Divided States of America Notes on the Decline of a Great Nation
Part 2: Two Hostile Camps
Zakaria's words resonate with the questions that have dominated this long election year, and have long sharply divided the country into two hostile camps, roughly equal in size: Does America need more or less government? Are higher taxes the right approach to fairly distributing collective tasks, or are they infernally un-American?
For a time President Barack Obama, 51, and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney, 65, made this question a key theme in their respective campaigns. The Democrat invoked the helping hand of government while the Republican demonized it. The fact that this old dispute has returned with such vehemence says a lot about the declining cohesion of a nation that runs the risk of losing its way in a changing world.
This rift between the two opposing views of the role of government helps to explain America's current weakness. The deep cultural divide that took shape 150 years ago in the bloody battles of the American Civil War has returned, awakened by the multiple crises of our time. It seems that it was only buried and concealed by consistent economic success during the 20th century, when the United States became the dominant power in the West. For the longest time, Americans were buoyed by the certainty that their children would be better off than they were.
At the beginning of the 21st century, this American dream, which consisted mainly of confidence and optimism envied the world over, is failing. It began to fail around the turn of the millennium, with the crash landing of the New Economy, and it imploded altogether in 2008, when Wall Street became the epicenter of a global financial meltdown, and when millions of Americans lost their homes and jobs. In some polls, almost half of Americans today say that the country's best days are gone.
"Americans are tired after the war in Iraq and also after Afghanistan," says Obama advisor and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. This exhaustion, when combined with the traumatic terrorist attacks of 2001, has weakened the social glue that held America together in the 20th century. This is only too apparent in the absurd squabbles between Republicans and Democrats during the Obama years.
The president didn't keep his promise to unite the country politically, but for that to happen, the participation of both parties would have been required. Instead, the more Obama sought to accommodate the Republicans, the more extreme their positions and the more hysterical their criticism became, eliminating any prospect of compromise. The three most important pieces of legislation Obama pushed through Congress since his inauguration in January 2009 were achieved with the votes of his fellow Democrats, even though they incorporated key Republican demands.
Obama's biggest economic stimulus package, which provided for government investments of $787 billion, contained substantial tax cuts that the Republicans had demanded and to which the Democrats were in fact opposed, and yet only three Republicans in the Senate and none in the House of Representatives voted for the legislation. All Republicans in both houses of Congress rejected the health care reform that will be viewed as a historic achievement one day. And the financial reform legislation, which turned out to be far more moderate than the Democrats had hoped, received the votes of only three Republicans in each house of Congress.
A Systematic Crisis
Does this sort of stonewalling already signify the collapse of a representative democracy? Naturally, an opposition party's role must be to fight the government's policies. Nevertheless, such deep-seated opposition as there has been in the Obama years is unprecedented in the last few decades of American politics. Many bills were never even put to a vote in Congress, because the Republicans, more frequently than ever before, threatened to use or did in fact deploy the so-called filibuster, a delay tactic with which votes on legislation can be completely obstructed. In the last five years, Republicans in Congress have used the filibuster a record-breaking 385 times, or as much as it was used in the seven decades between World War I and the end of the administration of former President Ronald Reagan in 1989.
According to a current study, since 2007 Republican lawmakers have tried to torpedo more than 70 percent of all bills before they were even put to a vote. This applied to only 27 percent of proposed legislation in the 1980s, and only 8 percent in the 1960s. "This level of obstruction is extremely unusual," Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, told Newsweek. "And the core of the problem is the GOP."
The claims that Republican leaders agreed, on the day of Obama's inauguration, Jan. 20, 2009, to rigidly block his policies, are now well-supported by credible reporting. In the last four years, it seems as if one half of America -- the Republicans -- has been determined to spoil everything for the other half -- the Democrats -- regardless of the issue and whether or not these obstructive tactics have helped or harmed the public good. This is hardly anything less than a systemic crisis.
This obstructionism is largely attributable to the group within the Republican Party known as the Tea Party. As filmmaker Sorkin claims, the coalition of ultraconservatives has developed into the "American Taliban." They view Darwin's Theory of Evolution as the stuff of the devil, homosexuals as diseased and women as subordinate to men. They oppose contraception and are so filled with hate in their efforts to ban abortion that they don't seem to object when violent anti-abortion activists burn down the offices of liberal doctors.
They claim that according to the American Constitution, the United States is a Christian country, which isn't true, and their platform contains demands to eliminate all taxes or even get rid of the central government altogether. All of this could be dismissed as some marginal aberration if the Tea Party were not such a driving force behind the Republicans, shaping the tone and superficial content of the entire political discourse.
And when there is also a lack of perseverance on the part of the government -- an accusation that does apply to the Obama administration -- and when important proposals are abandoned in the face of the slightest resistance, the work to shape the future of the United States, which its founding fathers saw as a "work in progress," becomes gridlocked in a very fundamental way.
This gridlock applies to all political spheres. America's schools, for which the country spends more than any other nation on earth, are more like "dropout factories" in big cities like Chicago and the capital, Washington. Some 1.3 million students drop out of high school each year in the US before they have the chance to graduate.
Although many American universities are still among the world's top institutions, they have become unaffordable for many Americans. Every year, universities are forced to raise their already outrageously high tuition levels, partly because of declining government support. In fact, states like California now spend more money on prisons than universities.
American college and university graduates owe a total of $1 trillion in student loan debt, which exceeds total American consumer credit card debt. The prospect of incurring such massive debts deters prospective students, especially those from poorer families, from attending colleges and universities in the first place. A person's socioeconomic background now plays a stronger role in America in determining his or her social and educational opportunities than it does in Europe, whose class society the founders of the United States once set out to leave behind.
One Dead End after Another
In the fall of 2012, America is a country filled with such dead ends.
The fight against climate change is one of them. Impending environmental threats were a major theme in Obama's first election campaign, but then they were dropped at the first sign of Republican resistance and remained a non-issue in the current campaign -- until Hurricane Sandy inundated New York City and parts of New Jersey. Since then, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a former Republican who has since become politically independent, has endorsed Obama for re-election, citing the dangers of climate change and the incumbent's positions on the environment. And as a result of the storm, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie suddenly became the only Republican governor to find himself working side-by-side with the president.
Such political reversals don't change the fact that important projects have turned into failed undertakings, while visions have been put on the back burner. The sad fight for more high-speed rail in America is a case in point. High-speed trains only travel on a few routes in the United States at the moment, at an average speed of 70 miles per hour (112 kilometers per hour), which is much slower than Europe's ICE and TGV trains.
Obama recognized this as a problem and asked Vice President Joe Biden, a railroad buff who used to commute by train to Washington when he was a senator from Delaware, to improve the situation. As a result, the government announced a plan to invest $53 billion in new, modern trains and routes.
But Republican governors in states with routes where high-speed rail would make sense simply refused to accept the government funds. Once again, their refusal reflected the desire to thwart a plan by "socialist" Obama, and the determination not to be accused by their supporters of having accepted money from the agents of "big government."
The failing project coincides with the image, already a worldwide cliché, of the United States as a country that doesn't understand the signs of the times and has almost willfully -- flying in the face of all scientific knowledge -- chosen to be backward.