Skip to main content

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.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

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

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 3:28 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT