In a press conference today the president vented his frustration at the latest example: partisan cliffhanging about lifting the country’s debt ceiling. The obstacles lie both in Washington, where the heart of the problem is the supermajority hurdle in the Senate, and in many individual states. A magnificent constitutional framework of checks and balances, designed to prevent the return of British tyranny, has atrophied into a system that makes reform almost more difficult than revolution.
And this, too, is familiar from history. Over time, superpowers acquire dysfunctionalities which they can carry because of their sheer plenitude of wealth and power, rather as a super-strong athlete can carry deficiencies in technique. When your strength wanes you suddenly need the technique; but it may be too late to get it back. Beside technique, there is the all-important confidence. But the old American can-do optimism is shaken. Even those who most loudly proclaim American exceptionalism strike a note of cultural pessimism. “It’s breaking my heart,” emotes Glenn Beck, “to see this nation basically going down the tubes.”
One has to be tolerant of Continental Schadenfreude. History’s perverse humor is revealed by Dominique de Villepin and Chirac as our Greek chorus. Timothy Garton Ash actually thinks there’s a way out of the American cul de sac. But he wonders if political dysfunction will win out.
Obama and the Democrats will go to the polls on the message ‘we suck less.’ That was the Peanut Farmer’s, too.