On a recent trip to Washington D.C., I stopped by the National Archives where the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution are all housed in a dark rotunda. When you stand in that room and study the documents, you recognize that tough choices and sacrifices had once been made to build our “more perfect union.”
More importantly, as you read the names of the signers and recall the various political philosophies of those that had formed our democracy, you realize that our government was built on the foundations of compromise.
Today, however, that ability to strike a balance has vanished like the words on the now sun-scathed parchment of the Declaration of Independence. Last night, the congressional supercommittee hit an impasse and instead held fast to the ideologies of their party—the Republicans hoping to show that Democrats are incapable leaders, the Democrats wanting to display Republican intransigence. Congress—who love to play the what-would-the-founding-fathers-do game—has become a petty body that has more interest in hindering the opposition than tending to the 9% unemployment rate, mitigating the anger of the 99%, or crafting better economic plans than Cain’s 999.
Not only are they failing the American people, but Congress also seems more like a posse of snake oil salesmen, as two recent 60 Minutes broadcasts illustrated. In one report, Jack Abramoff—the notorious former lobbyist who had served time for corrupting officials, tax evasion, and fraud—demonstrated how lobbyists prey on the weaknesses of Congress. Using our representatives, lobbyists sneak obscure language into bills and hold our lawmakers hostage with sporting tickets and golf outings.
“The system hasn’t been cleaned up at all,” said Abramoff, explaining how those in charge of reform are the same individuals receiving the perks.
In a later episode, Steve Kroft examined how Congress is exempt from insider trading laws and can buy and sell stocks before valuable information reaches the public. And they do this legally. It must be hard to put country first, when you’re constantly receiving information that will grow your personal finances. To avoid such temptation, two representatives proposed the Stock Act, which would call for greater transparency of members’ stock trades and would make stock trades on non-public information illegal for representatives. But the bill had only 6 co-sponsors.
Aside from palling around with lobbyists and building their bottom line, Congress is also obsessed with triviality. Earlier this month, the House spent time bickering over mottos. They held a vote reaffirming our country’s motto, “In God We Trust,” as a way to reproach Barack Obama for suggesting that “E Pluribus Unum” was our nation’s slogan. (Quite frankly, “E Pluribus Unum,” which predates the other and means “Out of many, one,” has a more vital message for our divided house. Plus, it doesn’t violate the 1st Amendment like “In God We Trust” does.)
But it’s not just Congress that is causing our decadence. It’s all politicians and the media, too. They are all like dogs playing fetch. They’re never looking at the stick in hand, but at the horizon for the stick they expect to see fall. Representatives are never worried about the term they are serving in; instead they focus on the next election. The same goes for the media, which is controlled by the whims of tomorrow’s possible Republican candidate. For a year and a half, until November 2012, we will have listened to recurring ejaculations by non-candidates mounting specious presidential campaigns: From Rick Perry who makes our last Texas president sound like a linguist to Herman Cain who wouldn’t know Libya from Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan (his word). These aren’t candidates, but crafty businessmen publicizing their books and job applicants warming up the talk-show seat.
And to think, we were once a country of such inspiration.
Our American Revolution had sent ripples through the globe and led to the toppling of unjust regimes in Central America, South America, and France. We were once leaders in industrialization and egalitarian principles. Today our ingenuity is fading and the divide between the wealthy and the middle class, thanks to the slashing of safeguards and deceitful business tactics like predatory lending, is splitting like our infrastructure. We once had an education system that educated rather than focused on unreliable test scores. We were once a country that attracted the best and brightest before the term became cliché.
A few weeks ago, at a 92 Street Y event, Malcolm Gladwell, the best-selling author who has changed the way we think about ideas and success, said that his advice to young Americans today would be to “leave America.” The opportunities here have become limited, he argued.
Why wouldn’t young people leave for countries where innovative ideas, like seeking alternative energies, is not feared, is less controversial, and is a recognizable job creator? Sadly, our latest energy explorations centers around hydraulic fracturing (or fracking), which poses a major threat to our groundwater and, subsequently, to our health.
Not only are opportunities depleting, so is faith in our system. Congress’s approval rating has fallen to 9% and New York Times columnist, Charles M. Blow, showed how confidence in America is on the decline. He writes, “We are settling into a dangerous national pessimism.”
But maybe pessimism is what we need. Pessimists recognize problems. Pessimists founded the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. It’s the active pessimist who alerts the nescient, and informs the corrupt and the inefficient that they are being monitored.
We are at a time when we need to learn from our errors, just as the founders had. They saw that their first attempt at government with the Articles of Confederation, which did not grant Congress certain necessary powers like levying taxes, failed and traded it in for the Constitution. We need our delegates to understand that kowtowing to corporations and lobbyists is not in the job description, and that their personal stock portfolio needs to be shut so they can manage the portfolio of this country. We need our media to report on news and not year-and-a-half-long primaries with candidates that could double as friends of The Situation on the Jersey Shore. We need our lawmakers to meet each other halfway. And maybe that halfway point is on a class trip to the rotunda of the National Archives.
Photo by David Paul Ohmer
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