I would guess that everybody overstates the importance of the times in which they live; why else would religious types always proclaim that the end of the world is coming imminently? So it's certainly possible that I’m making the same error with the current political moment, and that the country is no more at risk than in the 1790s, 1830s, 1880s, 1970s or any other time in which prognosticators warned of imminent and irreversible decline.
But whatever the true stakes, I think it's inarguable that we have some problems. This interview Ezra Klein conducted with Colorado Senator Michael Bennet really does capture what we're up against, with long-gestating problems about to burst into the forefront just as our system seems unprecedentedly stymied and almost willfully counterproductive:
I believe we are right now going through an enormously profound test of our democracy and our democratic institutions. We do, as a country, face some enormous challenges. Even before we were driven into this recession, the last period of economic growth is the first time our economy grew and median family income declined. We've created no net new jobs since 1998. And we’ve done nothing to change educational outcomes for kids going to school in our country. We’ve managed to burden our children with $12 trillion in debt. Think about the policy decisions that have to be made amid these political incentives. We have to figure out how to change the political culture so that people’s incentives in this job point in the right direction.
While Bennet's main point is the dysfunction of the Senate and how the political benefits of reflexive oppositional positioning extract a staggering institutional cost, what I've bolded here is the context and background, far too rarely stated in these direct terms, for the budgetary hand-wringing over entitlement costs and foreign adventures. These problems, combined with the widespread sense that those in power have enriched themselves at our collective expense and might not even be interested in finding solutions, are what could destroy us as a society even if we do find ways to reform the filibuster, eliminate holds and take other steps to streamline governance processes.
In this light, the coming final showdown over health care really does take on a significance even beyond whether we'll extend insurance to more than 30 million Americans currently without it, and perhaps begin to get costs under control. It now sounds like the Senate has the votes; the House is less certain. Once again, it’s a fairly small issue—abortion—that threatens to scotch the whole deal. I’m not saying that abortion is insignificant or unimportant; obviously it’s a question that gets to individuals’ deepest values. But given the uncertainty over what the language in the Senate bill even means—whether or not it supercedes the Hyde Amendment—it seems madness to me to hold a major piece of legislation that the protesters (supposedly) otherwise support hostage to the question. If the bill founders on that issue, that outcome will reinforce the deepening skepticism over government’s ability or appetite to take on even the relatively solvable problem of health care, much less the bigger icebergs not yet in view.
To be honest, I haven’t yet read Bennet’s proposals for Senate reform—but I find the manner in which he frames the problems here enormously compelling. Sadly, he’s one of the many appointed Senators who replaced departing Democrats after the 2008 elections—a group that also included placeholder Ted Kaufman for Vice-President Joe Biden, the stunningly lame Kirsten Gillibrand for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and of course the deeply compromised Roland Burris for President Obama himself. Bennet replaced Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, meaning that almost certainly the best and most thoughtful term-completer stepped in for the least consequential departing Senator. But he’s in perhaps worse political shape than even Gillibrand, who’s protected by our state’s deep blue hue and the deep pockets and long reach of Chuck Schumer; Bennet trails Colorado Republicans in early polling. Let's hope he hangs in.