This is the legacy of (hold your breath, for this will be a run-on-sentence for the ages): Vietnam, the credibility gap, Watergate, the pardon of Richard M. Nixon, the Mayaguez, inflation, stagflation, high interest rates, the Iran hostage crisis, the debacle at Desert One, the savings-and-loan crisis, Iran-Contra, Whitewater, Monica Lewinsky, a presidential impeachment, terrorism, financial collapse, growing partisanship, congressional paralysis and much, much more.
But each presidential administration, and each new Congress, has the chance to start anew, and in truth there have been moments of great hope in the past third of a century. They came on the right with the election of Ronald Reagan and on the left with the elections of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. These were times when young people and even wizened old veterans longed to be in Washington, to breathe the new fresh air and to shape the new fresh outlook.
We do not have those opportunities in 2014, but Congress and the president need to find a way to breathe fresh air and shape a fresh outlook. The country simply cannot continue in what the political theorist Francis Fukuyama calls the “decay in the quality of American government.”
The prospects for such a revival-tent conversion are dim, to be sure. In his widely discussed essay published last month, Fukuyama took aim at the role of interest groups in American politics, with a side swipe at Congress, and this part of his critique is especially worth examining:
“It is commonly and accurately observed that no one in the U.S. Congress really deliberates anymore. Congressional ‘debate’ amounts to a series of talking points aimed not at colleagues but at activist audiences, who are perfectly happy to punish a legislator who deviates from their agenda as a result of deliberation or the acquisition of greater knowledge. This leads then to bureaucratic mandates written by interest groups that restrict bureaucratic autonomy.”