A bewildered Chinese friend asked me how the world’s leading democracy could be so mismanaged that it could shut down. I couldn’t explain. This budget war reflects inanity, incompetence and cowardice that are sadly inexplicable.
How about "explaining" that when faced with hard economic times extending through two election cycles, the American public twice threw out a set of incumbent officials -- as free electorates do -- and ended up with divided government? The result is a bitter battle over fiscal policy. Those charged with making policy, instead of knifing out their radically different prescriptions behind closed Politburo doors, fought them out in a public display of negotiating brinkmanship and came up with a settlement in which both sides yielded some (though I personally think that through their own folly Democrats have yielded far too much). There's nothing here to be embarrassed about before ruthless autocrats who have responded to the latest wave of democratic ferment abroad with a ferocious wave of repression and intimidation of dissent.
Personally, I guess I am somewhat "ashamed" -- but more to the point, alarmed -- by the extremism of one of the two parties that governs this country. I think it's dangerous that a party that will regain power sooner or later would cut domestic discretionary spending now as the economy sputters, shred the safety net long-term while gutting reforms that could rein in healthcare inflation, further cut taxes for the wealthy, and seek out an endless succession of military confrontations. Worst, I think the GOP has so terrorized the American people over terrorism (and the Democrats, natch) that they have won a national consensus to permanently weaken the civil liberties that have been the key to our prosperity.
I don't deny that Democracy in America is malfunctioning -- what other developed democracy has such an extremist mainstream party? I agree with James Fallows that the undemocratic features of our cast-in-stone Constitution may be causing or exacerbating a failure to adapt over time. But Kristof, of all people, should know better than to implicitly set up China's repressive technocrats as an enviable foil.