Global Matters: Dysfunction is all in the (American) family
Mercifully, election season has come to an end. Families from coast to coast bowed their heads in gratitude as they gathered at their Thanksgiving tables last week.
Successful candidates will now transition from the gaudy brutality of the campaign trail to the formidable, if less colorful, task of governing. The president and Congress can now confront in earnest a sluggish economy, mounting debt, the so-called fiscal cliff, two wars (more or less), an ever-volatile Middle East, immigration and climate change.
Of course, the media pundits have already transitioned, moving seamlessly from pre- and post-election polls to the partisan debt negotiations, to diplomatic crises, and, inevitably, to the alternate universe inhabited by the political and military elite and their slightly unhinged admirers.
It would all be rather disheartening if we didn’t have several centuries of experience dealing with the political lurches and oscillations of this country. Winston Churchill famously observed that Americans can always be counted upon to do the right thing, after having exhausted every other possibility; in other words, it won’t be pretty, but America and Americans will always get to where we need to be in the end.
The knowledge, or at least the confidence, that we will, after all, be fine brings to mind one of those memes that makes its way around the Internet from time to time in which the writer says, "When I die, no gentle passing for me. I want to arrive at Heaven’s Gate in a cloud of dust amid squealing brakes, battered and bruised, winded and spent, with a bonehead smile on my face, saying, 'Man, what a ride!'"
In fact, that’s a bit what it’s like to be an American these days. The tortuous path to passage of the Affordable Care Act was characterized by fractious argument and demagoguery all the way to the Supreme Court, and thereafter by months of public handwringing. In the end, most of the law was upheld, and most states and employers have simply set about the business of complying.
In September, the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was overrun and four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador, died. Initial reports attributed the deaths to a spontaneous uprising of angry Libyans reacting to an incendiary, if childish, anti-Islamic video. Some smell a cover-up, however, and are questioning the competence, veracity and integrity of everyone from the president to UN Ambassador Susan Rice to former CIA Director David Petraeus.
Experience tells us, however, that after a few weeks of very public accusation and castigation, this tragic incident will take its place alongside many others in which dedicated public servants have perished, owing to failure to act, failure to fund, failure to protect, failure to heed, and so on. The truth will out, blame will be apportioned and we will move on.
In fact, America’s political excesses seem only to become crises when they are fomented into a sine wave of peaks and valleys as part of the media’s relentless quest for headlines and ratings. When there is no actual crisis, one must be created. When there is nothing new to report, what has been reported must be repeated, at higher volume.
The overarching goal may be to inform, but delivering popular outrage and higher ratings is essential. No surprise, then, that another meme making the rounds is that our politics, if not our system of government, is broken. As proof of our national dysfunction we are reminded that the cost of presidential and congressional campaigns this year will approach $6 billion.
Cue the hysteria.
Six billion dollars is real money, but, just for comparison sake, we should note that in 2011 Americans also spent $10 billion on romance novels, $7 billion on Halloween, and $2.2 billion on tattoos.
Obviously we should be concerned about the influence of money in politics, but perhaps this election showed that somehow or other, our cumbersome, nasty, ugly and fractious sausage factory of a system worked. Many, if not most, who spent a fortune to sway the results failed to achieve their objectives. In the end, Americans voted, elected their candidates, and accepted the outcomes.
Thus we move on.
So let’s take a deep breath. Whatever the challenge, whatever the crisis, we know that getting through it won’t be pretty, yet we will find a way to get it done.
This country is like one of those crazy families that screams at one another around the holiday table, but somehow still considers itself a family. As Warren Buffett said, however, it has never paid to bet against America.
Our current crisis notwithstanding, I wouldn’t start now.