The selfishness in Congress is far from over
When I write about our new G-Zero world, I am describing an international phenomenon: a global environment in which no power or group of powers can sustainably set an international agenda. The global community, used to orienting itself around a collection of U.S.-led powers, has fallen victim to a widening leadership vacuum, what with the United States disengaging from foreign affairs and Europe too busy with its own crisis. Emerging powers like China have grown large enough to undermine a Western-led global agenda — but not yet developed enough to prioritize their own international role over their domestic concerns.
Every major power is too busy watching out for its own needs to focus on the bigger picture. As a result, the international community has been unable to make any progress on pressing crises like global warming, a civil war in Syria, or the rise of cyber warfare. A vacuum of leadership has led to a dearth of mutually beneficial planning.
What I did not expect was to see the G-Zero mentality bleed its way into American domestic politics. As we all breathe a sigh of relief in response to the U.S. averting self-destruction with an 11th hour budget deal, it’s important to put this “success” in context. First of all, how did things get so dire to begin with? Second, how likely are we to experience a sickening bout of déjà vu when the punted deadlines once again draw near?
Unfortunately, Washington simply isn’t built for long-term thinking. Instead, each actor in Washington focuses on his or her own individual constituency — just like the international community. In a country this polarized, there are no potential consequences back at home that would impel enough stakeholders to do anything different.
That’s the crux of this current crisis: society’s polarization has eroded politicians’ use for bipartisanship. In 1995-1996, the last time the U.S. had a government shutdown, more than 33 percent of Congressional Republicans came from districts that had voted for Bill Clinton in the previous presidential election. Today, only 7 percent of Congressional Republicans hail from districts that voted for Obama last year. When the electorate is this segregated, it’s no wonder the politicians they elect are interested in placating, not legislating.
So what is driving this polarization? For starters, it’s been helped by a fracturing media landscape. On TV, Fox News is a proxy for GOP groupthink, and MSNBC is a haven for liberals. In social media — how a third of young people now get their news — people build newsfeeds of like-minded friends and journalists, insulating themselves from viewpoints that challenge their preconceived notions. Media is disaggregating into smaller and smaller demographics, all of them catering to their very specific audience’s sweet tooth. The news’ tone ends up being as placating as possible, fearing that otherwise the audience will turn to one of the myriad other options.
That allows some politicians to narrowcast their behavior. The more people learn about Ted Cruz, for example, the less they like him. But to his base, and to his district, he’s a standard-bearer, valiantly defending what so few others are willing to champion. Cruz isn’t in danger of losing his job, because his actions play well with the people holding him accountable.
Then, of course, there’s also the gerrymandering, which de jure bifurcates the country where de facto polarization hasn’t. The redrawing of House districts has allowed Republicans and Democrats to hone their message for their homogenous constituencies. Congress as a whole may be at a record-low approval rate, but most individual congressmen are insulated from the bitter sentiment.
So what can we expect going forward? The recent deal avoided apocalypse, but it did nothing to bring the two parties closer together on the underlying politics. Back in 2011, Congress saddled itself with painful consequences that would automatically take effect in the absence of a successful super-committee bargain. Even under the guillotine, the committee couldn’t find sufficient common ground and sequestration took effect. This time around, there is even less incentive for Democrats and Republicans to avoid failure. So expect the two parties to barrel towards the new deadlines and engage in the same damaging political gymnastics before kicking the can once more.
The reason G-Zero has arrived in the U.S. is because the consequences for individual actors are low, even if the collective stakes are high. The U.S. is too wealthy for issues like budgets and debt ceilings to have urgency — until the deadline approaches. Only then does public opinion shift against the obstinate. Until then, it’s every constituency for itself. When Americans are so focused on their own livelihoods, they’re not willing to punish the politicians who selfishly do the same. That’s the gap that creates a vacuum of leadership, at home and abroad.
Editor’s note: This column is based on a transcribed interview with Bremmer.
PHOTO: Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) speaks to reporters in the U.S. Capitol in Washington October 16, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque