In a recent TV interview, a European Union (EU) ambassador was asked what the Europeans thought of the current U.S. political turmoil. His response: Europeans are waiting to see whether the turmoil turns out to be a temporary phenomenon – or a long-term trend.
We got a sense of the likely answer on Friday – a U.S. Senate that was once lauded as “the greatest deliberative body in the world” today can’t bring itself to call witnesses or subpoena documents in an impeachment trial – the first time is U.S. history that has happened. Senators who once routinely put the interests of the country above party, now want to “let the voters decide” – code language for party comes first.
What brought us to this place? There are a number of contributing factors – including, as we have discussed many times before, too much money in politics and a media that vastly oversimplifies issues and stokes controversy to gin-up ratings.
But another, fundamental problem, is rooted in U.S. democratic theory that goes back to the founding of the Republic – far too much emphasis the libertarian ideal that the national interest is made up of the collective self-interest of its citizens. You saw it in the Republican defense of Donald Trump – he can’t be impeached because he sees his self-interest as synonymous with the national interest.
That argument may have had some salience back when the U.S. was largely an agrarian society. It is dangerous in a modern economy with economic and political ties that span the globe. Trump and his Republican allies in Congress are, in effect, using fringe political theory to fend off critics while cynically advancing their own self-interest.
That is clearly what motivated Trump in demanding Ukraine investigate his political opponent, Joe Biden, in return for U.S. military aid. More broadly, it seems to be the prime motivating factor in virtually everything Trump does as President. In Congress, Republicans appear to have abandoned any notion that they have a duty to advance the national interest and instead seem to focus almost exclusively on their prospects in the next election.
The U.S. Senate had an opportunity, and it failed, to step in and make it clear that no public official, elected or appointed, may use their office to engage a foreign government to interfere in U.S. elections. Trump’s action not only advanced his self-interest at the expense of the national interest – it was treasonous.
The EU official had it right – the dysfunction is American politics may well be a long-term trend – one that, if it continues, will almost inevitably knock the U.S. off it’s pedestal as the world largest economy and the leader of the free world.
Under Donald Trump it is already happening. The U.S. Senate likely just accelerated the downward spiral.