10/29/2013 11:37 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

It Takes a Nation to Fix a Government

It seems that American dissatisfaction with the political system is peaking at three out of every four, according to one of yet another parade of polls. Also cresting is our unhappiness about the direction of the country, the workings of government, and the image of elected officials. Nine out of 10 of us consider the shutdown a sign of broader problems, and that it has hurt U.S. credibility in the world as well as the economy. The partisans among us are predictably focused on the dismal display of the Republican party and the implications on whose narrative is going to win out in the next elections.

The polls are interesting, but is that all? Should we merely await the next manufactured crisis, frustrated that the only thing that stands between us and national success is our government, making us feel more and more helpless or hoping it will all somehow go away?

Our amplified penchant for self-destruction will go on until the fundamentals of the power relationships in the country have somehow shifted back toward moderation. The bad news is that it may get worse before it gets better. The good news is that our fate is still more in our own hands than for just about any other people, though perhaps not much longer -- the more it continues, the more it will cost us, irrevocably. Ironically, it's our irresponsible political behavior that is accelerating the very national decline many fear and fret about faster than anything else. Once again: We have met the enemy and he is us.

Politics in America have always been complicated, messy, and vexing to greater levels of tolerance than in many other places, except when the centrifugal forces of self-interest far outweigh the centripetal forces of common sense. We're in one of those eras again, perhaps not unlike the antebellum period, as we must re-define what America is about for this day and age and what that means to each of us and the world beyond.

Some of the evidence of this is central governance calcified in gerrymandering and monied politics run amok. It allows the very thing we say is wrong in "failed" or "fragile" states like Syria -- minority rule and the disproportionate sway of hardliners, institutionalized corruption, and an overarching narrative in which, to paraphrase James Madison, passion has wrested the scepter from reason. The present arrangement no longer pulls us toward moderation, or to channel Yeats' apocalyptic language at the demise of the Euro-centric world order nearly a century ago: "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold."

Sure, the more immediate cause of this shutdown could be described as the failure of the federals to carry out their most basic fiduciary duties due to the opposition of an "extremist rump faction of the main opposition party" to "a controversial plan intended to bring the nation's health care system in line with international standards." But there's something much deeper at work here, as even the polls suggest or regardless whether the Affordable Care Act is working. Things have been getting out of kilter with a trajectory behind it about as long as the tail of Halley's Comet.

It's easy to blame all of this on the Tea Party and the refusal of Republican moderates so far to keep them in their place. But we ought to looking at them and the growing gridlock more as an indicator more than an inducement.

Conservatism and liberalism have always been instrinsic inflections of political outlook in the United States. The Tea Party movement, however, is an exceptionalist extremity causing many to conclude "we have elected people to govern us who do not believe in government." Fareed Zakaria is a bit more retrospective:

Over the past six decades, conservatives' language of decay, despair and decline have created a powerful group of Americans who fervently believe in this dark narrative and are determined to stop the country from plunging into what they see is imminent oblivion. They aren't going to give up just yet. The era of crises could end, but only when this group of conservatives makes its peace with today's America. They are misty- eyed in their devotion to a distant republic of myth and memory and yet passionate in their dislike of the messy, multiracial, capitalist and welfare-state democracy that America actually has been for half a century, a fifth of this country's history.

No doubt it's better to understand the Tea Party as a reactionary movement:

Reactionary conservatives fear losing their way of life amid social change. To preserve their group's social prestige, they're willing to undermine long-established norms and institutions. Furthermore, reactionary conservatives are more likely to subscribe to conspiracy theories as a means of explaining the perceived erosion of their dominance. Reactionary conservatives will, therefore, claim that their "enemies" are destroying their way of life. Compromise is commensurate with defeat, not political expediency.

But let's look at this with from an even broader historical perspective. We are a nation that must come to grips not only with profound social change but also our inevitable national decline -- at least in the relative sense of our position in the world.

Think of it this way: The pinnacle of our power was 1945, when we had just won the greatest of wars and stood with the world's most powerful military, an albeit short-lived monopoly of nuclear weapons, and created the international system with all the institutions that we now know. We owned half of the world's gross national product and most of its money. With the largest single middle-class market, we could consume ourselves silly with easy credit and cheap capital, reinforcing a surplus mentality we've seen as nothing else but the norm. Our industries had no peer, and our popular culture pervaded the planet. We dominated as no other nation had in history. It was our shining moment.

No wonder this moment is our collective psychological point of orientation and our node of nostalgia. But at the same time, this unique episode in world history could never be sustained. But history, like nature and stock markets, eventually seek correction. Where else could we go but down? So we are not only in decline now, we have been longer than we may have realized. In the cycle of the rise and fall of great powers, we have transformed from being an aspiring power to a status quo power, both domestically and internationally.

We've been Chairman of the Board of Planetary Management so long we think we're entitled to it. In our national complacency, we constantly congratulate ourselves as the "greatest country in the world" without even wondering what that's supposed to mean, as aptly played out in a scene from HBO's The Newsroom. So we've become more conservative and risk-averse, adopting strategies that play not to lose rather than play to win, or none at all -- just going from crisis to crises, thinking we can make it up by playing catch-up because we're so resource-rich. It explains a lot why reform of any kind has been nearly impossible as of late, because too many people have too much of a stake in keeping things the way they are.

The Tea Party represents the neurotic tendencies of a national personality that is in the denial and anger stages of the psychological process of sense of loss. What we're really angry about is that it can no longer be the business as usual of our splendid isolation and ignorance. We've been spoiled by our success, but now we have to think and go to work in ways we're not used to, doing the harder right rather than the easier wrong.

For two centuries, we didn't have to care about politics or foreign affairs, because it didn't affect us on a personal level all that much. Now over there matters over here as much as the other way around -- the globalized world we ourselves largely created is closing in on us. We can't make (or not make) decisions like those of the past few weeks without that having some kind of consequence we can all feel. If the Chinese and others overseas balk at buying enough of our Treasury bonds because Uncle Sam is going off the rails, that will drive up interest rates and thus the deficit, crippling economic growth and job growth with it, here as well as there. It won't be Obamacare that will be the greatest of job-killers.

This reality is particularly painful for us because the moment of truth has arrived that to understand what the problem is and how to fix it, we need first to look in the mirror. When we have members of the most representative branch of your government with a 10% approval rating being re-elected 90 percent of time, and when we have half the electorate showing up in a general election and only a third of them in an off-year, then we're getting exactly the government we deserve.

Sure, low voter participation has been the norm in our history, but history changes and so must we with it. Once upon a time we could just worry about our 40 acres and our mule and forget the rest of the world. But now the world we've made, including our government, won't leave us alone, so we have to pay more attention to it.

Jefferson's sage advice of an informed and active citizenry is an idea whose time has finally come: If you want responsible government, you have to provide responsible citizenship. And for the majority of us whose attitudes toward government, politics, and civic duties range from apathy to outright hostility, keep this also in mind: When you go bad on the system, the system goes bad on you. It's why we're where we are in the first place.

One thing we should now know: Washington is not going to fix itself, no matter what the polls or the pols say. Think about that the first Tuesday of each November or when you prefer to have your news and opinions as processed as your food. So if you're ill-informed and don't vote, ask yourself whether you're part of the problem or part of the solution.

It takes a nation to fix a government. Until enough of us get that, our national decline will no longer be relative. It will be real.

Subscribe to the Politics email.
How will Trump’s administration impact you?