The acrimonious debate over raising the debt ceiling, the subsequent downgrade of American credit, and plummeting stocks worldwide, has finally brought home the harsh reality of just how broken Washington DC is. To quote from Standard & Poor’s justification for the downgrade, “More than two years after the beginning of the recent crisis, U.S. policymakers have still not agreed on how to reverse recent fiscal deterioration or address longer-term fiscal pressures.” Instead of solutions, the continual crisis has led to an epidemic of posturing and “brinksmanship,” the all-time lowest approval rating for Congress, and a global economy that tumbles on the words of a few self-appointed ‘experts’. This crisis of credibility has destroyed the ability of the American government to respond to any other challenge.

What does this latest loss of faith in government imply for the future of US policy-making and what it might it mean for the project of modernizing liberalism articulated by the Breakthrough Journal editors?

How can we restore a responsible and effective government capable of legislating under the pressure of immense domestic and global 21st century challenges?

Below multi-generational policy thinkers share their vision about where the U.S. goes from here:

Mike Lind, New America Foundation:When pirates capture a tanker, one does not blame the ship’s design. The problem of conservative obstructionism in Congress is a political problem, not a structural defect of Congress or government as a whole. Conservatives have intimidated moderate Republicans into acquiescing in their strategy of using any and all chokepoints to advance their radical agenda. The solution, like the problem, is political. If moderates cannot marginalize the far right within the GOP, then the militant-controlled GOP must be marginalized by a more popular and successful Democratic party. Blaming “the system” or implying that all sides are to blame just diverts attention from politics to process.”

Rob Atkinson, Information Technology and Innovation Foundation: It’s long been popular to blame Washington for the nation’s problems, but no more so than now.  It’s Washington’s intransigence and corruption that is to cause for the latest financial downgrade and debt ceiling brinksmanship, so goes today’s common wisdom.  If only elected leaders would 1) get a spine; 2) be term limited; 3) stop being so partisan; 4) be more partisan and stand up for their beliefs, or (fill in your favorite complaint here), then all would be well.  

Let me suggest that this has it fundamentally backwards.  As Alan Simpson once said shortly before he left the Senate, I know people are fed up with Washington, but let me tell you something, I am fed up with the American people.  Right on, Alan!  Try running in any Congressional primary, Democratic or Republican, have a key plank in your platform that for the good our nation we need to raise the gas tax and use the money to invest in infrastructure.  Odds are you will be voting in the general election for someone other than yourself.   We haven’t raised the gas tax since 1994 and it’s lost considerable purchasing power since then due to inflation.  And the result is that as a nation we massively under invest in surface transportation infrastructure (roads and transit).  But any effort to tell Americans to stop being so selfish and instead start worrying about the good of the nation and our children, is met with disdain or worse.  Try running in a Congressional primary and saying that for the good of the country we need to raise the retirement age to 70 (including for government workers) and index Social Security benefits to inflation, not wages.   Again, good luck with that election. 

In other words, over the last generation Americans have turned inward and selfish.   Today’s John Kennedy’s call to arms “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” is as quaint as a Ben Franklin proverb.   So before you once again blame Washington at your next cocktail party or barbeque, take a long look in the mirror and remember Pogo’s advice, “we have met the enemy and he is us.”

Teryn Norris, Americans for Energy Leadership: If modern liberals want to salvage the United States from a decade or more of political dysfunction and economic malaise, they need to present a clear choice to the public in the years ahead: elect “leaders” who refuse to govern and would tear the country down, thus empowering China to dominate the 21st century, or choose a responsible vision and agenda to rebuild the nation and reclaim American greatness for decades to come.

Despite the current dysfunction, exceptionalism still runs deep within the American psyche, as it has since the founding and throughout Civil War and Great Depression.  As national pollster Stan Greenberg has said, “People think the country is in trouble and that countries like China have a strategy for success and we don’t. They will follow someone who convinces them that they have a plan to make America great again. That is what they want to hear. It cuts across Republicans and Democrats.”  

Earlier this year, a Gallup poll found that 52% of the public would name China as the world’s “leading economic power,” the highest percentage favoring another country in Gallup polling history.  In contrast, only 7% named Japan, and just 3% the European Union.  Meanwhile, the IMF recently projected that China’s GDP will surpass the U.S. by 2016, measured by purchasing power parity — a vastly over-optimistic prediction, but shocking nonetheless.

Those who are still committed to American leadership — Democrats and moderate Republicans alike — must recognize one clear reality that’s emerged over the past two years: it is not enough to simply discuss the potential benefits of sensible economic policy. The public needs to understand the full stakes for the United States and the world if the Tea Party succeeds and we fail to pursue a proactive economic growth strategy. And what’s at stake is nothing less than the American era and international order as we know it.