I started out this process uncertain; I ended up convinced. America the society is in fine shape! America the polity most certainly is not. Over the past half century, both parties have helped cause this predicament—Democrats by unintentionally giving governmental efforts a bad name in the 1960s and ’70s, Republicans by deliberately doing so from the Reagan era onward. At the moment, Republicans are objectively the more nihilistic, equating public anger with the sentiment that “their” America has been taken away and defining both political and substantive success as stopping the administration’s plans. As a partisan tactic, this could make sense; for the country, it’s one more sign of dysfunction, and of the near-impossibility of addressing problems that require truly public efforts to solve. Part of the mind-set of pre-Communist China was the rage and frustration of a great people let down by feckless rulers. Whatever is wrong with today’s Communist leadership, it is widely seen as pulling the country nearer to its full potential rather than pushing it away. America is not going to have a Communist revolution nor endure “100 Years of Humiliation,” as Imperial China did. But we could use more anger about the fact that the gap between our potential and our reality is opening up, not closing.
What are the choices? Logically they come down to these, starting with the most fanciful:
We could hope for an enlightened military coup, or some other deus ex machina by the right kind of tyrants. (In his 700-page new “meliorist” novel, Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us, Ralph Nader proposes a kind of plutocrats’ coup, in which Warren Buffett, Bill Gates Sr., Ted Turner, et al. collaborate to create a more egalitarian America.) The periodic longing for a “man on horseback” is a reflection of disappointment with what normal politics can bring. George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower were the right men on horseback. With no disrespect to David Petraeus, their like is not in sight. In 1992, an Air Force lieutenant colonel wrote an essay for the National War College called “The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012,” which began with the perceived failure of civilian politics to address the nation’s problems. The author, Charles Dunlap, who is now a two-star general, meant this as a cautionary tale. His paper began with this quote from John Adams: “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” Tempting as the thought is when watching the Senate on C-SPAN, we can’t really hope for a coup.
We could hope to change the basic nature of our democracy, so it fits the times as our other institutions do. But this is about as likely as an enlightened coup. For a few hours on Election Day 2004, it seemed that America had a chance to correct the anachronism of its Electoral College. When exit polls showed John Kerry ahead in Ohio, there was a chance that for the second election in a row, a candidate might lose the popular vote but still become president. (A swing of 60,000 votes in Ohio would have put George W. Bush in Al Gore’s position from four years earlier, as the popular-vote winner who had to go home.) With each party burned, in sequence, we might have agreed on a reform. That chance has passed, and there is no chance for constitutional amendments to make the Senate more representative, since the same small states that would lose power can block any change.
In principle, the United States could call for a new constitutional convention, to reconsider all the rules. That would be my cue to move back to China for good—pollution, Great Firewall, and all. As a simple thought exercise, imagine the fights over evolution, an “official” language, and countless other “social” questions. “I am perpetually disappointed by our structural resistance to change,” Gary Hart told me, “but can you imagine what would be put into a drafting session for a constitution today?” Kevin Starr said, “You would need a coherent political culture for such a session to occur”—and the lack of such coherence is exactly the problem—“otherwise it would turn into a food fight from Animal House.”
A parliamentary system? This too would improve C-SPAN viewing. But not having started there, we cannot get there.
A viable third party? Attractive in theory. But 150 years of failed attempts by formidable campaigners, ranging from Robert LaFollette to Ross Perot, suggest how unlikely this is too.
We might hope for another Sputnik moment—to be precise, an event frightening enough to stimulate national action without posing a real threat. That kind of “hope” hardly constitutes a plan. In 2001, America endured an event that should have been this era’s Sputnik ; but it wasn’t. It doesn’t help now to rue the lost opportunity, but there is no hiding the fact that it was an enormous loss. What could have been a moment to set our foreign policy and our domestic economy on a path for another 50 years of growth—as Eisenhower helped set a 50-year path with his response to Sputnik —instead created problems that will probably take another 50 years to correct.
That’s yesterday. For tomorrow, we really have only two choices. Doing more, or doing less. Trying to work with our flawed governmental system despite its uncorrectable flaws, or trying to contain the damage that system does to the rest of our society. Muddling through, or starving the beast.
Readers may have guessed that I am not going for the second option: giving up on public efforts and cauterizing our gangrenous government so that the rest of society can survive. But the reason might be unexpected. I have seen enough of the world outside America to be sure that eventually a collapsing public life brings the private sector down with it. If we want to maintain the virtues of private America, we must at least try on the public front too. Rio, Manila, and Mexico City during their respective crime booms; Shanghai in the 1920s and Moscow in the 1990s; Jakarta through the decades; the imagined Los Angeles of Blade Runner —these are all venues in which commerce and opportunity abounded. But the lack of corresponding public virtues—rule of law, expectation of physical safety, infrastructure that people can enjoy or depend on without owning it themselves—made those societies more hellish than they needed to be. When outsiders marvel at today’s China, it is for the combination of private and public advances the country has made. It has private factories and public roads; private office buildings and public schools. Of course this is not some exotic Communist combination. The conjunction of private and public abundance typified America throughout its 20th-century rise. We had the big factories and the broad sidewalks, the stately mansions and the public parks. The private economy was stronger because of the public bulwarks provided by Social Security and Medicare. California is giving the first taste of how the public-private divorce will look—and its historian, Kevin Starr, says the private economy will soon suffer if the government is not repaired. “Through the country’s history, government has had to function correctly for the private sector to flourish,” he said. “John Quincy Adams built the lighthouses and the highways. That’s not ‘socialist’ but ‘Whiggish.’ Now we need ports and highways and an educated populace.” In a nearly $1 trillion stimulus package, it should have been possible to build all those things, in a contemporary, environmentally aware counterpart to the interstate-highway plan. But it didn’t happen; we’ve spent the money, incurred the debt, and done very little to repair what most needs fixing.
Our government is old and broken and dysfunctional, and may even be beyond repair. But Starr is right. Our only sane choice is to muddle through. As human beings, we ultimately become old and broken and dysfunctional—but in the meantime it makes a difference if we try. Our American republic may prove to be doomed, but it will make a difference if we improvise and strive to make the best of the path through our time—and our children’s, and their grandchildren’s—rather than succumb.
“I often think about how we would make decisions if we knew we would wake up the next day and it would be 75 years later,” Cullen Murphy, author of Are We Rome?, told me. “It would make a huge difference if we could train ourselves to make decisions that way.” It would. Of course, our system can’t be engineered toward that perspective. Politicians will inevitably look not 75 years into the future but one election cycle ahead, or perhaps only one news cycle. Corporations live by the quarter; cable-news outlets by the minute. But we can at least introduce this concept into public discussion and consider our issues and choices that way.
What difference would it make? We could start by being very clear about our strengths, as revealed not simply by comparison with others but also through the pattern of our own rise. The mutually supportive combination of public and private development; the excellence of the universities; the unmatched ability to attract and absorb the world’s talent—these are assets we can work to preserve. We could reflect on how much more attainable our goals are when the world works with us—economically, diplomatically—rather than against us. We could not compel international obedience even if we tried, but everything we care about becomes easier if the American model attracts rather than repels. And a longer-term perspective would mean doing all we can to address the “75-year threats”—the issues for which we’ll be thanked or blamed two or three generations from now. Rebuilding the infrastructure, so that it’s an asset rather than a drag. Reinvesting in research, for the industries our grandchildren will found. Dealing with environmental challenges that will make all the difference in whether the world looks like hell.
America has been strong because, despite its flawed system, people built toward the future in the 1840s, and the 1930s, and the 1950s. During just the time when Frederick Law Olmsted designed Central Park, when Theodore Roosevelt set aside land for the National Parks, when Dwight Eisenhower created the Pentagon research agency that ultimately gave rise to the Internet, the American system seemed broken too. They worked within its flaws and limits, which made all the difference. That is the bravest and best choice for us now.