The level of incompetence, special pleading, and outright corruption in national governance in the U.S.—i.e., among elite figures with decision-making authority over major national systems, whether in Washington, on Wall Street, or elsewhere in the commercial sector—is so high that it is tempting to blame everything that is going wrong on that elite misbehavior. Some members of the elite we trust (well, if not “trust,” nevertheless rely on) to manage the country follow fundamentalist ideologies; some put the interests of Israeli rightwing politicians ahead of the real interests of the American (or Israeli) people; many work for their own personal interests with not even a hint of patriotism.
Yet there is a deeper explanation for our malaise, for our increasing difficulty in managing the great systems we have created to control national security, our economy, our environment, health care, and our democracy. Many Americans involved in making these systems function are intelligent, educated, dedicated, and patriotic or…even better…self-defined world citizens looking out for the interests of us all (the only long-term solution in this increasingly crowded world). I don’t need citations to back up this assertion. I have known and worked with such individuals. I could readily point to specific individuals I am proud to have worked with in government, industry, and academia from Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Mexico, Virginia, Alaska…(yes, lower forty-eighters, all in Alaska are not like Palin). So, why is it that these good and competent people cannot make things work right?
During the Cold War, the threat was real enough so that any failure could plausibly be excused as something “we just have to put off until we beat the Soviet Union.” Before that, Hilter offered us the same excuse. But no such threat, 9/11 notwithstanding, currently exists. Our way of life today is primarily threatened not by some outside force that demands our whole attention but by the negative impact of our own decisions, voluntarily made. The war of choice against Iraq, the support for Israeli aggression against Lebanon, the support for Ethiopian intervention into Somalia, the verbal support for Georgia’s attack on South Ossetia, the decision to deregulate Wall Street, the decision to back mortgage loans to unqualified home buyers, the national unwillingness to face up to the desperation of millions of Americans who have no health insurance, the decision not to punish telecommunications companies who cooperated with “extra-judicial” Bush Administration spying on Americans, the decision to turn our backs on international law and torture enemies, the assertion of unconstitutional executive powers by the White House, and the post-9/11 collapse of the “loyal opposition” concerning the fundamental strategic response to al Qua’ida are all choices we voluntarily made, not choices we were forced to make. Some of these chickens have already come home to roost; the beating wings of the rest can be heard in the sky.
In this blog, I have taken a few shots at an answer and will not reiterate my suggestions at the moment. But the question of why we are having such difficulty governing ourselves effectively needs to become a national focus. Yes, American culture is great at building, and we have erected marvelous national systems. And, yes, we certainly have massive destructive power. But we seem to be losing the ability to manage the great systems we have built so that they will generate the quality of life they were supposed to provide for us. The superficial nature of this presidential election, which really could have been a historic election if this question had been placed clearly on the national agenda, is likely to cause this country great harm in coming years because we simply no longer can afford to evade the fundamental issue of how bad national governance has become.