The Danger is Us

Or rather it’s the U.S. political system that worries Foreign Policy’s Steve Walt in this post about America’s rocky future. This is a theme that keeps coming up with pundits, especially those (such as Thomas Friedman and Mathew Yglesias) who are frustrated by the lack of policy action on climate change and other big ticket issues.

Walt usually confines himself to the international relations sphere. But he and some of his Harvard buddies were discussing the homefront recently and concluded a few things:

The danger, as my colleagues generally agreed, is the incapacity of the U.S. political system to make timely decisions, except in conditions of absolute crisis, and its tendency over the past decade to make boneheaded decisions that are hard to correct. The Founding Fathers were wary of concentrated power (and with good reason), but the system they created is both filled with veto points (i.e., places where a policy initiative can be stymied), and unusually open to the influence of special interests (especially when they have lots of money). The results are policies that are good for the wealthy few but not for the society as a whole, and an impaired ability to make big policy investments that will pay off long-term.

True, Obama was able to get a significant financial rescue package adopted, but only because the Democrats controlled both the Senate and the House and because Americans were genuinely terrified of a further economic meltdown in 2009. A few months later, it took a massive effort to pass a heavily watered-down health care bill. And ever since, the GOP (which should be renamed the “Grand Obstructionist Party”), has been opposed to virtually anything that Obama and the Democrats suggest. Congress couldn’t even pass an energy and climate change bill last year, even though it was the hottest summer on record and there was a major oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Meanwhile, political discourse in the United States is increasingly dominated by wingnuts whose main goal is to enrich themselves by spouting fact-free accusations, largely as a form of “entertainment.” It is hard to believe that our political system can successfully address future challenges when so many prominent politicians and pundits cheerfully spout the purest nonsense, or shamelessly pander to the powerful but narrow interest groups who fund their campaigns.

Now there’s a part of me that is sympathetic to this laundry list of concerns, particularly the fetid nature of political discourse. But there also is a part of me that tries to keep some perspective about the failings of U.S. democratic institutions and the U.S. news media. And then I can’t help thinking that I’ve already heard this refrain about our broken government and our dysfunctional political system.

At the end of his post, Walt asks his readers if they’re optimistic or pessimistic about America’s future, which seems like an odd question given the current free floating anger in the body politic. Instead of posing such a mushy query, I’d ask whether readers agree with his diagnosis, and if so, what can be done to fix the main ailments? Anybody here want to take a stab?

46 Responses to “The Danger is Us”

  1. Steve Bloom says:

    What, trying to drive off some of your hard-acquired readers with these last couple of posts, Keith?  It is interesting how climate denialism (in its various forms) tends to be associated with certain other views.  Oddly you seemed surprised by this.

  2. Keith Kloor says:

    Steve, I’m not sure what your point is–regarding this post, anyway.

    But your reference to my “hard-acquired” readers is a puzzler. Anyone familiar with my background would automatically assume that you would be part of my natural audience. Obviously, that’s not the case. Yet you’ve been a loyal reader nearly from the start (and I appreciate that). But whether I piss you off or your ideological opposite never enters my mind with any post I write.

    That’s the beauty of having your own blog. I write what I want, not what I think anybody of any particular political persuation or ideology would like to read. It’s not connected to any magazine or think tank so I don’t have to think about who my audience is supposed to be.

    You really should have figured that out a long time ago.

  3. Jack Hughes says:

    The American system of government is the worst in the world – except for the rest.
     
     

  4. Keith Kloor says:

    Hey, didn’t some famous British guy who rallied his country during wartime say something like too…:)

  5. Jon P says:

    The Democrats have a large majority in the House (until January that is) and a filibuster proof Senate, so all this about Obstructionist Repulicans is a lame excuse for the Democrats being unable to act.

    The American voter is smarter and quick to judge than all the professional pundits give them credit for. They do not blindly follow Fox News nor MSNBC, not the majority of Americans. In politics we all get wrapped around the axle, the extreme ends of the axle, left and right.

    This country is unique in its individualism and really starts to fear anything “collective” or close to socialism. We will correct, we will change, we will prosper, that is what Americans have done in the past and will do in the future.

  6. Ian says:

    Being an Australian, I find the seeming speedy rise of the Tea Party movement rather curious. Perhaps I am misinformed in regards to the actual extent of its political impact, however it appears to be such a huge pendulum swing from the ‘collective’ Obamamania of only 2 years ago to the increasingly libertarian discourse we now appear to be witnessing today. There exists fundamental differences between the Australian political paradigm and that of the US (although we also flirted with a not altogether dissimilar political ideal, the One Nation Party, in the recent past) and I recognise that America generally expresses a more strident inclination toward individualism over the collective as Jon P suggests, however is the dynamic  being presently played out in American politics a passing ‘aberration’ (& I don’t use the word in a necessarily negative sense) or does it indicate a growing acceptance of  libertarian ideals?

