We the Problem

Article excerpt

Byline: Evan Thomas

Washington is working just fine. It's us that's broken.

Watching your government at work can be an appalling spectacle. Politicians posture and bicker, and not much gets done. It's gotten so bad--or at least seems so bad--that pundits are beginning to wonder if the system is broken in some fundamental way and to cast about for a big fix. Some little fixes might help--reforming the Senate filibuster would be a start. But the nation is not about to have a constitutional convention, and we don't need one. The Founders got it right, more or less, some 220 years ago, when they created a system of checks and balances that permits the exercise of power while protecting the rights of individuals and political minorities.

The problem is not the system. It's us--our "got mine" culture of entitlement. Politicians, never known for their bravery, precisely represent the people. Our leaders are paralyzed by the very thought of asking their constituents to make short-term sacrifices for long-term rewards. They cannot bring themselves to raise taxes on the middle class or cut Social Security and medical benefits for the elderly. They'd get clobbered at the polls. So any day of reckoning gets put off, and put off again, and the debts pile up.

In the last 30 or so years, Americans have lived as if there is no tomorrow. They have racked up personal debt, spending more than they save and borrowing heavily. Americans have become fatter: between 1960 and 2002, the average adult male in the United States put on 25 pounds, and the average woman gained 24; between 1998 and 2006, the percentage of obese Americans in-creased by 37 percent. Some attribute these gains to factors beyond individual control, but who can deny that self-restraint and self-denial are antiquated values?a(In the college hookup culture, the ethos is to have sex first and only then, maybe, get to know the other person.) It's not just in Lake Wobegon, where all children are above average. Grade inflation is so out of control in the nation's high schools that 43 percent of college-bound seniors taking the SATs have A averages--even though SAT scores have remained flat or drifted slowly downward for years.

It is hard to know exactly how or when we got this self-indulgent. The '60s are partly to blame. The triumph of individual and civil rights, a wondrous fulfillment of the true meaning of the Constitution, was too often perverted into an "I got my rights" sense of victimhood. The noble push of the New Deal and the Great Society to fight poverty and illness, particularly among the very old and very young, hardened into the nonsensical defiance some tea partiers show when they shout, "Keep your government hands off my Medicare!" The casting off of conformity and explosion of free expression contributed to the sour and selfish "Me Decade" of the 1970s. The spurt of economic activity in the 1980s and '90s spawned a generation of Gordon Gekkos on Wall Street and profligate spenders in the shopping malls of America (financed and enabled in part by more frugal Chinese buying American debt).

Politicians have never been very good at asking for sacrifice from their constituents. (And the ones who have tried have generally lost reelection.) Outside of wartime, there was never any golden age when political leaders successfully called on their people to give up what they perceived as their economic entitlements for the greater good. The last presidential candidate to call for tax increases on the middle class was Walter Mondale of Minnesota, in 1984, and he was defeated in every state but his own and the District of Columbia.

But lately, politicians seem to have lost the most essential element of the art of governing--meaningful compromise. …