Pundits lament the political gridlock. It isn’t new; it may not be badby Cullen Murphy / December 14, 2011 / Leave a comment
Some decades ago the biologist Richard Dawkins coined the word “meme” to describe bits of cultural material—nostrums, fashions, behaviours—that acquire broad currency and then get passed along like genes. Looking at political commentary in the last few years, you can see that a powerful meme has taken hold: American government is broken. Writing in the New York Times in 2010, Paul Krugman described a nation “paralysed by procedure” and “re-enacting the dissolution of 18th-century Poland.” In February, speaking at a debate sponsored by National Public Radio, Arianna Huffington observed, “Wherever you look, you see that we can only produce suboptimal solutions to our deepest crises.” An editorial in Newsweek in early 2010 put the question bluntly: “Is America Ungovernable?”
The argument for the affirmative is robust. Congress and the White House have been unable to come to terms on a package of budget cuts and revenue increases to diminish the country’s catastrophic debt. On Capitol Hill, politicians in both parties are held hostage by the special interest lobbyists whose ranks they will join upon leaving office. Republican leaders, meanwhile, have vowed in effect to say no to anything President Barack Obama asks for, even if they agree with it in principle. Out in the land, Tea Party activists and Occupy Wall Street protesters give vent to passionate and contradictory eruptions. The debates among candidates for the Republican presidential nomination have been sidetracked by bizarre discussions of electrified border fences in Texas and the cost of air-conditioning in Afghanistan. News stories have been written on whether Mitt Romney flipped-flopped when he said that Mitt was his first name. (It is his middle name.)
This seems an unhappy state of affairs—not the way America is supposed to work. “I’m Just a Bill,” a song known to generations of American schoolchildren, describes how laws are made—it’s a jaunty account of the governmental process. Today it comes across as ironic, probably even to kids.
But it is all too easy to lose perspective. The truth is, America has always been hard to govern: ungovernability is its default condition. Even those historic moments that, in retrospect, are held up as exemplars of wisdom and decisiveness turn out to look different when viewed up close.
A great deal of triumphalist rhetoric is lavished on the era of the Founding Fathers. It didn’t seem triumphal at the time. The US Constitution was ratified by a hair’s breadth,…