All the millions of words about the extreme intransigence of the Tea Party, or the spendthrift European-style politics of debt and decline led by President Barack Obama, seek to lay blame via a conveniently one-eyed partisan lens that explains the gridlock and flirting with shutdown and default. The truth is Congress has always been extremely inefficient, operating as a system of entrenched bribery, where pork-barrel politics is practised shamelessly and unrelentingly in exchange for votes.
What has raised the stakes, in addition to the emergence of uncompromising Republican and Democrat blocs, is a sense that a red line needs to be drawn across the US's level of indebtedness. This reflects the sense of vulnerability in American households. During the past 25 years, the median income of American households has declined by 6 per cent, in inflation-adjusted terms. The median net worth of households has similarly stagnated. The ''wealth effect'' of rising home values has evaporated.
Over the same period, the cost of healthcare, in real terms, has doubled. The cost of a university degree has almost doubled. Productivity has soared 60 per cent while wages have risen only 6 per cent. Corporate profits are the highest in almost 100 years. The remuneration of chief executives is the highest in history, while they cull the workforce.
Advertisement I spent a weekend on Cape Cod among people I regard as wealthy. One was a man I had not met before, Malcolm Pollack, who, like many of my American friends (most of them Democrats), articulated a sense of unease about the pressures on the American middle class. At my request, he later elaborated in an email:
''We are afflicted with many ills but if there is a single pathology that would all by itself be enough to lay this nation in its grave, it is the mind-virus of radical non-discrimination.
''All the rest of it, the creeping socialism, the trashing and effeminisation of the culture, the breakdown of the republic in favour of raw democracy and centralisation, the disintegration of the family … the decoupling of folly from its consequences and the erosion of individual responsibility … All of that we could survive, I think, if we felt that we were one people.
''Socialism, at least in the milder Scandinavian forms, can work well enough but only if there is the social cohesion that naturally arises in a people who are joined together by history, folklore, language, music, literature, ritual and the natural kinship that arises from a broad commonality of ancestry. There are, indeed, sound evolutionary reasons for this. Absent that, though, there will be trouble.
''I see our political polarisation getting worse, not better … The prognosis for the middle class is very bad indeed … There is an unholy alliance between big business and the Democrats regarding mass immigration. Business sees cheap labor while the Democrats eye an expanding constituency of new consumers of government services and more government employees to distribute them.''
Even if you disagree with his arguments, he is a good polemicist, especially for someone not in the business. (He is a music engineer.) He exemplifies the grassroots upswell reflected in the politics in Washington, the sense of excessive debt, of the need for two household incomes just to hold the line.
Which brings me to God, Robert Caro, who enjoys a deified status in American journalism. I met Caro at Harvard University two weeks ago when he was the keynote speaker at a reunion of Nieman Fellows (which includes Caro). He is the author of what, I believe, is the greatest biography ever written, the four volumes collectively titled The Years of Lyndon Johnson, a 3000-page masterpiece that has occupied him, so far, for 39 years full-time. Caro, who has won two Pulitzer prizes, will turn 78 at the end of this month but still goes to the office every day. He is working on volume five.
It took Edward Gibbon 22 years to write the six-volume The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Caro's project is even more ambitious. He told his audience at Harvard that his project is much more than a biography. It is a forensic examination of the way power is acquired and used. The four Johnson volumes, together with his earlier Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Power Broker, form the most definitive study of the exercise of power in the most important democracy in history. They are also brilliantly written.
Caro thinks it will take a new kind of leader exercising new techniques of power to break the sclerosis in Washington, using methods not yet seen. Asked if he thought there was a figure in Washington today who had Johnson's capacity to push through significant reforms, someone capable of breaking through the politics of impasse, his answer was as direct as it was discouraging: ''No.''
By : Paul Sheehan