- The Washington Times - Monday, June 19, 2006

The second of three excerpts.

How America has been put at grave risk can be understood by charting the evolution of three facets of our society captured by the phrases “culture,” “crusade” and “partisanship.” Throughout our history, when the excesses from each skewed our judgment, the nation fell into great danger. Failure after World War I to make a just peace in Europe and the Vietnam debacle arose from these excesses. When better angels prevailed, such as during and immediately following the Second World War, the nation could be inspired to greatness.

American culture today has become coarser reflected in part by our language, standards of social acceptability and practice of politics along with other examples too numerous to mention. In government, a gradual but steady corruption of this culture has taken place distorting and crippling good governance. Lobbying abuses are a dismal case study in how excesses in culture have been manifested and standards of what was once appropriate behavior replaced by the crassest forms of political greed rather than carrying out the public good.

Highly ideological, well-funded interest groups and constituencies are further symptoms of this pernicious trend. With agendas that may depart radically from the broader common welfare, these groups grow in number and influence and drown or crowd out much of mainstream America. Both the Republican and Democratic parties have become polarized and more hostile and adversarial to one another.

This is also a culture in which accountability of and in government has virtually disappeared. No high-level heads have rolled over Iraq and the erroneous certainty of the presence of WMD; for the unconscionable abuse of enemy combatants in the war on terror; or for the failed response to Hurricane Katrina. And, equally depressing, Congress’s lack of oversight has produced virtually no public outrage. Meanwhile, politics have become consumed with continuous campaigns staffed by political operatives who find attack and negative ads the most effective means of defending or defeating almost all issues, from health care to confirmation of Supreme Court justices.

One result is that truth, candor and fact have become subordinated to ideology and beliefs. “Spin” not substance rules. At the end of the day, it made little difference whether or not Saddam Hussein had WMD. The Bush administration was determined on war against Iraq.

Congress was not going to stand in its way. Too many politicians prefer the world as they would like to see it, not as it is, turning Descartes on his head (“I wish, therefore I am”). The absence of truth and fact also applies to spending bills and budgets that routinely underestimate costs and future cost escalation, usually by large margins.

As we are relearning measured in spilled blood and treasure in Iraq, the excessive appeal of crusades to redress social ills, crises and threats whether fighting poverty, disease and crime or ideological foes and when pursued with a “missionary zeal” — has put the nation at risk. We embarked on a crusade to democratize the Middle East beginning in Iraq. But neither the public nor Congress debated (or raised the issue in advance of) whether democratization of that region was a good or a bad idea or even feasible.

Partisanship is part of life. But today, partisanship has become excessive and bitter, eroding and breaking down many of the barriers that once protected ethical practices and reasoned judgment on both sides of the aisle. Winning has become the goal, no matter the means that are employed. The destructive character of partisanship is fueled by an around-the-clock media that often enflames the poisonous political atmosphere inimical to effective governance.

How do these facets come together? Even with one party controlling Congress and the White House, because few issues can be resolved with a majority or even a sizable plurality of support from balancing the budget to immigration reform, stalemate occurs. When it does not, legislation is often very diluted or badly drafted as with the Medicare Prescription Drug Bill, that grossly understated the costs and confused millions of American seniors did not understand how to obtain their medications, making the situation worse, not better. The point is that government has been overwhelmed by the challenges it faces and the inability to make tough choices.

There is no simple way to restore America’s promise and fix its government. Since constitutional and other institutional factors are resistant to change, surely in the near term, the only realistic target is corralling the excesses of culture, crusade and partisanship that are crippling government. Ideas about how to achieve this aim follow in the final installment. Readers will determine their worth.

Harlan Ullman, who writes for The Washington Times, is the author of “America’s Promise Restored: Preventing Culture, Crusade and Partisanship from Wrecking Our Nation.”

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