When I was younger, I was incredibly–embarrassingly–patriotic. I regularly got goosebumps when I heard the national anthem. Granted, my understanding of the nation’s history was very incomplete–but I think it’s fair to say that the nation itself was stronger. it was certainly less polarized–most Americans shared a belief in both the country’s essential goodness and in a “can do” American spirit.
Yesterday, I posted about what I now fear is our national disintegration–a multitude of thorny problems, most of which appear to defy that “can do” ethic.
Remember this rant from the first episode of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom? When anchor Will McAvoy responds to a question about what makes the U.S. the “greatest country in the world?
And you—sorority girl—yeah—just in case you accidentally wander into a voting booth one day, there are some things you should know, and one of them is that there is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world. We’re seventh in literacy, twenty-seventh in math, twenty-second in science, forty-ninth in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, number four in labor force, and number four in exports. We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending, where we spend more than the next twenty-six countries combined, twenty-five of whom are allies.
Every issue McAvoy addresses in that now-famous rant could be ameliorated by sensible public policies. As I regularly note on this platform, we haven’t enacted those policies. The reason we haven’t is the same reason I am increasingly depressed–significant aspects of the Constitution–the Constitution that I have celebrated, defended and taught– are obsolete.
Sounding a lot like Will McAvoy, Boot began with a recitation of America’s dreadful vaccination performance, and the deaths of more than 660,000 Americans thanks to the some 80 million eligible Americans who “stubbornly, stupidly refuse to get vaccinated — and there is almost no way to force them to do the right thing.”
With just 63 percent of the U.S. population having received at least one dose, we now lag behind every Group of Seven country in vaccination rates. We have even fallen behind countries such as Brazil, Mongolia and Cambodia, which are nowhere near as wealthy.
As he says, this isn’t a problem with democracy.
Other developed democracies work just fine. It’s not a question of democracy vs. autocracy. It’s more a question of the United States vs. the rest of the democratic world. Look at Canada: Its covid-19 death rate is one-third of ours and its vaccination rate is 12 percentage points higher. We have a uniquely dysfunctional political system — and it’s not clear that it can be fixed.
Our failure to manage the pandemic is of a piece with our failures to manage many other endemic ills. We have the weakest gun regulations among wealthy democracies and the highest level of gun violence. We are the only advanced democracy without universal health care — and our infant mortality rate is higher than in comparable countries. We have the weakest welfare state and the highest income inequality and poverty among G-7 countries. No wonder Europeans’ life expectancy is increasing while ours is declining.
Boot attributes our problems to a political system that he notes “was brilliantly designed for 1787 but has failed in 2021.”
In 1790, the largest state, Pennsylvania, had six times the population of the smallest, Rhode Island. Today, the largest state, California, has 68 times the population of the smallest, Wyoming. Yet California and Wyoming have the same number of U.S. senators…The overrepresentation of rural, conservative interests in the Senate is stunning: The 50 Republican senators represent nearly 40 million fewer voters than the 50 Democrats. Ending the filibuster can ameliorate this inequity, but there is no way to end it when just 13 states can block any constitutional amendment.
There is more, and you really need to click through and read Boot’s indictment in its entirety. It is particularly pertinent as we watch efforts by Democrats in the Senate to enact what ought to be considered minimal safeguards of the right to vote–and the adamant refusal of the minority White Supremacy Party to even consider them.
We can’t solve our multiple problems, or unleash the energies we need to confront global realities like pandemics and climate change, until we reform our creaky, undemocratic and increasingly counterproductive framework–and those reforms will be resisted by the minority of Americans that they privilege until the bitter end.
The question is: will the “bitter end” be the passage of democratic reforms? Or the final passage of America’s claim to national greatness?