America desperately needs some bold vision and leadership. It’s a great country that is historically remarkable for its ability to reinvent itself and adapt, which is one of the main reasons it’s been able to retain its primacy amongst nations throughout the 20th century.
Obama was elected by Americans who want fundamental change, and the reason they want fundamental change is because without it, it’s obvious to anyone with eyes and a pulse that America is going to go down the crapper, at ever increasing speeds.
With America’s political system calcifying into a system that’s so resistant to the change it most desperately needs, many have already given up. The premise on which democracies are meant to work is that a well-informed populace debates what changes are needed to grow, and its political leaders act on that.
In America, it no longer works that way.
Polls show over 70% of Americans are in favor of universal healthcare, and yet US politicians are only able to pass a bloated piece of insurance industry pork that not only massively increases the administrative bureaucracy (which is in desperate need of trimming, not expansion), not only still leaves tens of millions of Americans uncovered – they have the chutzpah to fine people who don’t buy insurance they can’t afford! How is this rational?
While America may lead the world in its medical technology, what part of: if everyone is covered, everyone pays less, isn’t goddamn obvious? Why hasn’t Obama put it in such stark terms and used his bully pulpit to frame the debate?
In New Zealand where I’m from, everyone is covered via their taxes (and New Zealand has a lower tax scale than America), but if you have the cash and want quicker, more luxurious service, you are free to use a private healthcare provider instead of, or as well as, the State’s offering. Why hasn’t Obama used the example of other countries’ systems to recalibrate American voters’ and politicians’ expectations?
It seems like the only way for America to come back to life as democracy is for it to have a long hard look at how its political system works. A great starting point would be killing the anachronism known as the Electoral College. It’s redundant, and it’s an impediment to direct democracy. Giving all states two senators regardless of their size should also be given a good hard look, as should campaign finance laws (good luck with that, I know). The other thing that the US could benefit from is proportional representation – that would create small parties and change the makeup of Congress from a rich, old, white mens’ club to one that featured significantly more women and minorities – you know, the people that actually make up the majority of Americans.
H. L. Mencken’s (probably misattributed) quote that nobody ever went broke underestimating the American public appears to be widely subscribed to by politicians everywhere. The problem with acting on this view is that when you talk down to people and treat them as stupid, you limit their parameters for response – making it impossible to respond intelligently. Obama, to his credit, does talk to the American public as if they were adults, which is refreshing.
Obama is clearly a smart, sincere, nice guy with oodles of charisma. But his style of leadership one year into his presidency has elevated pragmatism and ‘the middle road’ to a status it doesn’t deserve given the times we live in. Here’s the fundamental problem. America is going bankrupt. And it’s not going to reverse that slide by pragmatic, middle of the road governing; this will only result in it going bankrupt slightly less quickly. Obama needs to steer the great oil tanker that is the US republic onto a significantly different course if it is to start making money again.
The course that’s been followed since the hallowed early 80’s set by Reagan and the Washington consensus and the religious right and trickle-down voodoo economics theories has failed. The reason it has failed is because it has gutted the middle class, while making those increasingly few at the top so disproportionately rich as to resemble a medieval feudal system. (And don’t get me started on the rise of religion in politics, or the rise in fundamentalism).
America needs to refocus on the middle class, financial regulation that creates real transparency, clean energy, the prison sector, big agribusiness subsidies, limiting defense spending, simplifying and reducing the tax system, and ending the war on drugs. There’s plenty of other things too, but these are the things that will start putting real change back in America’s pocket, though not one of them will be easy.
The only way any of this has even a vague chance of happening is for President Obama to grow some real cojones, and he’s got about one more year to figure this out. He needs to start taking some risks, and start making some sacrifices – probably even to his own political career, for America to truly recover its mojo.
UPDATE: Atlantic Magazine contributing editor James Fallows has just returned to the US from three years in China and offers a thoughtful, comprehensive essay on How America Can Rise Again.