WASHINGTON — Why is America on the edge of a political and fiscal nervous breakdown? We aren’t fighting an external threat: no foreign ism or axis. We’re simply shackled by our inability to deal with our own finances.
Here are the 15 reasons:
1. The Tea Party
In radical reaction to the Wall Street bailout of 2008, the stimulus of 2009 and Obamacare in 2010, the tea party aims to defund and delegitimize the federal government. Crippling the legislative machinery is a means, but also an end in itself.
2. Slow Growth
The tea party has a point — up to a point. Politicians flagrantly overspend on wars and social programs simultaneously because the U.S. economy had always risen fast enough to keep us afloat. That era is now over. We have to make painful choices, but aren’t willing to confront them frankly.
The U.S. was the only major industrial country without national heath care, and even though Obamacare relies on the typical American mix of private sector profit and government regulation, it remains a bone in the throat of American politics. No entitlement program ever passed with so little bipartisan support (though Social Security was close). President Barack Obama assumed that a favorable Supreme Court ruling and his own reelection in 2012 would settle the issue. He was wrong. Whether he could have done anything else to soothe the tea party fear and anger is doubtful, but he didn’t really try.
The AFL-CIO invented a rating system for “pro-labor” voting records; Christian conservatives adopted it. But anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint amped up the volume. Republican members of Congress live in mortal fear of a bad rating and vote accordingly.
5. Two Cultures
Americans used to inhabit a world of shared social mores, even if millions of people were coerced into accepting them. Now voters now live in two barely overlapping moral worlds: Secular Metropolitan America and Biblical Traditional America. And that separation is enhanced by the isolating force of modern media. Americans can spend most of their waking hours enveloped in one journalistic gestalt or another, staring at one cable show/website version of reality or the other. It makes political differences harder to bridge.
6. Congressional Ignorance
For a host of reasons — the collapse of Congress’ committee system, the frantic pace of media coverage, the increasing complexity of legislation, the rise of massive, catch-all “continuing resolutions,” the time spent on raising campaign cash — for all of those reasons and others, a shocking number of lawmakers have no idea what they are debating, denouncing or voting on. “An amazing percentage of people here are intellectually lazy or distracted or ignorant or all three,” one senator told me, anonymously.
7. Gargantuan Money
As Democratic strategist James Carville once said, money is not only the “milk of politics, it is the powdered milk and even the evaporated milk.” But not since the Gilded Age has fantastically rich money been able to exert such single-minded and focused control. The U.S. Supreme Court is hell-bent on expanding that power. The result so far has been to unchain the militantly anti-government right, led by the billionaire likes of the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson. They have neither the patience for nor a belief in the “regular order” of Congress or its half-a-loaf legislative agreements. They are used to spending cash to enforce their unconditional way.
8. No Big Tents
Political parties have collapsed as a means of whipping up consent. They don’t control the money; fat cats do. They don’t control the agenda; ideological interest groups do. All they have left is their reassuring absolutes: no new taxes for Republicans; defend Social Security, Medicare and Obamacare for Democrats. The more ideologically monochromatic the parties have become, the less able they are to engineer pragmatic legislative deals. As political scholars Norm Ornstein and Tom Mann put it, we now have all-or-nothing parliamentary-style “tribal” parties in a delicately balanced separation-of-powers system.
9. My District Is My Castle
Gerrymandering is nothing new. The name and the practice date to the early 19th century. But a combination of technology and federal civil rights laws has produced an unusually large number of “safe” congressional districts, both red and blue. Democrats obtained more high-percentage “minority” districts; Republicans used control of state legislatures to draw more white conservative ones. The situation suited both parties, if not the country. The result: tea party Republicans can issue demands with impunity, and “moderate” Republicans risk a challenge from the right if they’re seen as collaborators.
10. The End Of ‘Regular Order’
The old legislative machinery of Congress has been largely destroyed, which means that every major bill is an existential crisis and every crisis a possible meltdown. Budget reforms of the 1970s, meant to smooth the flow of financial decisions, gummed up the works instead. The committee system lies in ruins, robbed of patronage, earmarks, privacy and seniority – that is, the discipline and grease that enabled deal-making. Everything is rolled into one life-or-death struggle.
11. They Either Don’t Know Or Hate Each Other
Congress mirrors our socially divided culture. Members have little contact with those in the other party. They are too busy raising money, feeding their favorite media beasts or plotting partisan strategy. The “schmooze factor” can be overrated, but deep personal relationships do help, as MSNBC host and former Hill staffer Chris Matthews documents in his new book, Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked. Today it’s just the opposite: Members of one party campaign against their “colleagues” in the other, even showing up in person in that colleague’s home state or district. Check out the relationship between Senate leaders Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell.
12. Misjudging Obama
Much of the “mainstream media” has dismissed the president as a weak negotiator, and many Democrats were upset at his deals to extend the Bush tax cuts in 2010, to install the sequestration mechanism in 2011 and not to enact more sweeping tax hikes in 2012. But that chatter led Republicans to underestimate Obama’s resolve and to assume they could force concessions on the one item he held most dear: Obamacare. It was a disastrous tactical choice. The public has doubts about the health care program — doubts reinforced by the sloppy rollout of the insurance exchanges. But the public also doesn’t want to use the government shutdown or debt ceiling fight to send health care messages.
13. The New Iowa
There once was a hiatus between presidential campaigns. And there used to be a tradition that new senators didn’t start running for president the moment they arrived in Washington. No more. The insatiable demands of fundraising, organizing and media attention are one reason. Then-Sen. Obama’s example in 2005 is another. No wonder Sen. Ted Cruz, who arrived only months ago, is leading the Republican rebellion as way to run for president. He couldn’t care less if he ever passes a bill in Congress. In fact, his whole campaign is premised on not passing things.
14. Apocalypse America
Win-win is a cool idea — for social media and much of business life. But America’s public and entertainment culture wants a narrative of total victory, crushing blows, winner-take-all contests and paranoid, apocalyptic sagas. White House aides talk about “breaking the will” of the tea party, and they glory in each new poll that shows the GOP’s public approval is plummeting toward single digits. (Yet how can you celebrate a prostrate GOP if the worldwide economy is in shambles?) We live in a time when ultimate fighting trumps boxing; football trumps baseball; talent contests trump variety shows; “The Walking Dead” is the new “Friends.” No wonder Washington is the way it is. The biters are everywhere.
15. You’re Not My President
It’s hard to know when in the modern era Americans stopped believing that whoever was president was president of all the people. It may have started with Lyndon Johnson, whose ascension after the assassination of John F. Kennedy was bitterly resented by the Kennedy crowd. Many voters came to see Richard Nixon as an illegal usurper. In 1992, many Republicans refused to accept the legitimacy of Bill Clinton’s election, an attitude that led ultimately to his impeachment. But there is nothing in recent decades to match the visceral fear and hatred that a minority of Americans express for Barack Obama, whom they see as an alien, dictatorial force. There is no denying there is an element of race and xenophobia to it. To be sure, Obama’s most passionate foes wouldn’t like any big-city, liberal, Harvard-trained constitutional lawyer. But the fact that this one is black and has an unusual-for-America name just adds to the alienation. Obama’s fans flocked to him because of his biography. But the flip side of hagiography is demonization, and that is where his enemies are now. To say the least, that makes doing a deal with him difficult.