Can America Be Fixed? The New Crisis of Democracy By Fareed Zakaria

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DeM Banter: so many issue that must be addressed…yet I haven’t heard many discussing

“All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership.” -John Kenneth Galbraith

“The United States has dropped dramatically in its investments in human and physical capital. The WEF ranked American infrastructure fifth in the world a decade ago but now ranks it 25th and falling. The country used to lead the world in percentage of college graduates; it is now ranked 14th. U.S. federal funding for research and development as a percentage of GDP has fallen to half the level it was in 1960 — while it is rising in countries such as China, Singapore, and South Korea. The public university system in the United States — once the crown jewel of American public education — is being gutted by budget cuts.”

“The continued growth in entitlements is set to crowd out all other government spending, including on defense and the investments needed to help spur the next wave of economic growth. In 1960, entitlement programs amounted to well under one-third of the federal budget, with all the other functions of government taking up the remaining two-thirds. By 2010, things had flipped, with entitlement programs accounting for two-thirds of the budget and everything else crammed into one-third. On its current path, the U.S. federal government is turning into, in the journalist Ezra Klein’s memorable image, an insurance company with an army. And even the army will have to shrink soon.”

“…the United States has no choice but to move up the value chain, relying on a highly skilled work force, superb infrastructure, massive job-training programs, and cutting-edge science and technology — all of which will not materialize without substantial investment.”.

Foreign Affairs Jan/Feb 2013

In November, the American electorate, deeply unhappy with Washington and its political gridlock, voted to maintain precisely the same distribution of power — returning President Barack Obama for a second term and restoring a Democratic Senate and a Republican House of Representatives. With at least the electoral uncertainty out of the way, attention quickly turned to how the country’s lawmakers would address the immediate crisis known as the fiscal cliff — the impending end-of-year tax increases and government spending cuts mandated by earlier legislation.

As the United States continues its slow but steady recovery from the depths of the financial crisis, nobody actually wants a massive austerity package to shock the economy back into recession, and so the odds have always been high that the game of budgetary chicken will stop short of disaster. Looming past the cliff, however, is a deep chasm that poses a much greater challenge — the retooling of the country’s economy, society, and government necessary for the United States to perform effectively in the twenty-first century. The focus in Washington now is on taxing and cutting; it should be on reforming and investing. The United States needs serious change in its fiscal, entitlement, infrastructure, immigration, and education policies, among others. And yet a polarized and often paralyzed Washington has pushed dealing with these problems off into the future, which will only make them more difficult and expensive to solve.

Studies show that the political divisions in Washington are at their worst since the years following the Civil War. Twice in the last three years, the world’s leading power — with the largest economy, the global reserve currency, and a dominant leadership role in all international institutions — has come close to committing economic suicide. The American economy remains extremely dynamic. But one has to wonder whether the U.S. political system is capable of making the changes that will ensure continued success in a world of greater global competition and technological change. Is the current predicament, in other words, really a crisis of democracy?

In 1980, the United States’ gross government debt was 42 percent of its total GDP; it is now 107 percent.
That phrase might sound familiar. By the mid-1970s, growth was stagnating and inflation skyrocketing across the West. Vietnam and Watergate had undermined faith in political institutions and leaders, and newly empowered social activists were challenging establishments across the board. In a 1975 report from the Trilateral Commission entitled The Crisis of Democracy, distinguished scholars from the United States, Europe, and Japan argued that the democratic governments of the industrial world had simply lost their ability to function, overwhelmed by the problems they confronted. The section on the United States, written by the political scientist Samuel Huntington, was particularly gloomy.

We know how that worked out: within several years, inflation was tamed, the American economy boomed, and confidence was restored. A decade later, it was communism and the Soviet Union that collapsed, not capitalism and the West. So much for the pessimists.

And yet just over two decades further on, the advanced industrial democracies are once again filled with gloom. In Europe, economic growth has stalled, the common currency is in danger, and there is talk that the union itself might split up. Japan has had seven prime ministers in ten years, as the political system splinters, the economy stagnates, and the country slips further into decline. But the United States, given its global role, presents perhaps the most worrying case.

Is there a new crisis of democracy? Certainly, the American public seems to think so. Anger with politicians and institutions of government is much greater than it was in 1975. According to American National Election Studies polls, in 1964, 76 percent of Americans agreed with the statement “You can trust the government in Washington to do what is right just about always or most of the time.” By the late 1970s, that number had dropped to the high 40s. In 2008, it was 30 percent. In January 2010, it had fallen to 19 percent.

Commentators are prone to seeing the challenges of the moment in unnecessarily apocalyptic terms. It is possible that these problems, too, will pass, that the West will muddle through somehow until it faces yet another set of challenges a generation down the road, which will again be described in an overly dramatic fashion. But it is also possible that the public is onto something. The crisis of democracy, from this perspective, never really went away; it was just papered over with temporary solutions and obscured by a series of lucky breaks. Today, the problems have mounted, and yet American democracy is more dysfunctional and commands less authority than ever — and it has fewer levers to pull in a globalized economy. This time, the pessimists might be right.

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