01/12/2010 11:58 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

To Fix Our Country, We Need to Fix Our Politics First

It's the start of a brand new decade, but declinism hangs heavy in the air. And that, says writer Jim Fallows, is a good thing.

Having returned from three years in China, Fallows finds America in a funk. Bled by war and terrorism, beset by a lingering financial crisis and stubbornly high unemployment, facing stagnant wages and growing inequality, saddled with obsolete infrastructure and massive public debt, the United States today seems far removed from the confident "hyperpower" of a decade ago. Among the global commentariat, the "post-American world" is the cliché du jour.

But Fallows comes to challenge, not embrace, this glum narrative. In a lengthy Atlantic essay, he notes that premonitions of American decline have recurred frequently in U.S. history - and have just as often been proved wrong. He admits to having contributed himself to the "Rising Sun" hype in the 1980s, when many observers worried that Japan would soon overtake the U.S. thanks to its superior production techniques and state-guided economic strategies.

Instead, Japan sank into a long period of stagnation. But if the "jeremiad tradition" is a poor predictor of the future, says Fallows, it has the salutary effect of spurring Americans to rise to new challenges and prove the doomsayers wrong.

He attributes American resilience and adaptiveness to our inventive, entrepreneurial culture, a welcoming immigration policy and first-rate system of higher education. What's holding us back, however, is a hopelessly dysfunctional political system that has lost the capacity to deal effectively with big national problems.

"This is the American tragedy of the early 21st century: a vital and self-renewing culture that attracts the world's talent, and a governing system that increasingly looks like a joke," he says. So far, so persuasive. But Fallows' congenital optimism seems to fail him when the discussion turns to solutions. He's no doubt realistic in dismissing great structural transformations, like a Constitutional convention to reorder our governing system, a parliamentary system or new rules that favor third parties. But concluding that "our only sane choice is to muddle through" under present arrangements ignores political reforms that are both powerful and attainable.

We could, for example, launch a frontal attack on Washington's transactional culture and diminish the power of special interests by changing the way we finance Congressional elections. And rather than accept the inevitability of "rotten boroughs," we could counter the worst abuses of gerrymandering by insisting that political districts be drawn by nonpartisan commissions charged with increasing rather than decreasing the number of competitive seats. We could also think seriously about addressing the abuse of the filibuster in the Senate, something that has sparked a great deal of commentary from progressives of late.

Such reforms would make it easier to overcome obstacles to the substantive changes that progressives favor, from affordable health coverage for all, to big investments in modern infrastructure and a new, low-carbon energy system. And where policy changes often expose philosophical cleavages and well as clashing interests within the Democratic coalition, fixing our broken political system is a cause that has the potential to unite all progressives.

Fallows has highlighted the right problem. But progressives should give high priority to fixing our broken politics as the prerequisite for renewing America.

This item is cross-posted at Progressive Fix.