It’s been sixteen months since my last entry, which is absolutely unconscionable given all that’s happened in the interim. Nothing terribly important, of course, merely:
— an attempted coup d’état;
— a failed effort to hold Donald Trump to account for the January 6 insurrection via a dysfunctional impeachment mechanism;
— the Afghan debacle;
— an ongoing effort by the GOP to re-engineer the electoral process so that a Democrat never enters the White House again;
— the great Biden collapse;
— gathering economic storm clouds;
— and a looming war with Russia, proud owner of more than six thousand nuclear warheads.
As I said, nothing important – unless, that is, you regard a terminal crisis affecting the global hegemon as noteworthy, at which point it becomes a very important indeed.
What’s it all mean? Simply that America’s long-running constitutional breakdown is reaching a critical stage. Every day brings a new horror story as the crisis intensifies. One moment it’s an unaccountable Supreme Court moving to overturn Roe v. Wade despite polls showing public support running at a whopping 72 percent. The next it’s the death and destruction of “Build Back Better,” Joe Biden’s highly flawed but nonetheless popular legislative program. Op-ed pages feature articles acknowledging that something is wrong with America’s 234-year-old constitutional system and that perhaps the Founders were not as foresighted as they are usually made out to be. But no one has a clue as what to do next.
The problem with the Constitution is that its greatest strength, i.e. its Gibraltar-like solidity, turns out to be its greatest weakness since it renders the system all but immune to structural reform. The amending clause set forth in Article V is a disaster in the same way that the three-fifth clause in Article I was a disaster in the years leading up to the Civil War. Both immobilize the system at precisely the moment when change is most pressing. Article V’s two-thirds rule, which says that any constitutional change must be approved by two-thirds of each house, means that 34 senators representing as little as 7.4 percent of the country can block any structural reform sought by the other 92.6. The three-fourths rule, which says that proposed amendments must also gain the approval of three-fourths of the states, is even worse since it allows thirteen states representing as little as 4.4 percent do the same.
The result is that less than one person in 23 can just say no to whatever the rest have to offer, not for years or decades, but in perpetuity. This would be bad enough if the problem consisted of just a few minor design flaws. But it doesn’t. Rather, the problem before us is an 18th-century constitution whose basic thrust is utterly at odds with the needs of modern democracy. Checks and balances and separation of powers are as out of date as leeches and exorcism. Yet they’re all the Founders left us to deal with a growing list of modern maladies. The entire rickety contraption is in desperate need of a re-think from top to bottom, yet Article V rules out even the most modest tinkering. America is thus stuck with a pre-modern constitution that is dragging it into the lower depths, yet which it can do nothing to shake off.
Americans want reform so badly that they can practically taste it. But like Tantalus, the Greek god neck-deep in water that would recede whenever he lowered his mouth, it finds that it’s always beyond reach. So it will remain as long as this idiotic system stays in power – which, hopefully, won’t be for long.
Organ failure meanwhile leads to a diminished flow of oxygen to the brain, which is why political leadership is declining so dramatically. American politicians weren’t always this stupid. Barack Obama actually had some semi-smart things to say on occasion, although Putin still ran rings around him in Syria and the Ukraine. But the quality of leadership since then has fallen off a cliff. Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden – what can one say about such sorry specimens except that each has proved worse than the next? Clinton and Biden played leading roles in pushing through the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the single most disastrous decision in US foreign policy since Vietnam, and while Trump clearly exaggerated his own opposition to the war, the fact remains that he turned against it within a matter of months whereas Biden continued supporting it until 2008 while Clinton did so until 2014 when it was clear that she’d never get the Democratic nomination if she didn’t beat a retreat. Trump’s sins pale in comparison to such blindness. Russiagate, which every Democrat touted at the top of his or her lungs during the Trump years, was little more than a liberal version of QAnon, an absurd conspiracy theory about the Kremlin supposedly using $44,000 worth of Facebook ads to subvert the electoral system and take over the White House. It was too far-fetched even for a loyal anti-Trump foot soldier like Robert Mueller, which is why he was forced to admit that collusion was unprovable. But top Dems like the odious Adam Schiff continue to cling to it as if it were the gospel.
And now we have Biden leading us into war in the Ukraine. The imbecility of a needless conflict with Russia is simply staggering. It’s as if no one in Washington had ever read or even heard of Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August (1962), a tale about how European powers allowed themselves to be dragged into an unwinnable conflict in 1914 simply because they were too feeble-minded or timid to throw the locomotive of war into reverse. To be sure, imperial conflicts sometimes acquire a momentum beyond the control of ordinary statesmen. But at least they know when they’re stumbling into disaster whereas Biden, Blinken, and the rest seem to have no historical consciousness at all. They’re children living eternally in the present, yet that’s the only sort of leadership that the brain-dead American political system seems capable of generating at the moment.
All hegemons fall victim to imperial overstretch. So we know from Paul Kennedy’s Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987), another cautionary tale that no one in Washington seems to have read. Yet not only is the US falling into the same trap by looking for trouble in no less than three theaters of war, not only the Black Sea but the Persian Gulf and the South China Sea as well, but it’s also falling victim to political and economic disaster. Government has stopped working, politicians have stopped thinking, generals have stopping winning, and Wall Street is going into a swoon. Collapse is over-determined, as the sociologists say, which is why the mood in Washington is so grim – and likely to grow even grimmer as the years unfold.
We’ll all have an opportunity watch what happens when the roof caves in. The coming period should thus be … interesting. I promise to do a better job covering the next stage of the crisis than I did in the previous.