Yale University

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Is America on Life Support?

Robert Hilgendorf

August 13, 2013

Category: Society > Government and Politics

Americans are facing critical decision points on a broad front of economic and political issues, and our creditor, China, is on the economic rise. The cultural tsunami of electronic media has washed over all of us and particularly our younger generation leaving many of them and us disconnected from public life. Congress is in gridlock. The only national institution capable of deciding the most important political and social questions is the Supreme Court and it is deciding monumental issues by a one-vote majority. 

The Republicans will not let President Obama or the Congress move to implement the agenda he believes his election mandated. In fact, even though the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Obamacare, the power of the purse strings are held by the House, which is threatening to cut off the flow of money to implement that statute without huge concessions on his part to agree to dramatically cut the Federal budget or cut taxes. So the limits of the courts on fiscal matters are clear.

Fortunately the rule of law prevails in the United States in a way that is the envy of many other nations, including China. So long as lawyers are free to operate in our society free from government restraint, and the public accepts the courts' decisions, our society will continue to function, however inefficiently.  

A recent article in The New York Times reported that the Chinese government had detained a prominent civil-rights advocate, Xu Zhiyong, for unlawful assembly. His lawyer, Liu Weiguo, said that the authorities had refused to give Mr. Xu a license to practice as a lawyer, cramping his efforts to use litigation to force reform. Liu was quoted as saying, "In China we say that the best lawyers are the ones who can't obtain a license." Fortunately American lawyers are guided by ethics (hopefully) and not subject to government control.

But lawyers cannot change the basic structure of our political system. The vision of our founding fathers in creating a political system protecting the rights of states and rural populations has led to blue and red states, but few purple ones. Purple states might elect "purple" senators and representatives who could form a core of politicians who could tip the balance toward the national interest on key issues. But unfortunately the middle-of-the-road candidates do not win in highly partisan primaries.   

If America is to be resuscitated we must all recognize the need to elect a generation of leaders who are pledged to build consensus on national issues.   That should be the litmus test we use to evaluate candidates for public office.   Until things change, which they may not in our lifetime, the only "decider" we have for sure is the Supreme Court. So for the foreseeable future we will continue to be a 5-4 society, divided and at risk. We'd better start hedging our bets and hope some of our grandchildren study Chinese.