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The United States has endured and suffered through days of triumph and tragedy. Among the latter have been the stock market crashes of Sept. 28-29, 1929; Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941; John Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963; and, of course, Sept. 11, 2001, which needs no elaboration.
Joining that infamous collection will be Aug. 2, 2011.
On that day, Congress passed and U.S. President Barack Obama signed into law legislation raising the debt ceiling and borrowing capacity of the United States while making about $1 trillion of spending cuts to its already swollen deficit-ridden budget.
About three-quarters of Americans polled said they regarded this action as “ridiculous” or worse. And critics from both left and right vehemently attacked the measure in the most damning terms ranging from doing incalculable economic damage to beating a cowardly retreat from the realities of the fiscal crisis.
But those interpretations and criticisms miss the larger point. What the White House and Congress wrought must be seen as the high-water mark of what government can do, not the low point.
Aug. 2 set the new standard for the best possible outcome government can obtain, not the worst. The reasons why arise from a government that seems irreversibly broken and that has turned the U.S. political system on its head.
The United States is supposed to be a democracy. In most democracies, majority vote normally rules. Yet, that isn’t the case. Instead, a tyranny of the minority now dictates politics.
In the Senate, 60 is the number of votes needed to absolutely assure passage of legislation. Democrats have 53. Hence, without the remaining seven that must come from Republicans, the minority rules.
In the House of Representatives, votes from a block of 60-70 Tea Party Republicans are essential to pass legislation even though Republicans hold a majority of seats. Those representatives were elected by a small slice of the electorate. Yet, they were able to hold the debt ceiling bill hostage.
But the death knell to the political system is the cascading number of tough and even intractable issues that cut across all aspects of American life from entitlements and subsidies to national security and rules to govern our social and economic behavior.
Many of these issues, such as healthcare, Social Security and keeping the nation safe from harm, are so complex and difficult just on their own that obtaining a consensus of the majority is virtually impossible. And ideology has grown more rigid and vitriolic.
Both the left and right have been abducted by the extremes in which stands on “gays, guns, God and gestation periods” may affect winning office more than knowledge and understanding of the facts of a given issue.
The atmosphere surrounding both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue has become toxic and septic and 24-hour news coverage along with media ideologues pervert even genuine intellectual and political differences into titanic battles for America’s soul.
The consequences of this breakdown are sadly clear. While we remain the greatest economic and military power on the globe, unless our political system is cleansed of these ills, American leadership will be lost for a very long time. The American dream will be replaced by diminished expectations and lower standards of living for most Americans.
The counter argument is that through American exceptionalism and technology, this too will pass. In the midst of the 1930s depression, John Maynard Keynes predicted that technology would make life several times better for future generations.
But that hasn’t always held and unless scores of nations are able to deal with domestic economic crises more or less simultaneously and harmoniously, the broader prospects are not good for a long time.
Solutions here are easy to invent and probably impossible to implement. Allowing presidents to serve more than two terms will at least not exclude the benefit of experience from the Oval Office. Extending terms of House members to four years will permit more time for governing and less for campaigning. And requiring all eligible Americans to vote will overwhelm the power of extreme elements and money to dominate the electoral system.
Of course, none of the above will occur. Politicians won’t be able to take on the tough issues with any chance of real success and the gold standard for measuring the best performance government can achieve will be the debt ceiling bill.
A new day of infamy will enter the lists. It will be Aug. 2, 2011, mark my words.
Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at the Atlantic Council and chairman of the Killowen Group, which advises leaders of government and business.