  7. TerryMN says:

    Steve Bloom Says: 
    September 21st, 2010 at 2:52 pm
    …It is interesting how climate denialism…
    Could you please define what you mean by this phrase?  Do you (really?!?) think there are people who deny there is a climate, Steve? You’re *really* not making sense with phrases like this.

  8. Jon P says:

    Ian,

    As we all can agree Americans also have a great tendancy to over react. That explains both 2008 and 2010 on the political scene. This is driven by the failures of both parties to actually make any progress towards what the populace would view as a functioning government.

    In 2008 it was “anything but Bush” and here was Obama claiming to be able to transcend politics of the past, build consensus and govern in the open. None of that happened and we seem worse off than before. The populace says OK, standard Republicans can’t do it, standard Democrats cannot, and not this new guy Obama either.

    The Tea Parties (there is not one central Tea Party) are looking for somone, anyone to represent smaller government, less spending and open representation. Sure people can label and argue back and forth about whether the candidates they have supported will really do this or not, but the history of politics since 2000 is well worn and no longer welcome in the country. Until both parties realize this, the Tea Parties will continue.

  9. TerryMN says:

    Jon P Says: 
    September 21st, 2010 at 8:37 pm
    Ian,
    As we all can agree Americans also have a great tendancy to over react.
    Jon: I would hope that we all can agree that stereotyping the tendencies of over 310 million people is at best not a useful exercise, and at worst disingenuous.  And though you may disagree, I would hope that some or most would agree that I’m being a bit kind with the latter assertion.  Some may consider it far worse.
    Cheers,
    Terry

  10. Jon P says:

    Terry,

    Let me understand your point, you are saying Americans do not have a tendancy to over react?

    If yes, then you are equally guilty of stereotyping the tendancies of over 310 million people.

    Why don’t you move to continue the conversation rather than trying to win some “debating points”?

    I couldn’t really care less what your opinion is as you obvisously do not respect mine. You can disagree with me, but your effort for a call to arms of fellow posters is a weak move from an individual who has obvious confidence issues.

  11. TerryMN says:

    I said that you cannot say that all Americans [whatever] – i.e. that you’re painting with a brush that is too broad.
    Specifically (and again) I said that stereotyping the tendencies of 310 million people (“Americans have a great tendancy to overreact”) is neither useful or correct, Jon.  No more, no less.
    I didn’t stereotype anyone, just pointed out where you did.  I’m trying to move things forward by pointing out that if you start with a false premise, the rest of the logic/argument/etc is meaningless.
    And not to be a spelling nazi, but it is annoying to me (and I suppose I have to say not to all of America, I’m sure) it’s tendency, not tendancy.  Two e’s, no a’s.
    Thanks –
    Terry

  12. TerryMN says:

    Also…
    …but your effort for a call to arms of fellow posters
    What???

  13. Jon P says:

    Americans, as in America the country, do have a tendency to over react. That does not mean they always over react nor if they ever over react. Just because you fail to recognize this trait is not my problem. You should try honest evaluation it might help overcome your arrogance.

    It is not a false premise it is an observation and this ole Jarhead can make any observation, state any opinion, and carry on any conversation I choose. And if I have not earned that right without being “instructed” by some anonymous condsecending jerk, well I’ll leave that part unsaid.

  14. Jon P says:

    TerryM,

    “Also”¦
    “¦but your effort for a call to arms of fellow posters
    What???”

    A blind man cannot see himself in the mirror until he regains his sight.

  15. TerryMN says:

    Kindly indulge an old retired Army officer then, Jon, just to give some context – what other countries have a tendency to overreact?  None? Some? Most? All?
    Again – in my opinion, you’re painting with a brush too broad when describing the tendencies of the people of America.  No more, no less.  If we can’t agree on that, then yes – I believe our conversation should come to an end.
    In either case, have a great evening, and thanks for your service!

  16. Keith Kloor says:

    JonP,

    TerryMN not only made a legitimate point but you overreacted, ironically, by indulging in petty name calling. You’ll have to bring it down a notch to play at this site.

  17. ian says:

    Jon P
    Ta’ for your interpretation (I’ll steer clear of the ‘discussion’ re: Americans and overreaction).  Perhaps for similar reasons Australia currently has the first hung parliament since, I believe, 1940. There seems to be a consensus that the populace is a bit fed up with politics as usual and hence neither major party did particularly well in the recent election, although Labor (closest to your Democrats) and the incumbant for only one term, did far worse. The independents that hold the balance of power in our upper house are pushing to ‘clean-up’ politics, whatever that means to each independent.  Perhaps the biggest difference is that there has been a significant swing to what some would class as the ‘far left’  ie. the Australian Green Party partly, know doubt, in reaction to the Labor Party’s perceived failures in adequately addressing the perceived dangers of AGW. Anyway enough of my take on Oz politics.
     
