America the Ungovernable?

Written October 2013

Americans may not care much about what the world thinks of the U.S government shutdown, but other countries, and not just friends and allies, are bewildered at the way that Americans play brinkmanship, as if it were the modern real life version of the popular Monopoly board game.

The gridlock in Congress that reflects the latest paralyzing impasse between the legislative and executive branches strikes the rest of the world as something unbecoming the great respect and admiration that other nations have for the American system of government, highly regarded for its checks and balances. At the present time, there is no balance and this is looked upon with a mix of incredulity and chagrin, especially by some European partners who have avoided shutdowns by developing a functioning pattern of coalitions. Italians practiced this system for many years and when the coalition tottered, the government fell. This accounted for a large number of governments but there was always a way out: either a new coalition government was formed with a merry-go-round of ministerial seats, or new elections were called.

To be sure, the coalition governments were not easy but at least there were no shutdowns. In some countries, like in Israel, the inability to approve a budget automatically triggers new elections. We all know that this cannot happen in the United States where elections are held at rigidly established intervals. But the thought occurs today as to what would happen if the failure of the legislators to pass a budget or a critical piece of legislation such as the raising of the debt limit were to force a national election. In the present morass on Capitol Hill, how many congressmen could be shaken out of their otherwise safe incumbency by voters who are paying heavy real life consequences for the ideological intransigence of their representatives?

The Europeans have the good taste to not get involved in the current political squabble in America, but they are transfixed by how an issue that concerns the welfare of millions of Americans — those who do not have insurance in particular — can transmogrify into a heated ideological confrontation that threatens to bring down the economic house of America.

The Europeans and the Canadians enjoy a single payer medical insurance run by the government, a concept that is anathema in the United States. Yet, the Affordable Care Act is not a single payer system but the best that can be devised in a large country where medicine is a business.

Even more astonishing for people overseas is the accusation of the conservatives, particularly the rightist circles, that Obamacare is nothing but a piece of dastardly socialism. Even today, socialism continues to be a bad word in America even though the quick association with Communism in the past has lost its traction. Obviously, these die-hard conservatives will never admit that the Social Security system, Medicare and Medicaid are in fact socialist schemes. More importantly, they are so ingrained in the American experience that tinkering with Social Security is the equivalent of a third rail in U.S. politics. It is untouchable and the reason is crystal clear: nearly half of the elderly population of the United States is “economically vulnerable.”

The Social Security that older people receive is all that prevents many of them from falling below the poverty line. Specifically, in 2012 the poverty line for a family of four was $23,283. Today, a full time worker making minimum wage earns about $15,000 a year. These are the people who need Obamacare the most because they are not able to buy insurance.

Denying poor citizens the chance to obtain relatively cheap insurance is something that befits a developing nation, not the richest and most powerful nation on earth. In brief, these are some of the thoughts that occur to citizens of wealthy countries who pay high taxes indeed but get the benefit of almost free medical care — as well as low cost or free universities. Indeed, they find it hard to believe that the global superpower is officially on the brink of bankruptcy because of a political dispute over whether American citizens should receive greater health coverage or not, and if so, with what kind of regulation or oversight by the government.

What is being set in Washington is a dangerous precedent and its consequences will be suffered not just by people who don’t get paid but by both parties in the next legislative confrontations. When a party threatens to shut down the government unless the other party repeals a law it does not like, the laws of the land legally adopted by the legislative bodies will always be vulnerable to repeal by the minority.

It is a known fact, admitted by the very leaders of the Republican Party, that a minority made up by a few dozen representatives is capable of paralyzing the federal government. Granted, the composition of congressional districts and the fact that die-hard Republican legislators can count on full support by their voters is part of the problem. Yet that could be addressed by redrawing the boundaries of such districts.

Although by definition, democracy is the government of the majority, minorities of all kinds have become decision makers. They can be vehement in their protests and stifle the majority, especially when they are a radical minority within the majority party in a legislative or parliamentary chamber.

With the significant difference between Europe and the United States that while in Europe the majority has become a conglomerate of constantly changing minorities, in the United States the permanence of homogenous congressional districts supports a political structure that has become more and more refractory to compromise. This accounts for the present day gridlock and the consequent fears that the precedent being set in Washington is already making the U.S. look ungovernable.

Among those who are beginning to reflect upon the consequences of this sorry state of affairs are America’s partners overseas that President Obama was going to meet in the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Bali, from China’s Xi Jinping to Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Obama did not fly to Bali. Again, Americans may not give a hoot about what Xi and Vlad think of America. But the fact remains that the commitments of the United States are coming into question around the world, and this is damaging for its reliability and prestige. Americans should think about it.

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