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Michael Sigman

Michael Sigman

Posted: August 16, 2010 11:45 AM

George Packer's recent New Yorker piece "The Empty Chamber - Just How Broken Is the Senate" leaves no doubt that our "most deliberative body" does barely any deliberating at all. Instead, it's a pathetic nest of nasty egotists, damn-the-facts party loyalties and take-no-prisoners special interests.

Just down the Conde Nast hallway at Vanity Fair, Todd Purdum answers the question "How Broken Is Washington?" in depressing detail, revealing the overwhelming obstacles the executive branch faces in trying to get anything done. (Factoid: The Chamber of Commerce's lobbying expenditures outstrip the entire congressional payroll.)

If you don't have time for Purdum's ten thousand words -- or would rather spend it reading Esquire's explosive Newt Gingrich profile, which nails that "family values" hypocrite via testimony from one of his ex-wives -- White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel gets to the core of Washington culture with one word: "Fucknutsville."

Meanwhile, the Judiciary furthered the ongoing dysfunction of its sister branches earlier this year when the Supremes, with characteristic 5-4 wisdom, gave corporations -- to which they'd previously conferred the status of human beings -- the right to spend unlimited funds on political campaigns. This makes the dominance of mega-bucks in future elections -- the root of all the other problems -- even tougher to transcend.

But lest the healthy anger of progressives during the Bush years curdle into full-blown, hide-under-the-covers depression, it's worth asking: When did Washington work, anyway?

Was it better during the 20th Century's two World Wars, Depression, Vietnam, Hoover, Harding, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush, a succession of corrupt House Speakers and pork-obsessed Senators? Stacking the Supreme Court and picking candidates in smoke-filled rooms? And those Eisenhower '50s about which conservatives love to wax nostalgic? Please. Tens of thousands of Americans were killed in Korea; Joe McCarthy saw Communists under every rock; and violent homophobia, alcoholism and lynching were commonplace.

It would take far more than ten thousand words to describe the dysfunction of the 19th Century, when Constitutional crises, genocide of Native Americans, fraudulent elections, slavery, imperial wars and widespread poverty were the norm. Abe Lincoln may have been our greatest president -- and his administration a portrait in bipartisanship -- but while he was running things, the whole country was literally broken.

It's natural to be discouraged by Washington's impotence in dealing with such crises as deepening unemployment, the BP disaster in the Gulf and the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. And many on the Left, Right and in between can point to trends that indicate America is on a severe downward track -- economically, politically and culturally -- for the first time in our history.

But it does no good to mourn an imagined golden past or indulge in "if only" future scenarios, in which something else -- something out there just over the horizon -- will make everything okay.

Politics is ugly, always has been and, in a country that endeavors to bring together so many ways of life and points of view, will continue to be. But the framers invented a government that would embody all the messy contradictions without threatening the collapse of the system.

Freud said that depression is anger turned inward. What's really dangerous is that the Right seems to have most of the anger these days, while the Left is left with the depression.

If despair makes liberals and progressives stay home instead of staying on Obama's case -- the system gives him plenty of unilateral power to, for instance, ratchet down our involvement in Afghanistan -- pessimism becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Nassim Taleb's The Black Swan shows that "in spite of the empirical record we continue to project into the future as if we were good at it."

This may seem negative, but it can also be a tonic, since it underscores the truism that the only thing we can be sure of is our inability to predict the miracles, disasters and surprises of the next moment, let alone the coming years and decades. (Gregg Easterbrook's 2007 New York Times review of the book notes the Washington Post's 2004 declaration that the demise of the cosmos would require 30 billion years. The paper wisely hedged its bet by adding, without irony, "It remains impossible to predict the fate of the universe with certainty.")

There's no getting away from it: Things look pretty horrible for the short term. But the long-term future is up for grabs. If the system seems hopelessly broken and you feel helpless to fix it right now, remember the old Crosby Stills Nash & Young tune Helplessly Hoping. I never knew what the hell the lyric meant, but I've always loved that title.


 

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