    Terry MN
    And not to be a spelling nazi, but
    I suspect you’re being a spelling nazi 😉

  18. Jon P says:

    Terry,

    I never said you couldn’t disagree, but when you make provocative implications you will raise my ire.

    ” ..would hope that we all can agree that stereotyping the tendencies of over 310 million people is at best not a useful exercise, and at worst disingenuous.  And though you may disagree, I would hope that some or most would agree that I’m being a bit kind with the latter assertion.”

    Translation: you were being a bit kind with me being disingenuous. What if you weren’t being kind?

    I can assure you being disingenuous is not in my nature and to have such a leap without asking for any clarification reflects more on you than me.

    And in the end we still have not read a single word, from you, on the contents of the article.

    Thank you for your service. My daughter chose the Army and I give her a hard time about it every day.

  19. TerryMN says:

    Keith – I’ll quit stirring too – apologies if I degenerated/derailed the thread – just  one of the “read all / post in few” crowd.  I’ll read more and post less 🙂
    And I meant it when I said have a great evening, Jon – Semper Fi

  20. Jon P says:

    Keith,

    So calling another poster disingenuous after said poster made a stereotypical comment is OK?

    Personall, I’d rather be called a jerk than have my integrity questioned before any clarification or honest engagement in conversation is tried, but that’s just me.

    I think you may want to evaluate who actually over reacted here Keith, my integrity was challenged soley on the basis of a stereotypical comment.

  21. TerryMN says:

    Translation: you were being a bit kind with me being disingenuous. What if you weren’t being kind?
    My translation, and then no more from me on this topic –
    I’ve been fighting for this country for longer than I can remember, and when I perceive stereotypes, misnomers, or (100 other things) I react.  Usually I suppose I shouldn’t. Old habits die hard, I guess – I need to be more conscious of that.  Have a good one Jon – no ill will on my part.
    Cheers!
    Terry

  22. Jon P says:

    Ian,

    Yeah wish I could have steered clear of that conversation myself, but integrity challenges have to be combated.

    Maybe there is nothing unique to what is going on in America, Australia, or anywhere else. Perhaps the answer is less complex. Could it be when only faced with limited choices over extended periods of time it will be natural for those choices to simply rotate?

  23. Jon P says:

    TerryM,

    Yes I can accept your last and understand. It really was the disingenuous part that really got me going.

    Have a good evening and we shall converse more here, on another topic!

  24. Steve Bloom says:

    It’s a common short-hand phrase, Terry.  You could google it, even.  But even taking your objection on its own terms, climate denialists really are denying the climate (as distinct from the weather) we have.  The climate they don’t deny perhaps exists on some other planet somewhere.    

  25. TerryMN says:

    This is completely OT, but did you know that Jupiter is making its closest pass to the earth since 1963, and the next will be (I think) 2022?  Last night was the periapses, but it’s still really bright in the ESE sky and rising, getting close to the moon right now (if you’re in the US).  Anyway – ’tis a once in a generation sight, really bright where I am, and (IMO) kind of cool to see.  KK, feel free to snip, just thought I’d share.

  26. Steve Bloom says:

    Well, Keith, you did get into a bit of a tussle with them, and IMHO posts like this and the last one aren’t going to make them any happier.  If you didn’t have that in mind, fine.

    FYI, you don’t especially piss me off.  Obtuseness doesn’t have that effect on me, being more in the way of depressing, although other things certainly do.

    Oddly I was aware that people can do pretty much what they want with personal blogs.  I just like to analyze things.
     

  27. ian says:

    JonP, the pendulum swing of history…

  28. ian says:

    “Congress couldn’t even pass an energy and climate change bill last year, even though it was the hottest summer on record…”
    And Walt has the gall to lambast politicians for offering “fact-free accusations.”

  29. kdk33 says:

    “the incapacity of the U.S. political system to make timely decisions”

    is a good thing because of

    “its tendency over the past decade to make boneheaded decisions that are hard to correct. “

  30. kdk33 says:

    So ,according to Dr. Walt.  Americans are too stupid to govern themselves – confusing entertainment with political discourse.  The really smart people can’t save them from themselves – US constitution being too unweildy.

    …and the corruption, the bribery, the shameful flaunting of democracy Obama employed to pass healthcare is “a massive effort” – to end-run those stupid americans who don’t know what’s good for them (most didn’t want this nonsense, that’s why it was hard). 

