Yesterday, in a rare moment of solitude I did something I've only done a handful of times since we've been in Albania: I turned on the television in the middle of the afternoon. Thanks to AFN, we have a limited ten channels of American television to choose from, which once you weed out the multiple soap operas (I didn't even realize that they still existed), the family channel broadcasting shows whose "family" status I question, and the program guide channel, left me with a choice between news and news. I opted for watching the news. Having narrowly "dodged" the fiscal cliff for the moment, both news channels were broadcasting live coverage of the new 113th Congress being sworn it. As I watched old white man after even older white man (despite a record number of women and minorities being recently elected) parade to the staging area for their swearing in photo op, I found myself zoning out the prattling of the commentators and thinking about the structure of the American political system in general.
America's democratic form of government is one that is envied and often replicated (or attempted to be replicated) by countries across the globe. Our democratic system allows us as voters to elect our representatives who in turn are supposed to advocate for and represent our interests in Congress. When working well, it is a truly dynamic and incredible way of running a government. When it isn't working efficiently, however, we are left with a stagnant mess where no one's interests are being met. And unfortunately, the later has been more the case lately. I think it has taken my living overseas, in a country with an "emerging democracy" for me to truly see how dysfunctional our own government is at the moment.
The last Congress, the 112th, was reportedly the least productive in recent history (since 1947 anyway) in terms of enacting new legislation. Partisanship has become so rampant that, whether by principle or pure stubbornness, neither party has been willing to reach across the aisle in order to move things forward. In fact, some elected officials boasted about their unwillingness to work with members of the other party. (I bet these same people never played nice on the playground as kids). Last month's down to the wire fiscal cliff is a prime example of the behavior and lack of actions that have driven most of the past political year. As the country dangled over the edge of the fiscal cliff, Congressmen and women from both parties publicly bemoaned that they weren't happy with the emerging outcomes since they had been forced to give up issues of importance to them. That is what compromise is all about. Everyone gives a little to achieve the best possible outcome. (I am NOT commenting on the merits of the final bill; that is a conversation for a future blog post).
So my question is this: Is Congress truly reflective of the United States? Yes, with both men and women, Blacks, Whites, Hispanics, and Asians; and Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists, like American itself, this congressional body has become more diverse. There are liberals intermingled with conservatives, people in the middle of the road and Tea Partiers (what exactly do all of these labels really mean anyway?). What disturbs me the most, however, is how proudly partisan everyone seems to have become. I worry that this indeed is also reflective of America as a whole. Are we really that unwilling or unable to compromise. Can we really not see the other side of the issue and be willing to accept others whose values and beliefs differ from ours? If we can't do this and work together on all fronts, is our democracy really that more developed than those of "emerging democracies" around the world? Or do we just produce better sound bites?
I want to remain optimistic that the 113th Congress will be more productive than the 112th. I hope that they can hear each other and work together to achieve results that really put the interests of the United States first. Or maybe at this point I just want to see any results.... I am proud of America's democratic history and I can only hope that in the coming year(s) we will be a good example of what functioning democracies should look like.