The selfishness in Congress is far from over

October 17, 2013

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


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

The incompetence and corruption is really something to behold. Most of them are Clive Barker Stars, and they make Pin Head look like a good guy.

Posted by 2Borknot2B | Report as abusive

Business/corporations have the artificial split of the nation they wanted. I suspect they never thought they’d get some out of control zeolots trying to destroy the whole nation. But what did they expect? We’ve brainwashed the nation to be irrational followers, and then we have them vote. How could you not see that the mindless can be crazy. I suppose it’s the hedonistic nature of the average business guy that makes it imppossible for them to understand that some people want to feel pain, some people prefer failure. To me, that aspect seems obvious in the religious. I guess it’s true, our business guys are too simple themselves, totally incapable of complex thought. Smart enough to manipulate but not smart enough to control the zombies they create.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

The latest round of selfishness impacted USA presence at APEC, giving aid to China’s recent regional pressures (if not bullying) seeking concessions one neighbor at a time rather than through multi-party negotiation over shared boundaries. It gave fodder for Russian propoganda too, and comfort to autocrats and despots around the world. As the global middle class grows we need to stay in the competitive game, not injuring ourselves like a sidelined athlete who sobers up to regret headlines about off-field stupidity.

Domestically, the 2013 shutdown wasted at least $24 Billion by last reckoning, so the 2011 & 2013 debt hostage cost is at least $40-45 Billion total, all thanks to Tea Party ‘negotiating’ tactics.

That’s about 3 years of funding for NASA, or a big defense program, or in Ike’s famous Military-Industrial comparisons – thousands of schools hospitals roads and bridges, all flushed away to absolutely no good, simply money wasted for the sake of TEA party vanity… the old saying is “don’t cut off your nose to spite your face”.

While the selfishness might have played to the base and the farthest-right backers, it robbed from ALL taxpayers. It can’t happen again. I’ll make pro-shutdown actions a litmus test for instead voting and supporting candidates who work within the system, not those who tried to hijack everyone in the country to join their own train wreck.

A progression to balanced budget in just a few election cycles could be negotiated in the coming months if Congress focused on meaningful outcomes, instead of political theater at the nation’s expense.

Posted by Decatur | Report as abusive

As the middle class shrank, so did the middle political ground. The polarization of the news media was caused by the profitizing of news. In the old days (pre 1985), the news divisions were expected to be a loss maker for the networks. Now news is expected to turn a profit. Therefore it will look to a specific market and deliver what that market wants to hear. There is no quick fix, but I fear real pain, IE a true collapse, will be needed before everyone can agree on a fix.

Posted by 3xmk | Report as abusive