Obama’s victory last week was not so much for him as for Americans, as they screamed, “Pull yourselves together,” in poll after poll.
The shutdown and its resolution were not the evil in the US system, but a sign of its ultimate sanity.
Outsiders should beware of dumping too much contempt on Washington. The separation of powers between the presidency and congress is not just hallowed by history: It is constantly tested in the fire. The US was born of disregard for the demands of subsidiary assemblies by then-British king George III and then-British prime minister Lord North. It forged its independence on the anvil of states’ rights. This involved creating a deliberate, transparent tension between the states and federal government. Where other federations fail — or in Europe’s case are wilting — the US does not.
Certainly, the US Constitution is questioned on all sides. Commentators, think tanks and political scientists agree that it is sick. Just as Iraq and Afghanistan have heralded the US’ retreat from global suzerainty, so federal chaos is undermining faith in the system of government. Expressing this consensus, the author of The Unwinding, George Packer, argues in the new Prospect magazine that the whole gamut of US conservativism has run out of ideas.
The “weaknesses in a system of democratic checks and balances [are] now glaring” and need to be refocused on a stronger executive president, he says.
I am not sure. It is the presidency and its agencies that have made federal government bureaucratic and wasteful. The Pentagon is so cumbersome it can no longer win wars. Corporate lobbying and union power have driven federal medical and welfare entitlements to an unsupportable level. Obamacare, admirable in intent, is chaotic, with computers crashing and applicants left floundering.
Congress may be part of the problem. However, it does exert a crude brake on the budget through having to vote for supply. It has delivered a jolt to government spending this past month, but has not curbed it. There is still no sign of Obama cutting back on welfare spending, a long-term cause of the looming debt mountain (as in the UK). There may be another breakdown next year.
Governments round the world are facing the “impossibility of democracy,” whereby electoral majorities vote for benefits they do not have to finance, and so resort to debt. Britain’s last Labour government was reckless in this respect, as US presidents of both parties have been. Both countries face tax famines, in part because the world has not confronted the cancer of corporate tax evasion. This is nowhere near resolved.
A catastrophe that threatened real damage to economic recovery has been avoided. It is no bad thing that it happened. The conflict over resources was real, as was the continuing war between the extravagance of this generation and the burden heaped on to the next. Battles that elsewhere are swept under the carpet are fought in the US in full view, democracy red in tooth and claw. That is good. Thank you, America.