Skip to main content

Five reasons America is still in trouble

By David Rothkopf, Special to CNN
October 17, 2013 -- Updated 1039 GMT (1839 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Rothkopf: "Keeping up with the debt limit" seems like a seamy reality show
  • He says our political system is broken, national conversation is off-track
  • Washington ignores really big problems, focuses on everything but governing, he says
  • Rothkopf: Ultimately, we're to blame for not going to ballot box and forcing change

Editor's note: David Rothkopf writes regularly for CNN.com. He is CEO and editor-at-large of the FP Group, publishers of Foreign Policy magazine, and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Follow him on Twitter at @djrothkopf.

(CNN) -- I blame Kris Kardashian.

Think about it. Doesn't the most recent episode of "Keeping Up with the Debt Limit" feel more as though it were an E! production than one by C-SPAN? Hasn't it been as predictable, brief and of itself, as inconsequential as a Kardashian marriage, as odious as Kanye and as certain to lead to unhappiness as Lamar's reputed drug problem? Doesn't the pinheaded disconnect from reality seem familiar?

The problem is that it is easier to deal with the Kardashians than their counterparts in the Capitol. We can just change the channel. The reality is, we all depend on the U.S. government in enough ways that letting it turn into a repetitive, meaningless form of basic cable melodrama would be a formula for national catastrophe.

David Rothkopf
David Rothkopf

We should therefore try to draw lessons from this round of Beltway follies: what we must fix if our country is not to go the way of Kris and Bruce's marriage. Here are five critical problems we must address.

1. The political system is broken

Gerrymandering has caused House districts to be essentially "owned" by one party or the other. That makes general elections irrelevant. So it is primary voters who determine who runs, and they tend to be the more energized, activist voters of the left and right wings. The result? Extremes are rewarded and virtually ensured of re-election.

Add to that campaign finance rules that give disproportionate power to big money, and incumbents and Senate rules that give the minority and individual senators too much power, and you have system in which gridlock is virtually institutionalized. We need campaign finance reform, an end to gerrymandering and rules reform in both houses of Congress, and we need to make these initiatives a top political priority of America's centrist majority.

Romans: Worried about complacency
Congress passes deal to end shutdown
Kicking the can down the road

2. Our national conversation has gotten off-track

Promote extremist politicians and reward them for their extremism, and you get tension, incivility and a reluctance to embrace the compromise that is essential to democracy. Bring in the language of religion and culture wars, and the debate becomes about what divides us rather than what we need to bring us together, about our problems and not about their practical solutions.

Wedge issues then play a greater role in campaigns than new ideas. Opponents become enemies rather than neighbors with alternative views.

We need to defuse the language, edit the loaded terminology, reinvest in the separation of church and state and call out dangerously divisive ideas, racism, sexism and sheer stupidity, like denying science, history or basic arithmetic.

3. Governance has become a lost art

The least-valued skill set in Washington is the ability to actually get things done. We mistakenly believe that articulating a problem is the same thing as solving it. We reward those who give good speeches and not those who have a proven track record of fixing things.

Politicians are too often elected because they advance an ideology, and when they serve, they inevitably focus on what they need to do to be re-elected. But their jobs were created to serve the public, to govern and to lead, even if that means making their positions of power more precarious. We need to start voting for people who have proved their skill at bridging partisan divides and focusing on the needs of the electorate.

4. We are ignoring the really big problems

We are trapped in a cycle of punting problems ahead a few months and chipping away at the margins of issues. When this shutdown/debt-limit crisis is finally resolved, we will have a few months until it recurs. If a deal is struck before another crisis happens, it will be incremental.

Yet America has much bigger issues: a too-slow recovery from a great economic setback, an inability to create good jobs at the rate of past recoveries and, perhaps above all, a failure to address the growing inequality that is dividing our society.

It is not just an economic quirk that 90% of the benefits of the current recovery are accruing to the top 10% of our society; it is a formula for social breakdown and national decline. It is also profoundly unjust. We need to start demanding that leaders address these bigger issues.

5. The American people have failed their government ... and each other

You can't blame the politicians. You elected them. You turned away from the system. You didn't run for office. You didn't write your views down and pass them along to people in power. You didn't fund campaigns that supported people committed to big solutions.

You have become ill-informed, caught up in the name-calling and the partisanship and the climate that created the Washington we have today. You've got the government you deserve. Remember, according to the Constitution, the top job in the U.S. government goes to the voter. If these clowns in Washington can't get it right and you don't fire them, you deserve what you get.

This is not reality television, even though it feels as pointless. This is just reality. And reality, in this democracy, is what the voters make of it. You can't blame Obama or Boehner. Scarily enough, the TV screen, whether it shows the Kardashians or C-SPAN or cable news, is just a mirror, a reflection of what America wants and is.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Rothkopf.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 0127 GMT (0927 HKT)
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT