As we enter 2019, the question that looms over America is simple: Can we govern? The answer is no. Unless this changes — truly a long shot — the new year may be as disappointing as the old.
Our society seems handcuffed by unsolvable problems: large and persistent budget deficits; global warming; uncontrolled immigration; an aging population; an underfunded military; hardened political animosities.
In a democratic society, governing is an exercise in farsighted self-interest. It involves making wise choices: taking steps that improve the nation’s long-term prospects, even if the initial effects are unpopular and painful. The inability to do this is a defining characteristic of our age.
We face constant paralysis. President Trump has made a bad situation worse with self-centered and offensive rhetoric, misguided policies, and gratuitous cruelty. Still, he did not invent today’s political dysfunction and the odds are that it will not vanish once he does.
Look at the nearby table. It shows falling confidence in society’s major political institutions (Congress, the presidency and the Supreme Court) and the news media, as reflected in Gallup surveys. Respondents were asked whether they have “a great deal,” “quite a lot,” “some,” or “very little” confidence in various institutions. The table combines answers for “a great deal” and “quite a lot.”
Surveys also ask whether we can “trust the federal government to do what is right just about always [or] most of the time.” Confidence peaked at 77 percent in 1964, when people still remembered victory in World War II and postwar prosperity had neutralized fears of another Great Depression. Response rates now cluster around a dismal 20 percent.
Trust implies that you keep your word and are who you claim to be. In his book “Can Governments Earn Our Trust?” political scientist Donald Kettl of the University of Texas attributes the loss of trust to complaints about governmental waste, growing political polarization, and an explosion of interest groups — both economic and ideological.
“As more interests have become better organized, they have gained more control over government decisions,” Kettl argues. “Government tends to reflect their preferences, not the preferences of the citizens as a whole.”
Government is also expected to do so much for so many — prevent recessions, solve global warming, eliminate poverty, raise living standards, regulate immigration, end racism, improve schools ... and much more — that it is bound to fall short and disappoint.
Goals collide; there are stalemates over means and ends. Worse, many problems cannot be “solved” in some ultimate sense. Improvements, yes; utopia, no. Does anyone really think we can eliminate all poverty for all time? The government’s role as the National Problem Solver is limited in practice.
So, can we govern? Apparently not. We are not making the choices that might better prepare us for the future. Democracies do not do well at supporting present sacrifices for hypothetical and distant gains. There is little public support for anything much different. We want our political leaders to be honest, but if they were honest, they would — almost certainly — become immensely unpopular.
Honesty would compel Republicans to admit that the country cannot afford huge tax cuts (or even small tax cuts) and that higher defense spending actually requires tax increases. Honesty would compel Democrats to cut some social spending — to curb deficits — and to acknowledge that combating global warming would require draconian carbon taxes or highly intrusive regulations.
Any politician who indulged in this sort of candor would, almost certainly, become an ex-politician. Not only is there an unwillingness from most politicians to come to grips with the costs of government, but their avoidance enjoys substantial public support. The result is that most of our entrenched problems, from an underfunded military to an aging society, are left largely unattended.
The obsession with Trump, while understandable, melodramatic, and nerve-racking, draws our attention away from these long-term problems. We have a system of government that is shaped by the past and indifferent to the future. The collective wish, shared by both parties, is that we will muddle through. It is not impossible, but it’s a big gamble.
ROBERT SAMUELSON is a conservative American columnist.