Op-ed: America’s two major political parties have become monolithic combat units with no sense of measure and little interest in compromise. One foreign observer says the only way to grease the frozen gears of the U.S. political machine is with a clear th
BERLIN -- Eleven months from now, Americans will be voting for their president. But whether Barack Obama stays in office or a Republican is voted into the White House on Nov. 6, 2012 is almost beside the point -- because unless things change, the power of the most powerful person in the world will be very limited.
Simply put, the United States has lost its ability to conduct politics. The world's last superpower is stuck in a polarized morass of issues that Republicans and Democrats alike are unable to compromise on, as parliamentarianism requires. Pure ideologies have won out over cool-headed good sense.
Since this past summer the divided congress of the world's biggest and richest economy has repeatedly demonstrated its inability to act. Measures to raise the debt ceiling and rein in the gigantic budget deficit were torpedoed for so long that for the first time in America's history, rating agencies lowered its rating.
A "Super Committee" comprised of members of both parties from the House and the Senate failed in its mission to find solutions despite the extreme urgency of doing so.
Infrastructure in the United States – once the poster child of modernity – is frighteningly antiquated. The economy has lost its competitive edge. The education system requires massive investment. Unfortunately, the joint will of Democrats and Republicans to tackle all this is simply missing.
What happened to the middle ground?
The paralyzing conflict runs along these lines: Republicans refuse tax increases and balk at repealing the George W. Bush tax cuts – they don't want to rock the "1%" boat even though over the last 30 years, the income of America's top earners has risen by 256%.
For their part, Democrats defend sprawling and often inefficient social security and health care programs. Meanwhile, the brutal reality is this: with a $14.7 trillion debt, the "99%" that the loud but relatively directionless Occupy Wall Street movement claims to speak for is going to have to pay.
With Baby Boomers reaching retirement age in this decade, social security and medical insurance charges can be expected to climb by 70% to 80%. And when that happens, politicians – despite promises being made now – are going to have to make massive cuts into social spending.
A dangerous tsunami of problems is headed America's way. The United States has dealt successfully with comparable challenges many times in the past, the Cold War being a case in point. But what's missing now is a common enemy, like the Soviet Union then was, to weld everyone together. Never before has the United States been this divided.
In this 150th anniversary year of the beginning of the American Civil War, writer Ronald Brownstein evokes a "second Civil War." There have of course been bitter fights in U.S. politics – about Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, abortion. But never before have the two political parties constituted monolithic combat units, as they do now.
Republicans and Democrats traditionally had conservatives and liberals within their ranks. Republicans from the liberal Northeast supported Democratic initiatives, and conservative Democrats from the South – Dixiecrats – voted for Republican legislation. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman called the phenomenon a de facto "four-party system."
By 1980, 50% of America's citizens were seeing major differences between Republicans and Democrats; today, that figure has risen to 75%. Both camps are fighting for legitimacy to speak for the American people, and dissenters in either camp are the exception.
Conservative Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a lateral thinker from South Carolina, describes the situation in terms of one team pitted irrevocably against the other: "If it's a Democratic idea, I have to find fault with it because it comes from a Democrat. And vice versa."
An era of mutual mistrust
The Republicans, often with the fundamentalist-leaning Tea Party movement in tow, are particularly unbending. From their standpoint, voters showed in the November 2010 mid-term elections – when Democrats lost the majority in the House of Representatives -- that they had lost confidence in the Obama administration.
Yet Democrats are stuck too, treating government programs as if they were sacrosanct. And both sides want to see their position prevail completely with no room for adjustments. Politics in Washington is suffering from a loss of relativity.
Fifty-four percent of Democrats approved of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Republican president after the Second World War. Even Richard Nixon got a 39% approval rating. Bush father and son, however, only had a 15% approval rating from Democrats. Twenty-two percent of Republicans approved of Bill Clinton – while Obama, one year before the next presidential elections, has an approval rating of just 9% from Republicans.
Americans have lost any sense of moderation and middle ground. And given the situation, the only way to bring the parties to their senses is to introduce a third party. If an independent candidate for president could make it clear that on the one hand, taxes are going to have to go up, and on the other, that budgets for social programs are going to have to be cut, neither Republicans nor Democrats could go on denying the new realism. Instead they would have to find compromises by moving closer to the center.
That third candidate – someone of the caliber of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg – wouldn't stand a chance of winning the election. But he or she could break up the prevailing congestion. And we would hope that for America.
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