Anybody who has been able to find a basis for a belief in an effective, functioning American system of governance in the last decade has clearly not been paying attention. It was a system, designed before the invention of the telegraph to intentionally be ponderous and heavily biased against change. From the founding documents to the bicameral legislature to the three co-equal branches, the American political system of governance has always functioned only sporadically, and even then on the basis of a set of norms and gentleman's agreements that had no power behind them. Can you imagine a functioning parliamentary system that depends on Unanimous Consent for it's most basic operational functions?
And yet, we pretended. Our politicians pretended, our pundits pretended, our journalists and historians and political scientists and economists all pretended that everything was working just the way it was intended, and that while we were perhaps seeing a particularly virulent outbreak of partisanship, there was nothing inherently wrong with the system itself - when you talk about Washington DC, when you talk about Congress and the Senate and the President you were talking about America, a sacrosanct set of institutions that made this country the BEST COUNTRY IN THE WORLD!!
Sure, there was a kerfuffle in 2005 over the Filibuster, then being wielded by a Democratic minority, with Bill Frist threatening to go Nuclear to put an end to those Democratic filibusters, and there have been a few half-hearted discussions around Congressional reform, but it's almost impossible to imagine anything coming of it - it's like asking third graders to police the playground. And I assure you, when the Republican Senators talk about how close they came to what would have amounted to unilateral disarmament in '05, they shudder and promise sheepishly NEVER AGAIN.
And yet, suddenly, today we find the Internet all abuzz over a speech given by former military/intelligence honcho Bob Gates two weeks ago in Philadelphia, where, in the finest tradition of young men in the presence of dishabille emperors, he called attention to the somewhat desultory functioning of America's governing institutions:
"I do believe that we are now in uncharted waters when it comes to the dysfunction in our political system--and it is no longer a joking matter...It appears that as a result of several long-building, polarizing trends in American politics and culture, we have lost the ability to execute even the basic functions of government much less solve the most difficult and divisive problems facing the country. Thus, I am more concerned than I have ever been about the state of American governance."
Now, Robert Gates is the consummate DC insider, an impeccably credentialed Republican who has served at the head of a number of gigantic American bureaucracies, so you have to realize just what a Cassandra-like cry of impending disaster this really is - and you can't be overly disappointed that he didn't come out and name names (and parties). The truth is there to be seen, between his carefully chosen lines, and even for those who reserve all blame for the Democratic party and the godless liberals and socialists they empower with their misguided policies, there is no longer room to pretend the system continues to function on any level.
It's not the tea party, or budget policy, or levels of taxation or government spending that is why we are doomed, any more than it is Medicare or Social Security or the Affordable Care Act. It is a system of governance designed for a different time, governing a smaller, more homogeneous nation in a time of horse and sail, one that is simply unable to meet the demands and challenges of the twenty first century, and one that continues to be exploited by small, venal, greedy men and women who stand to gain more wealth and power through a strategic failure of governance than they ever would have were they to act in the interests of their constituents.
This system that cannot govern, that cannot be repaired by those who busily exploit its every failing, that is readily co-opted but cannot be used to solve real problems, this is ultimately why we need Occupy Wall Street and similar movements. Their focus at this point is on the banks and financial "Masters of the Universe" who are using creative new methods to make certain that more and more of the available wealth in the world accrues to them, and them alone, but ultimately, when their message can no longer be ignored and, without legitimacy, their opponents have lost every fight, when their movement seeks to implement the justice they will have spilled blood to regain, they will discover that nothing can be implemented, that lone rump wholly-owned corrupt politicians can block them every step of the way, and they will discover at long last what this fight was really about.
So just as it is a straight line from Tahrir Square to the Wall Street protests, so is it then to Bob Gates. This coal mine has a canary, and while the message is subdued and somewhat cryptic, it is the very first crack in the wall that protects dysfunction in the name of democracy, and hides from change behind the bastions of the status quo. It's hard to predict what America will look like with a new system of government, but it increasingly looks as if we're going to have the opportunity to find out.