In today's New York Times, Singaporean academic Kishore Mahbubani writes with barely-concealed smugness over the "retreat of the West", which is "quite inept at managing its economies", while America in particular has suffered a "loss of moral authority".
Though I believe it would be as presumptuous to count the West out now as were those who believed in Western unipolarity after the Cold War, one line in particular in Mahbubani's article troubled me immensely: "respect for Western practices will diminish, unless Western performance in governance improves again." Immediately I thought of my growing concern over the dysfunctional nature of American government. For some time now, I have become increasingly doubtful of our government's ability to tackle some of the most challenging problems our country faces.
In the current climate of hyper-partisanship, both major political parties and most of their prominent leaders treat their role in governing as if it were a game. The media is mostly complicit to this, when it's not an active participant. Rare is the elected official with a proper and coherent sense of purpose with the ability and desire to promote the national interest first. On issue after issue, there is a void of leadership and/or realistic solutions. Instead of constructive dialogue, the vast majority of what is said in Congress is a waste of everyone's time.
The current political battle over health care is just one example. Regardless of political views, anyone can agree that promoting access to health care for a greater number of citizens is a good thing--the question, of course, is how to achieve that goal. This weekend, the House passed a bill after overcoming months of dithering sidetracked not by the proposal of viable alternatives but by distractions that included (seriously) claims that "death panels" were out to execute senior citizens.
Now, the bill comes to the Senate, where it is... dead. Inaction is what the Senate is good for these days, where neither rigid adherence to ideological doctrine or compromise and negotiation is enough to muster up the 60+ votes actually needed to pass a bill. As the Washington Post's Steven Pearlstein noted today, the perversity is that "it would take 60 votes to pass a bill that included the public option and 60 votes to pass one without it".
Health care is just one area where we as a country face challenges, but there are several others, and they are not limited to only one party's pet causes. Where is the political will to implement an energy plan that reduces our dependence on foreign oil and improves the environment? Who has the foresight to realize our national infrastructure and transportation system is aging, falling apart, and already inferior to several other countries? Where is the courage to meaningfully reform and improve the education system? Who has any realistic ideas as to how to deal with entitlement spending? Where is the concern over enormous budget deficits, enormous I.O.U.s to foreign lenders, and an increasingly competitive global economy?
Ultimately, of course, the blame for failure or the credit for averting disaster is not so much on the politicians as it is on the American public who elects them. At some point, the American public will have to decide it's time to Get Serious. For real. I don't know what it will take to bring about the change in attitude so that we can tune out the talk radio hosts and cable squawkeres and have sober, serious, meaningful action take place in Washington. I thought it would have been 9/11, but I was wrong. It could have been the "once in a generation" financial crisis, but that still produced an economic stimulus bill which was more like a discretionary spending wish list. So what will it take?
I don't think Mahbubani will be right about American decline. I certainly don't want him to be right. But I'm wondering how much longer we can continue to ignore and delay serious action on the greatest challenges this country is facing.