Co-Conspirators in Government Dysfunction

It is the truth of the hour: Washington—or, if you prefer, "the system"—is in extremis, trapped in a depressing cycle of partisan dysfunctionality. There is something to this, but the broad indictment of the capital and its culture too often fails to include the government's co-conspirators: We the People. Though it is more fun to blame the president, or the Congress, or cable television, or the blogs, or Sarah Palin, in fact the system that has been declared unworkable in op-ed land is working the way it was supposed to work. It is a sign of success, not failure, when things move slowly, or not at all.

Which leaves us with two possibilities. We can change the system so that it will not work as it does now. (Good luck with that.) Alternatively, we can own up to the reality that Washington is not an abstraction but a mirror. Our political life is a reflection of who we are, no matter how unattractive we may find the image looking back at us. Washington is an expression, not a thwarting, of the will of the people. As George W. Bush found with Social Security and as Barack Obama has found with health insurance, it is hard to pass large- and medium-scale reform in America because many Americans have a stake in the status quo, whether it is Medicare or Social Security or agricultural subsidies or a given tax deduction. There is a straighforward reason that things tend not to change: most people do not want them to change—or at least do not want the things that benefit them to change. As a colleague of mine put it on the eve of the health-insurance summit, a lot of Americans have the souls of Democrats and the pocketbooks of Republicans.

I have been struck of late by the number of people I know who believe that things used to be better, that there was a time when lawmakers drank together and agreed to do what was best for the country. Perhaps, but if things got done in the past, then why do we still face so many perennial problems? Health-insurance reform has been an issue since TR. Doesn't the past century include this now lost golden era of Everett Dirksenism? The first report predicting a crisis in Social Security was released 35 years ago, but the fabled bipartisanship of ages past produced only incremental fixes. If more had been accomplished, it would not be an issue today.

This is almost too easy, but here we go: Remember, too, that the seemingly idyllic '50s and '60s gave us McCarthyism, the photo-finish 1960 election, and riots. The '70s opened with the Pentagon papers, went on to feature Watergate, and ended in recession, gloom, and the Iranian hostage crisis. The '80s are now said to have been years of genial after-work drinks between President Reagan and Tip O'Neill, but Reagan did not like to drink and the myth of the amiable Irishmen putting their differences aside to lift a few is like many myths: a soothing recasting of reality. Even longstanding images of national unity do not always bear close scrutiny. The renewal of the military draft passed by only one vote in the early autumn of 1941, at which point Britain had been fighting Nazi Germany alone for well over a year (France fell in the spring of 1940). Even Pearl Harbor did not bring us into the fight against the Third Reich. It was only after Hitler declared war on us, four days after the Japanese attack in the Pacific, that the Congress at last fully entered the struggle.

The argument that things have always been so, however, does not mean that things should be ever thus. At the moment there are a number of very intelligent and well-meaning people who think that the basic 18th-century constitutional structure may not be suited to the challenges of our era—that, in other words, a government created in an age in which the building of roads was a big project could be unequal to the requirements of a globalized 21st-century world. But I think there is a perilous pride in hewing too strongly to the view that the past was an infinitely simpler time. Yes, the Founders were at work in a particular context, but the issues they engaged—chiefly those of ambition and appetite—are universal.

From filibuster reform to apportioning Senate seats based on population rather than state boundaries to public financing, there are ideas in circulation that we should think about. But systemic fixes will never solve the core issue before us: that improving our economic competitiveness and achieving sustainable fiscal responsibility will require some sacrifice. We may decide that the reckoning will never come and, like Dickens's Micawber, that something will always turn up to save us. In that case, the fault will not be the government's or cable's. It will be ours.