Chalk it up to the doleful combination of my approaching 55th birthday and too many hours spent watching the budget debates on C-Span, but I have the sad feeling of watching America coming apart at the seams.

I'm talking, of course, about the painful-to-watch efforts of the House, the Senate and the White House to work out a budget that encompasses a fair distribution of benefits and tax liabilities while also reducing a budget deficit that threatens to put our grandchildren in hock. But I'm talking about far more than that.

I'm talking about more even than the normal give and take among the various sectors and ideologies of the society. What we are witnessing, it seems to me, is a near-total breakdown of the American society into warring component parts.

Congress has cobbled together -- and the president has signed -- an omnibus spending measure that will put the government back in business after a three-day shutdown. But this stopgap measure, which gives the legislators another week or so to work out the details of program cuts and tax increases, leaves the fundamental problem unaddressed.

That problem is the inability, more institutional than personal, of the political leadership to act in the interest of the nation.

In one sense, it has always been that way. Legislators from farm states look after farmers' interests; those from manufacturing states take care of heavy industry; those from oil-producing states make sure that oil gets its special breaks. But up to now, there has always been a critical mass of politicians with the gumption and character to rise above regional imperatives and -- at least during national crises -- assert a national interest.

We used to call them statesman. I've seen precious little statesmanship these past weeks. Oh, a few men and women in Congress have evoked the danger of refusing to address seriously the deficit crisis. Some have expressed the selfishness of sticking future generations with the bill for our profligacy; some have talked about the impact of the deficit on near-term economic growth.

But mostly the talk is about "fairness." Fairness to the middle class, who mostly pay the bills; fairness to the rich, whose investments are the fuel on which industry runs; fairness to the poor, to women, to minorities, to children, to retirees. Hardly anyone speaks convincingly in the national interest. It's almost as though there is no national interest, apart from the aggregate interests of the various components.

A part of the reason may be that most Americans see the deficit as little more than a theoretical notion with no bearing on anything they consider real. And because of that, the legislator who puts the national interest above the interests of his constituents risks being turned out of office.

But I think it is bigger than that, and not limited to the federal budget. The whole society seems to be disintegrating into special interests. Minorities press for affirmative action less (it seems to me) out of a desire to increase the amount of justice in the land than to guarantee special consideration for themselves. College campuses are being ripped apart by the insistence of one group after another on proving their victimization at the hands of white males and, therefore, their right to special exemptions and privileges.

For example, the Federal Aviation Administration recently adopted a rule that would bar emergency exit-row seating to passengers who are blind, deaf, obese, frail or otherwise likely to inhibit movement during an emergency evacuation. Common sense? Only if you think of the common interests of all the passengers. Surely it is reasonable to have those emergency seats occupied by people who can hear the instructions of the crew, read the directions for operating the emergency doors and assist other passengers in their escape.

But some organizations representing the deaf, blind and otherwise disabled reacted to the regulation only as a form of discrimination against their clients, who, they insist, have a "right" to the emergency seats.

It is true that the majority must never be allowed to run roughshod over the rights of minorities. That is one of the tenets of the American system. But the notion of fairness to particular groups as an element of fairness to the whole has been perverted into a wholesale jockeying for group advantage.

Mutual fairness, with regard to both rights and responsibilities, can be the glue that bonds this polyglot society into a nation. Single-minded pursuit of group advantage, whether on Capitol Hill or elsewhere, threatens to rip us apart at the seams.