On Wednesday, the government shutdown ended, and America narrowly avoided defaulting on its loans. Republicans caved, getting pretty much none of what they wanted except a vague, noncommittal commitment to cut entitlement spending; the crisis thus brought no benefits for either side.
No matter whose fault the whole debacle was, the fact that it ever got to this point is a sad reflection on all of our parts.
It is a truism of democracies that “every nation gets the government it deserves.” Look at the state of our government: For the past seven years, it’s fluctuated between barely functional and non-functional. Yet, for some reason, we keep perpetuating a Congress that can at best pass small-scale, piecemeal policies.
The rest of the world has noticed America’s increasing inability to function, too. Governments around the world are taking the prospect that America may actually default on its debts seriously — a scenario that, if realized, will have catastrophic consequences for worldwide economics and that, even if avoided, will have struck a permanent blow against this country’s reputation.
A telling indication of the world’s faltering faith in the United States’ stability is the eroding global trust in U.S. Treasury bonds, up until now considered one of the safest investments one could make. Though the bonds retain their positive perception, it’s another sign, like the Standard & Poor’s downgrading of America’s credit rating two years ago, that the world’s only superpower is losing its grip.
Again, America’s decline is much too big a phenomenon to be pinned on one figure or party alone. Rather, the atrophy is the product of a political system that no longer works.
Our economic and political woes point to a still larger problem. Our government seems to have lost sight of the unifying vision that made this country great in the first place: the notion of a city on a hill, of a nation whose internal character matched its external, that treated both its own and other nations’ citizens with respect, that had a guiding moral and legal framework that informed its decisions.
Today America’s foreign and domestic policies seem hopelessly muddled. Our government spies on its own and other citizens, collecting the most intimate details of our lives without any plausible justification; we impede with impunity on other nations’ sovereignty with drone strikes and raids (like the recent ones in Libya and Somalia); we let petty politics endanger our security and defund vital social services; we regularly flout international treaties.
Yet at the same time we, as well as the representatives we elect, seem to think America still has a monopoly on exceptionalism. We criticize Egypt and Turkey’s human rights violations, Russia’s democratic standards, China’s economic policies and Iran’s nuclear program. It’s not that the U.S. is necessarily off-base in these criticisms, but that we apply our moral compass to other countries without judging ourselves. American exceptionalism, the idea of a city on a hill — those were supposed to be guiding principles that made us the example for other countries to follow.
Now, though, it seems that exceptionalism means that our government can behave irresponsibly and our military can act with little to no regard for international standards — generally, that we can disregard the very standards we set forth for other countries.
It’s not too late for America to save itself from ceding world leadership to another country. But to remain great, this country must turn inward and rediscover the principles upon which it was founded.