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Five reasons America is still in trouble

By David Rothkopf, Special to CNN
updated 6:39 AM EDT, Thu October 17, 2013
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.

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

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