We Are All Co-Conspirators Now

Article excerpt

Byline: Jon Meacham

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. …