Foreign Governments Exploit Our Dysfunctional Politics
Congratulations to the Republican members of the House of Representatives. The lunatic fringe has overpowered the last vestiges of moderation within their former political party and selected one of its worst, Mike Johnson of Louisiana, as their new Speaker.
But this is essay is not really about the Republican embrace of authoritarianism, election denial, misogyny and Christian dominionism, except in that it’s a symptom of a deeply ill civilization. Nor is this essay really about that, except that the disintegration of the American union is on view to the entire world.
The world today is witnessing in Ukraine, Gaza and the South China Sea the collapse of the American democratic-capitalist empire, the post-World War II order guaranteed by the enormous political, economic and military power of the United States. For 80 years, we and much of the world have assumed American power was secure as long as our military reigned supreme. We never thought that American dominance would be threatened by our own inability to govern ourselves.
Whether you and your neighbors believe that the American-managed network of world security is fracturing is irrelevant. What Congress or the White House believe is also irrelevant. What Wall Street or Main Street believes is of no matter.
It is what the world sees. It is what China, after 20 years of projecting its economic influence through much of the world and now flexing its military power in Asia and beyond, sees. It is what Russia, striving to rebuild its Soviet-era empire and prestige, sees. It is what Iran, asserting its power inthe Islamic world, sees. And it is what the architects of the expansion of the BRICS economic bloc see.
(BRICS stands for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.)
The world is not stupid. It can see that the United States has not had a reliable government for decades.
The world can also see that the U.S. is running out of band-aids. With each failed ballot for a new House Speaker, with each threat to shut down the government, with each down-to-the-wire raising of the debt limit, with each politically-inspired Supreme Court ruling, with each claim that we are incapable of conducting a democratic election, with each slow, half-hearted effort to punish people who have threatened our democratic system, we broadcast to the world that we are incapable of performing the most basic functions of governance.
We’re not talking policies here; we’re talking the simple mechanics of operating a government.
China, Iran, Russia and everyone else can see that we no longer have a functioning consensus-driven government capable of assuring and enforcing the order we imposed on the world. If you were a national leader intent on expanding your nation’s influence and power, what would you do but take advantage?
You can look around for various external storms marking the beginning of the end — humiliations in Vietnam, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan — but, as with once mighty trees, wind and rain don’t destroy empires until the rot is so thorough that a final gust comes along and the empire simply falls over.
Rot takes a long time, and many people, on the left or the right, can point to one inflection point or another. For my money, I point to the radicalization of the Republican Congress when the former bomb-throwing back-bencher New Gingrich took the seat of the House Speaker in 1995.
Gingrich operated the House or Representatives as a French-style parliament with him as a prime minister leading a majority not from the president’s party. The French presidency is a powerful position, but an opposition parliament can gum up the works. That’s what Gingrich did. He shaped the Republican party into the “disloyal opposition” party.
Unlike France, however, the U.S. system cannot function without consensus and compromise. But ever since the Gingrich era, Republicans in Congress, first in the House but now in the Senate, too, have just played spoilers. Ruthlessly authoritarian, anti-democratic and opposed to compromising when they have sufficient power, ruthlessly obstructionist when they don’t.
With the new Speaker, the world will see another year of do-nothing, know-nothing government, a dysfunctional superpower, an empire collapsing. You can be certain that China, Iran, Russia and whatever other would-be pretenders there are will act accordingly.