The U.S. is at a crucial point in defining its direction

By David Ignatius
Sunday, February 28, 2010

On the day last week when President Obama was hosting his health-care summit -- and struggling to make a fractured political system work -- a quiet event was taking place on Capitol Hill that celebrated a moment when political will and idealism fused to produce the liberation of millions of people.

The gathering in the Capitol commemorated the address that Czech President Vaclav Havel made 20 years ago to a joint session of Congress in which he proclaimed his country's new freedom, and that of other previously captive nations of Eastern Europe, from the Soviet Union.

Havel gave a brilliant speech, perhaps most of all for its affirmation that political destiny is not fixed by material forces, as Soviet Marxists had claimed, but is a product of people and ideas. At the center of the speech was this passage: "The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and in human responsibility."

I have in my study a little chunk of the Berlin Wall, which is a reminder that political life is not immutable. Empires, good and evil, arise in our world, and they fall, too, based largely on whether their political systems have the strength and suppleness to solve problems.

It was difficult last week to be sanguine about the health of American politics. Measured by the simple test of whether it can solve problems, the system isn't working. Obama's struggle to pass health-care legislation is the most striking current example of this impasse. But the same dysfunction was evident when the administration of George W. Bush tried to pass a reasonably enlightened response to illegal immigration. Efforts to fix the system seem to vanish into the vortex of partisanship and special-interest corruption.

"History has accelerated," Havel said in his speech. That surely remains true, but it doesn't necessarily mean that it's moving forward. You can have reverse acceleration in politics, too.

This idea of accelerating decline is the subject of a powerful essay by Harvard historian Niall Ferguson in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs. His idea is that political empires are complex, adaptive systems in which small changes can produce disproportionately large differences in outcomes. We think of the decline and fall of Rome, say, as taking place over a long period as decay rots through the system.

But, in fact, says Ferguson, the process of decline can be sudden and convulsive. The Roman Empire's final collapse "came within the span of a single generation," he says. The unraveling of the Ming dynasty "took little more than a decade." The Soviet Union's demise came less than five years after Mikhail Gorbachev took power promising to reform the system.

Ferguson's historical gloss is meant as an object lesson for the United States, of course. As the cover headline for his article warns ominously, "When the American empire goes, it is likely to go quickly."

I hear people worrying more and more that our political system is broken. Sen. Evan Bayh said it when he announced that he wouldn't run for reelection. Sen. John McCain said it often during his long battle for campaign-finance reform. President Obama says it, one way or another, almost every week. It's the one thing that Democrats and Republicans seem to agree on.

And yet, it's the problem that nobody is able to fix: We've had waves of conservative and liberal resurgence over the past three decades. But the consistent trend amid these cycles, I would argue, is growing political dysfunction, no matter who is running Congress and the White House.

It's usually a mistake to bet against America, as financier Warren Buffett likes to say, given our flexible economy and adaptive political system. The American system seemed at an impasse in the years before the Civil War, and again during the presidency of Herbert Hoover, and once again during the presidency of Jimmy Carter. But it survived these crises and went on to prosper as never before.

Havel described America's special gift this way: "You have thousands of problems of all kinds, as other countries do. But you have one great advantage: You have been approaching democracy uninterruptedly for more than 200 years."

But the system doesn't guarantee success. Good nations can go into decline, too, when they lose their ability to respond to trouble.

Obama tried a new approach Thursday to breaking the logjam, gathering both parties around one big table. He makes a good prime minister, but the party of inertia is strong.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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