Previously here; "going to hell" article here. Part of my original pitch was that America's economic, cultural, and intellectual resilience was strong, but that our basic governing institutions were proving to be worse and worse matched to the challenges of these times. Thus:
"When Jimmy Carter was running for president in 1976, he said again and again that America needed "a government as good as its people." Knowing Carter's sometimes acid views on human nature, I thought that was actually a sly barb--and that the imperfect American public had generally ended up with the government we deserve. But now I take his plea at face value. American culture is better than our government. And if we can't fix what's broken [in our system of government], we face a replay of what made the months after the 9/11 attacks so painful: realizing that it was possible to change course and address problems long neglected, and then watching that chance slip away."
A number of correspondents wrote in to say that this was pandering -- indeed, of the sort I thought Carter was indulging when suggesting to audiences that problems all originate somewhere else, and certainly not with the good, fine American folk. A really honest jeremiad, some of these messages suggest, wouldn't blame some abstract American "system" for our failings; it would tell Americans that they were being so spoiled, ill-informed, short-sighted, and in other ways non-civic that they deserved just the government they/we now have. Here is a sample, which argues that one generation (my own) is the place where the trouble really starts:
"I've been reading the proposed structural fixes to our political system posted in the blog and have been getting exasperated because I know that any proposed structural fix must pass through the same broken political system. That's not going to happen, no matter what the fix is.
"The reason it's not going to happen, imho, is because only the smaller part of our political problems is the gridlock-enabling senate and other governmental institutions. The senate and other institutions have their problems, but other generations have made them work, across a spectrum of political opinion as wide as the current one. The bigger part of our current problems is us, by whom I mean baby boomers like myself--currently (I believe) the largest demographic group of voters and office holders.
"It's not a new observation that we don't trust each other and that our normal modes of political interaction are fighting our political enemies and infighting among our allies. We are a political fallen generation, acting out the original sins of left wing hatred of authority and right wing backlash against civil rights and feminism, exhibiting the huge sense of entitlement that comes from being the most privileged generation in the history of the world.
"So yes, this is another jeremiad, and yes, the country is on its way to hell politically and may be in hell's outer suburbs now. But I have not reached Jeremiah's depth of angry despair because fortunately we boomers are on our way to retirement or death. If Barack Obama--technically a boomer but apparently immaculately conceived without the boomer political stain--is typical of post-boomer politicians, the country may steer itself away from hell in time. (Yes, Sarah Palin the empty demagogue is even younger than Obama; conservatives catch on later than liberals, so there will be a lag on the right wing.)
"My suggestion for pulling the country onto a new road as soon as possible is: Don't vote for us anymore. That is, don't vote for angry intransigents; vote for cheerful realists. No, I don't mean vote for "centrists." As Jim Hightower says, there's nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos. Vote for people who share your ideals but who will actively try to solve problems and will not turn down a deal just because they'd have to give something up.
"I realize that most of the people who need this advice right now are too paranoid to want to follow it and wouldn't read it even if posted because the Atlantic is an example of the liberal and/or establishment media, so I don't expect us to actually turn away from hell until I am elderly or dead. As I said before, tinkering with the institutions can only be a thought experiment until the general attitude changes. Maybe then institutional changes won't seem so urgent, but I hope the senators of the future will get rid of the filibuster anyway."