Washington May Be Broken Now, But the Future Is Up for Grabs

Rep. Wilbur Mills, long-time former Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, with chief aide and swimming instructor Fanne Foxe.

George Packer’s recent New Yorker piece The Empty Chamber – Just How Broken Is the Senate leaves no doubt that our “most deliberative body” does barely any deliberating at all. Instead, it’s a pathetic nest of nasty egotists, damn-the-facts party loyalties and take-no-prisoners special interests.

Just down the Conde Nast hallway at Vanity Fair, Todd Purdum answers the question How Broken Is Washington? in depressing detail, revealing the overwhelming obstacles the executive branch faces in trying to get anything done. (Factoid: The Chamber of Commerce’s lobbying expenditures outstrip the entire congressional payroll.) If you don’t have time for Purdum’s ten thousand words — or would rather spend it reading Esquire‘s explosive Newt Gingrich profile, which nails that “family values” hypocrite via testimony from one of his ex-wives — White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel gets to the core of Washington culture with one word: “Fucknutsville.”

Meanwhile, the Judiciary furthered the ongoing dysfunction of its sister branches earlier this year when the Supremes, with characteristic 5-4 wisdom, gave corporations — to which they’d previously conferred the status of human beings — the right to spend unlimited funds on political campaigns. This makes the dominance of mega-bucks in future elections — the root of all the other problems — even tougher to transcend.

But lest the healthy anger of progressives during the Bush years curdle into full-blown, hide-under-the-covers depression, it’s worth asking: When did Washington work, anyway?

Was it better during the 20th Century’s two World Wars, Depression, Vietnam, Hoover, Harding, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush, a succession of corrupt House Speakers and pork-obsessed Senators? Stacking the Supreme Court and picking candidates in smoke-filled rooms? And those Eisenhower ’50s about which conservatives love to wax nostalgic? Please. Tens of thousands of Americans were killed in Korea; Joe McCarthy saw Communists under every rock; and violent homophobia, alcoholism and lynching were commonplace.

It would take far more than ten thousand words to describe the dysfunction of the 19th Century, when Constitutional crises, genocide of Native Americans, fraudulent elections, slavery, imperial wars and widespread poverty were the norm. Abe Lincoln may have been our greatest president — and his administration a portrait in bipartisanship — but while he was running things, the whole country was literally broken.

It’s natural to be discouraged by Washington’s impotence in dealing with such crises as deepening unemployment, the BP disaster in the Gulf and the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. And many on the Left, Right and in between can point to trends that indicate America is on a severe downward track — economically, politically and culturally — for the first time in our history.

But it does no good to mourn an imagined golden past or indulge in “if only” future scenarios, in which something else — something out there just over the horizon — will make everything okay.

Politics is ugly, always has been and — in a country that endeavors to bring together so many ways of life and points of view — will continue to be. But the framers invented a government that would embody all the messy contradictions without threatening the collapse of the system.

Freud said that depression is anger turned inward. What’s really dangerous is that the Right seems to have most of the anger these days, while the Left is left with the depression.

If despair makes liberals and progressives stay home instead of staying on Obama’s case — the system gives him plenty of unilateral power to, for instance, ratchet down our involvement in Afghanistan — pessimism becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan shows that “in spite of the empirical record we continue to project into the future as if we were good at it.” This may seem negative, but it can also be a tonic, since it underscores the truism that the only thing we can be sure of is our inability to predict the miracles, disasters and surprises of the next moment, let alone the coming years and decades. (Gregg Easterbrook’s 2007 New York Times review of the book notes the Washington Post‘s 2004 declaration that the demise of the cosmos would require 30 billion years. The paper wisely hedged its bet by adding, without irony, “It remains impossible to predict the fate of the universe with certainty.”)

There’s no getting away from it: Things look pretty horrible for the short term. But the long-term future is up for grabs. If the system seems hopelessly broken and you feel helpless to fix it right now, remember the old Crosby Stills Nash & Young tune Helplessly Hoping. I never knew what the hell the lyric meant, but I’ve always loved that title.

Michael Sigman

Michael Sigman is a writer/ editor, media consultant and the president of Major Songs, a music publishing company.

Crossposted from Huffington Post with the author’s permission.


  1. says

    This article starts serious but turns silly. Sigman tells us correctly that the past was generally not better than the present. Then he claims dubiously that future politics must always be dirty. Where he gets silly is his copout idea that anyhow the Framers (of the US constitution) gave us a very good, if not the best possible, perpetual system for future political decisions.

    No, the Framers did NOT give us a good system for our day. They arrived at a not-bad system for THEIR day. (In saying this, I am simply rewording Jefferson’s memorable 1816 letter to fellow Virginia reformer Sam Kercheval.)

    Progressives especially should emulate the Framers in regard their daring and experimentation, not worship them for the obsolete result. They gave us an oligarchic republic, when what we now need is a broad participatory democracy. (Contrary to shills for the status quo, real democracy calls for small teams of ordinary citizens to take turns, in the manner of today’s court juries, in making deliberative decisions; it has nothing to do with casting scads of uneducated votes in costly mass popularity contests for emperor-president or a few other special offices.)

    Oligarchy – and its crowning ‘glory’, the kind of presidential autocracy whereby Obama has the power to make or break a war on whim – is precisely what makes and has made politics so dirty: as Lord Acton noted famously and correctly (one hundred years after the US constitution was drafted), it is precisely by concentrating political power in a few hands for extended time that we promote dirt and corruption in politics.

    • says

      Your points are well taken, and I think it’s an interesting debate to have. I don’t think it helps the debate to condescend by calling an opposing view “silly,” though.

  2. Marshall says

    If you had interviewed my exwife when she filled for divorse you would have thought I could walk through hell and suffer no burns. You may also have noticed she was well with child and I had not been in the US for the previous 12 months and we had no contact. She wanted to use infidelity on my part as her reason, fat chance of that. She did make the father numbr two of three. I tell you this to say marriage facts are funny things. I am sure you have noticed those who deal with the economy do not agree, ask any ten and you can get 15 different opinions of what will happen next.

    You need to be able to tell the difference between facts, fiction (also known as unfounded claims), and opinions, which are like belly buttons, we all have one.

    Right now, you can find any opinion you want on where the market is going next. The important things is where does it go over the long term.

    Government has always been broke, I love history but I can not think of a time when is was not less than honest. Do you remember the letters L S M F T ? In my youth, I was told this meant Lord Save Me from Turman and Lucky Strike tobacco was telling us that.
    Look how well Truman is thought of now, but I was over 20 before I knew the truth about those five letters and he was not that well thought of in 1946.

    The first president I remember was FDR but I think Coolige did a better job with a down turn than FDR or BHO.

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