January 23rd, 2015 // 7:04 am @ Oliver DeMille
Land of the Free Land of Decay
These days, the word “decline” is frequently used to describe the United States. Where “China” is often paired with words and phrases like “rising,” “new superpower,” and “number one,” a different set of adjectives show up when the U.S. is discussed.
This trend recently reached a new low when the cover story on Foreign Affairs was entitled, “See America: Land of Decay and Dysfunction.”
Wow! And we thought “decline” was bad. But decay? And dysfunction? That’s hitting below the belt.
It gets even more interesting, however.
The Players and The Played
The article goes on to suggest that the cause of this “decay” and “dysfunction” is the power of various special interest groups. This is a popular argument, mainly because almost everyone loves to blame special interest groups.
But this proposition bears scrutiny. Indeed, if special interest groups really are the reason for America getting off track, it is one of the most important topics of our time.
In reality, however, something else is at play here. Yes, of course, special interest groups are a serious problem to the precise extent that they “control” government. But why do they control our government? Who allows this? It certainly isn’t written in the Constitution.
Francis Fukuyama, who wrote the Foreign Affairs article, notes that the classic book The Semisovereign People gets to the heart of our challenge. In short, voters are highly swayed by the two big political parties, by the media, and by special interest groups. Special interest groups “control” Washington because they set out to control the parties and the media.
The Madisonian idea of sovereignty in the people (that the voters have the final say in who their leaders are, and what their leaders can and can’t do) is undermined when voters are easily swayed. Period.
Semisovereignty—where the voters do what special interests convince them to do through the media and political parties—is an entirely different political arrangement. It is more like an aristocratic, elite, oligarchy than a democratic republic.
That’s where we are today. And, in according to this analysis, it is the source—not merely a source, but the root—of our decline, decay, and dysfunction. The voters, in this view, don’t know better than to vote as they are told by the interest groups, parties, and media.
This causes them to mistrust government, vote against higher taxes, and remain frustrated with Washington—no matter what it does. The touted “solution?” Be more like a European parliamentary system.
Sadly, too many people are buying in to this flawed narrative.
The problem with this entire analysis is that it is partially true, but not actually true. Meaning what?
Let’s get specific: The fundamental reason for decline, decay, and dysfunction is not a lack voter influence, but rather the exact opposite. American voters—the majority, at least—want more government services than they want to pay for. They want other people to pay for them.
Where We Build From
They want their government services, and they want them on Henry the Fifth terms. In other words, the typical American voter (let’s call him Tom) wants Washington to cut other peoples’ government programs—but none that directly benefit Tom or his family. That’s the crux of our decline and decay. Pure and simple.
Tom votes for the candidate promising that Tom’s favorite government programs will be protected while Alice’s “socialistic” programs will be cut. Alice, in turn, votes for the candidate who supports her “essential” government benefits while promising to cut Tom’s “greedy” or “imperialistic” programs.
Political parties, special interest groups, and media only dominate American politics because Tom and Alice—and a majority of other voters—take this approach. And our decline is assured if the cost of our government programs continues to depend primarily on debt.
Until Tom and Alice, or a majority of voters are willing to elect candidates who will end our debt-dependence and spend within our means (however hard the choices), the parties, lobbies, and media outlets will continue to sway the vote.
Don’t let the media, or anyone else, fool you. We are in decline because the electorate refuses to make the hard choice of fiscal and moral responsibility. Until we do, we’ll be a nation based fundamentally on debt—not principle.
Such a nation is…always…a nation in decline, decay, and dysfunction.
For solutions, see Oliver’s new book: The U.S. Constitution and the 196 Indispensable Principles of Freedom
Oliver DeMille is the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestselling co-author of LeaderShift: A Call for Americans to Finally Stand Up and Lead, the co-founder of the Center for Social Leadership, and a co-creator of TJEd.
Among many other works, he is the author of A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the 21st Century, The Coming Aristocracy, and FreedomShift: 3 Choices to Reclaim America’s Destiny.
Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.