ of 60 votes to prevent one senator from filibustering legislation. The recent spectacle of Senator Ted Cruz (Republican, Texas) railing for more than 21 hours against Obamacare (the president’s signature law to provide affordable healthcare to the uninsured) while sprinkling his verbiage marathon with excerpts of Dr. Seuss, a children’s book, was the last jarring example of what is ailing the supposedly greatest deliberative body in the world. But we should note that Senator Cruz and his Tea Party comrades were elected by a fickle, alienated, conflicted electorate, where even the 50% who vote, expect their representatives to shrink the size of the Federal government, not to levy new taxes, while maintaining their favorite entitlements and a huge military budget.
Finally, another uniquely American political tool that repels and fascinates at the same time, is lobbying. Party leaders and committee chairs who are beholding to lobbyists and special interests groups hop from one fund raising function to another. Money has become corrosive to politics and democracy than ever. The landmark Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission equated campaign spending with free speech. It is no wonder then that most Americans want gun control laws, and real tax reforms but special interests groups prevent that. Scores of legislators signed pledges to an advocacy group not to raise taxes, thus surrendering their rights to determine their own votes. Special interest groups and one issue voters who have an abundance of enthusiasm, money and who vote in every election cycle decide the outcome of many races.
The political center has begun to shrink in the 1980s and left the congress increasingly polarized. There are no more moderate Republicans in the House in the era of the Tea Party, and the conservative Democrats disappeared with the demise of the ‘Blue Dogs’ two years ago. Today’s hyper-partisanship turns every conflict into an ‘existential’ one. Sharp, nasty and mean-spirited bipartisan slug fests in the U.S. Congress are as old as the institution itself. But there is a new air of hatred and loathing that reminds the old observers of congress of the bitter take-no-prisoner fights in the 1960s over the Civil Rights Acts and the war in Vietnam. Some talk of a ‘crisis in American democracy,’ others even see the current environment as reminiscent of a more frightening era.
Conflicting visions of both parties
The conflicting visions of both parties about the role of the Federal government in the lives of the people seem the most irreconcilable in recent history. It is reminiscent of the epochal divisions that plagued the country in the 1850’s in the run up to the Civil War (as brilliantly analyzed by James McPherson in the Battle Cry of Freedom) and those that dominated the politics of the great depression and the New Deal.
The rest of the world, including America’s friends and admirers are watching the ‘shutdown’ with a mixture of bewilderment, disbelief, glee and yes a dose of schadenfreude (that wonderful German word with no English equivalent that denotes malicious pleasure at another’s misfortune). People ask : how could the greatest country in the world talk about maintaining world peace, economic globalization, transparent governance and tackling climate change, the country that lectures the world about fiscal responsibility, if it cannot put its house in order, or if it is susceptible to periodic ‘shutdowns’?
If the Republican Jihadists, aka the Tea Party, who practice politics as a zero sum game and always threatens suicide attacks, are not checked soon, by their diminishing centrist elders they will transform the Republican Party into a small political sect and either silence and/or drive the centrists out. It may be too early to expect a rebellion by the centrists Republican to save what is left of the Party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower.
The U.S. today is a disheveled superpower. We are no longer the leaders in education, health, economic growth, personal income and happiness. Unless radical systemic reforms are enacted soon, the country will continue to muddle through a polarized, darker territory. This is no way to govern a great power.
This article was first published in Lebanon-based Annahar on Oct. 4, 2013.
Hisham Melhem is the Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. Melhem's writings appear in publications ranging from the literary journal Al-Mawaqef to the LA Times, as well as in magazines such as Foreign Policy and Middle East Report. Melhem focuses on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media. In addition, Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Twitter: @Hisham_Melhem