- How did it happen that we invaded Iraq, a country that was no danger to us, and that we are now looking for ways to extricate ourselves from?
- How did it happen that our national police are now disappearing people?
- How is it that the US has adopted tax policies that will raise the national debt to banana-republic levels—after the administration that wrote them is conveniently out of office.
- And how is it that there is so little outrage?
How did we get into this mess?
A combination, it seems, of technical changes and outmoded government forms. Time was, senators were often as much representatives of the national government as presidents. But no longer; with national media, all focuses on the president. And of all the world's democracies, only the US has a single figure that represents the whole electorate and also has executive power. In parliamentary systems there is always an opposition leader. But not here—when was the last time anyone saw an opposition leader, say Tom Daschle, getting even a tenth of the visibility of W. Bush?
The trouble, said Paul Krugman, is that there's no Walter Cronkite any more; no figure respected by all sides who works at impartiality, who clarifies. After World War II, the USA came to depend on fair and balanced national media, and those are a thing of the past; FOX's claim to be so is empty.
The other political force that acted as restraint on unbridled executive power, post-World War II, was the Supreme Court. But it is that no longer. We forgot how unusual the Warren Court was in history; agree with it or not, it had a preponderance of members who believed in human rights. The Rhenquist Court, with many members chosen for their support of authoritarian political views, is much more typical, historically. Such Courts are poor defenders of human rights; the Warren Court was a bright spot in a dark history.
Finally, the US two-party system, with consensus built by closed processes within the parties, is near-to unnavigable for most citizens. Am I an environmentalist? Which party might I join that will address my concerns? The Democrats, these days, are more environmentalist, but they are not consistently so. Power in the parties depends on the geography of their membership and the geography of their membership depends on their politics. When the South was Democratic, the Democrats were the party of racism; when the Democrats started to shift, the South became Republican. Most citizens have long since decided, correctly, that they cannot count on either party to represent their views. So elections become popularity contests. Yet a geographically distributed, nationally organized minority can control a party. And that is what has happenned to the Republicans. They are dominated by a coalition of religious radicals, nationalist authoritarians, and the greedier sort of wealth.
And what is to be done? It is odd that the question has received so little consideration. The past two decades, especially the past three years, have seen major flaws in our system exploited by the group that has now come to power. We have avoided addressing the structural flaws; structural reform is always a difficult matter, and it's usually best and always easiest to make changes outside the formal system of law and governance. But this has failed. And yet we are not yet desperate enough for the public to support the work of setting matters right. I think it is time to think about the appropriate reforms, so that when the time comes we will have some ideas to put on the table.