The Disconnect: Democracy Abroad and at Home

04/22/2013 06:18 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2013

Since last Monday afternoon we have seen our nation come together in response to all that transpired in Boston and the surrounding area. Pride in being an American, compassion for others, and an overwhelming sense of unity have swept the nation. America has shown the world how it comes together and works together on the ground in Boston and surrounding areas and coordinates with the federal government in D.C. Yet in the middle of this national tragedy we have shown that despite our strength, we quite simply failed to do something within our control.

The Senate did not take a straightforward vote on the gun control proposals. A simple majority was not enough. To pass 60 votes were needed -- terms determined by members and consistent with a filibuster proof majority. So even though several proposals received the majority of votes, the measures failed. Perhaps most striking -- the Manchin-Toomey amendment -- a bipartisan proposal focused on closing a loophole in background checks failed despite getting 55 votes in favor of it and having the support of 90 percent of Americans. And there has rightfully been much outrage. There have been purely emotional arguments made, others based solely on facts, and those that bring the two together like the powerful piece by former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords. I want to address something different -- the mixed message we are sending to the world.

I had started to write this before the bombings on Monday. My point was simple: whether you believe it is a moral imperative, a strategic imperative, both or neither, promoting democracy abroad is a critical aspect of America's foreign policy and engagement. It is an objective that transcends party lines. And it is one of which, I believe, Americans are proud. Yet while we are promoting this abroad, we struggle to follow our own advice at home. We encourage other nations to listen to their citizens and reflect the will of the people in forming governments and enacting laws. So the fact our country first is not even able to pass a law that more than 50 senators voted for, and second is unable to enact a law that more than 90 percent of Americans agree on, is not only deplorable at home, but must be perplexing abroad.

Too seldom do we think about the impact our domestic efforts, or lack of efforts, have on our ability to lead internationally. At the United Nations General Assembly in 2010, President Obama said, "There is no right more fundamental than the ability to choose your leaders and determine your destiny." That is what the U.S. promotes abroad -- publics engaged in their nations' decision-making.

Yet, today often we cannot even hold votes on issues of consensus and when we are able to it is not just a simple vote. The fact that President Obama's fiery State of the Union speech ended with a rallying cry for gun control -- not for the passage of specific legislation, but for a "simple vote" to take place -- and that the cry needs to continue to this day, is tragic. A government that prides itself on being "of the people, by the people, for the people," should not waste days of the people's business in Congress fighting for a vote to take place.

And for the president to have to argue that we, the American people, "deserve a simple vote," undermines our democratic foundation. Our leaders owe us action. Threats and procedural maneuvering can very easily bring government to a halt. The filibuster and the new magic number 60 has become a threat that carries power even before a senator takes the floor. And while the filibuster was implemented for a reason, even its original intent and execution has been lost. Somewhere along the way it got lost that you need to actively participate for a filibuster to succeed. And what used to be a tool whose power was speech has become one that results in silence.

Senator John McCain recently said, "I don't understand it. The purpose of the United States Senate is to debate and to vote and to let the people know where we stand." This past week the Majority Leader Harry Reid responded, "I'm grateful to all Republicans who joined with us to allow this debate to go forward." When did we get to the point of needing to debate about the ability to debate the issues?

The way Washington has been failing to work needs to change. It has fast become the norm that there needs to be a super-majority even to simply get to a vote on many laws. This is not what Americans deserve or what we are owed. And it can become detrimental to our credibility in promoting democracy and security abroad.

"They deserve a vote" used to be a phrase referring to people in countries who were unable to participate in their government. Today we use it when talking about ourselves. The country that encourages other nations to work with their publics is not leading by example.

At the same time that we are showing the world our ability to come together and work together across numerous organizations from local law enforcement to federal agencies, from the media to elected leaders, we are also showing them our inability to get a simple vote. On the one hand we are simultaneously exhibiting overwhelming unity and national pride, but on the other hand our government is exhibiting division and divisiveness.

So at a time when Americans are showing the world our common humanity, our support for one another, and our ability to come together in the fight for justice, it is incomprehensible that people we elect to embody these qualities and represent our interests in our government fail to do so. And if it is a mystery to us, imagine how confusing our ability to act and inability to act must be to those abroad.