The Pathos of Helplessness

James Fallows makes a lot of good points in his long Atlantic article, “How American Can Rise Again.” I’ll highlight just one. Let’s call it “the pathos of helplessness”:

The full details are beyond us here, but the crucial point is that in principle, the United States itself has the power to correct what is wrong in each case. Take jobs, as a very important for-instance: the loss of middle-class jobs is America’s worst economic problem. But that would be so even if China were still as closed as under Mao. According to prevailing economic theory, a country’s job structure and income distribution are determined more by its own domestic policies—education, investment, taxes—plus shifts in technology than by anything its competitors do. That’s especially true of a large economy like America’s. Those policies are ours to change.

My problem with the “America is in decline” narrative is that it’s usually made to imply that China and India’s rise have some sort of  direct barring on America’s problems. That’s simply not true. When people talk about America’s problems, they’re using talking about things like: a declining middle class, an absurdly inefficient healthcare system, an oil dependency, run-away debt — issues that in fact have only a highly-abstracted relationship to our relative geopolitical power vis a vis China, and a much more clear relationship to  things like our domestic policy decisions and public-private investment choices.  Our problems are, quite literally, ours to change.
But you wouldn’t believe it by looking at Congress today. We’ve got one political party that officially refuses to take responsibility for solving these problems, and then we have an antiquated and dysfunctional political system that empowers them. We can solve our own problems — China has little to do with it one way or the other — but, probably, patently, we won’t. It’s remarkable and depressing. Fallows:

That 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. One thing I’ve never heard in my time overseas is “I wish we had a Senate like yours.” When Jimmy Carter was running for president in 1976, he said again and again that America needed “a government as good as its people.” Knowing Carter’s sometimes acid views on human nature, I thought that was actually a sly barb—and that the imperfect American public had generally ended up with the government we deserve. But now I take his plea at face value. American culture is better than our government. And if we can’t fix what’s broken, we face a replay of what made the months after the 9/11 attacks so painful: realizing that it was possible to change course and address problems long neglected, and then watching that chance slip away.

To me, fixing our government is the issue that needs to be tackled. Unless we fix our government, we can’t fix ourselves.
Larry Lessig, who founded Change Congress and came over to the Harvard law school last year to start the Center for Institutional Corruption, uses the analogy of an alcoholic: his job’s in jeopardy, his home life is in shambles, his liver is failing. His drinking does seem to be his biggest problem. But it is his first problem, the one that precedes all the rest, the one that, until fixed, will continue to enable and exacerbate all the rest.
The positive news to come out of our healthcare reform debates is that all the dysfunction of our political system got brought to the fore in a very big way: the relentless obstructionism, the corrosive influence of money, the absurdly unequal concentrations of political power, the acrid partisanship, and, reflective of all this, the general loss of trust in the governing process writ large.
This isn’t simply an institutional failing. We have a political party that’s taken this generalized sense of political helplessness and turned it into a system of belief. And we’ve had thirty years of theory and politics attempting to legitimize anti-communitarian selfishness and greed. I think it’s fair to say that this is nothing less than a loss of confidence in the American system of self-government — in our specific institutions and also in the idea of a polity that not only goes on and gets on, but one that actively saves itself again and again, and that distributes the responsibility for doing that into the hands of the people. If there’s any truth to the “America is in decline” narrative then it’s in this: this loss of confidence in our own ability to govern ourselves. It has nothing to do with China. And it’s up to us to change.

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