    …and he laments the non-passage of a climate bill because, well it’s not clear why, maybe we can’t commit economic suicide fast enough to satisfy the Harvard tea party crowd.  Oh wait.

    Elections in November!

  31. Lazar says:

    “last year […] the hottest summer on record […] a major oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.”
     
    He’s talking about 2010… contiguous U.S. summer (June-August) temperatures were the fourth warmest.

  32. charles says:

    Keith’s question was whether we agree with Walt’s diagnosis.
    My answer is no.
    In a democracy people who make ‘boneheaded decisions’ or who are ‘wingnuts’  can be voted out of office, if they get there at all.
    Perhaps Walt’s fumings are more to do with his disappointment with Obama’s (lack of) achievements.
     

  33. Tom Fuller says:

    Quick. Let’s make a Venn diagram showing countries that react quickly on one side, countries that are nice to live in on the other, and see if any meet in the middle. Shouldn’t take too long, as I don’t think there are many of either category.

  34. Marlowe Johnson says:

    “The Democrats have a large majority in the House (until January that is) and a filibuster proof Senate, so all this about Obstructionist Repulicans is a lame excuse for the Democrats being unable to act.”
     
    One wonders how different things would be at the moment if this were actually true.  But, hey let’s not let facts get in the way of a good argument…

  35. Jon P says:

    Marlowe,

    You are correct since January 2010 and the election of Scott Brown. Yeah that 59 Senator thing is just a bugger (includes two independents that caucus with the Democrats).

    I know how things would be if the Democrats actually got their way more than they did, worse.

  36. Keith Kloor says:

    JonP, just curious, how do you know that (that things would be worse)? Based on the last two years or the eight years before that?

  37. Jon P says:

    Keith,

    Health Care Legislation would be closer to single-payer, thus more expensive.

    Let me ask you a question. do you believe the Federal Government as it exists today, has the level of powers that the framers intended?

  38. Keith Kloor says:

    JonP,

    No time this afternoon to get into an extended political dialogue with you. But let me leave you with this:

    if today were 2002 or say, 2006, I could reasonably ask you the same question, no?

  39. Jon P says:

    Keith,

    Agreed, not enough time in a single day.

    Yes you could and the answer would be no.

  40. Keith Kloor says:

    JonP, if you can’t bring yourself to say that the Bush Administration greatly expanded federal powers–well beyond what the framers intended–then there’s no sense is us having a back-and-forth on this.

    But you do know that your stance is not shared even by many conservatives and libertarians. Just read the quotes from this 2005 Washington Post story. If a Democratic President carried out the same policies outlined in this story, the Tea party would have launched long ago.

  41. Jon P says:

    Keith,

    You have misinterpreted my answer.

    My original question to you: ”
    Let me ask you a question. do you believe the Federal Government as it exists today, has the level of powers that the framers intended?”

    Your response:

    “if today were 2002 or say, 2006, I could reasonably ask you the same question, no?”

    My reply:

    “Yes you could and the answer would be no.”

    As in no the Federal Government’s powers in 200 and 2006 were not what the framers envisioned.

    In short I was agreeing with you.

    I guess it is your turn today to be over reacting 😉

  42. Keith Kloor says:

    Ah, my bad. I think it was the phrasing of my initial rejoinder that must have thrown me off, then. Anyway, I apologize.

  43. Jon P says:

    Keith,

    I took no offense. I could have been clearer. Let’s call it a no-fault.

    I’ll await the opportunity to go deeper into political discussion.

  44. Ian says:

    JonP & KK
    It is always refreshing to witness people engage in debate in such a gracious manner. I find that the lengths many posters (at any number of blogs) go to  just to save face rather disheartening and often discourages me from making a contribution. I appreciate this forum.
    Best wishes, Ian
     

  45. @Ian
    Second to that. Although I’d have to say your posts since your vacation do seem a bit lightweight, Keith. It’s pretty hard to take anyone who writes “Grand Obstructionist Party” very seriously….
     
    Nevertheless, I’ll keep checking in, as time permits. Hope you had fun on your time off!
     
    Best regards, Pete Tillman

    “The more that we can do to stimulate the economy in the short term, the challenge we’ve got as everybody knows is that we inherited a big deficit, and it is at a certain point potentially counterproductive if we’re spending more money than we’re having to borrow.”
    –President Obama, http://abcnews.go.com/Business/Story?id=8039651&page=2

  46. David44 says:

    Pete Tillman –
    That is what is quoted in the abcnews article, but I suspect he may have actually said (or at least meant to say) “…counterproductive if we’re spending more money THAT we’re having to borrow.”
    Heck, Buffett is quoted in the same article as saying “That change hasn’t changed.”

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