It is alarming to read the campaign advice that Marcus Tullius Cicero, the great Roman orator, received. Cicero was encouraged to inflame his opponents with scandals, pay special attention to the wealthy and powerful, keep up the hope of the zealous and devoted, put on good shows and “promise them anything” they want and forget about it. His successful campaign mirrors today’s political theater in America. But Cicero’s devotion to political maneuvering did not protect him (he was murdered by Mark Antony during his pursuit to become dictator of the country), nor the Roman republic. The sad story of the blunt calculating brilliance of Cicero and the fall of the great Republic should serve warn America: freedom and democracy are not free.
America’s greatness was very much a function of the visionary pragmatism of its founding fathers. The common sense decision to pursue liberty, equality and individual well-being was achieved through creativity, openness and consensus based on compromise. American leadership internationally is based on not only its economic prosperity, but also the sense of hope it brings to those who seek peace and development. The country has achieved great things and the American dream stays alive in a society that offers all the possibilities that are created because America is a leader in the pursuit of open markets, technological innovation, and equal opportunity.
Unfortunately, this sense of hope will wane if America continues on its current path. Inadequate regulation of the financial sector among other factors has dragged the country into one of its worst recessions ever, yielding historically high unemployment and an expansion of people (over 46 million in 2010) living below the poverty level. Undisciplined public spending pushed the total debt to GDP ratio over 100 percent this year. A recent Congressional Budget Office report points to the increasing likelihood of a double-dip recession caused by the impending “fiscal cliff” in 2013. This reflects failures by Congress to agree on an orderly alternative method to address the budget deficit.
Not only is the U.S. digging its own grave domestically, it is also doing so internationally as well. After entering a decade-long war in Iraq, the legitimacy of which is still being debated, the U.S. is seen by many as more of a bully than a leader for global peace. The most disturbing fact from an American perspective is that the more than $3 trillion war bill and the 4,487 casualties have overstretched America’s resources and diminished the public’s tolerance for legitimate military interventions.
The World Economic Forum attributes the decline in American competitiveness to the business community’s extreme skepticism that politicians will avoid wasting resources, reduce spending and stabilize regulations. A recent CNN poll found that only 15 percent of Americans trust the federal government to do what’s right; in February of this year more Americans reported holding favorable views of North Korea than of Congress’s job performance . This is not entirely surprising. One only needs to look at the shameful congressional show down in 2011 over the U.S. debt ceiling to get a sense of the senselessness of America’s political environment. As two leading experts on American political institutions titled their latest book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks. Instead of finding agreement to increase revenue and cut spending, politicians blame each other for bankrupting America and run for office on platforms proudly championing “no compromise.” Instead of supporting cutting-edge climate-friendly industries that will keep America’s competitive in industrial science and technology, numerous politicians deny the very existence of climate change. Instead of defining a new role for American leadership in a changing world, politicians instead blame China for posing economic and security threats.
There are many issues to be sorted out, including: tax reform to keep the country solvent, fixing a defunct immigration system to attract and retain talent, and revamping the education system to stop the decline in the quality of American schools. As these critical issues continue to receive short shift, politicians and pundits endlessly debate matters like the fate of “Big Bird,” the electoral consequences of politicians’ facial expressions and water consumption habits during televised debates, and whether female reproductive systems respond differently in cases of “legitimate rape.” The $6.6 billion in TV ads this season could be better used in many other ways, instead, voters are entertained by ideologically driven campaign bashing.
America became and maintained its status as world leader because of its prosperity, the resilience of its society, its pursuit of freedom and the sense of global responsibility. These qualities enabled our World War II generations to devote their lives to protecting the country which liberated and led the world; these qualities created the American dream and attract new citizens to take the oath. The vision of the founding fathers, along with the prosperity of future Americans and the world would be delt a fatal blow if American values are replaced with political cynicism, short sightedness, and a lack of courage and sacrifice.
We are in desperate need of leaders with a vision for America. Today pragmatism is visionary. The country suffers from self-inflicted wounds the most critical of which is polarizing partisan politics. To heal the divide in society and put the nation back on a healthy track , we need to start to work on problems at home. In this election season, Americans need to follow those who can provide a clear and pragmatic path. They need to lead from the middle and work together based on issues instead of party lines. They need to provide a healthy environment for business and care for the disadvantaged. They need to resist ideologically driven movements and bring the focus of the U.S. public back to long-term competitiveness and prosperity. They need to speak the truth even when it does not please the public. These kinds of leaders need the courage to compromise even if it costs them the next election.
The world will not wait for American leadership forever, now is the time to act.
Ting Xu is a recently naturalized American citizen. She is a Handa Fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS and Senior Fellow at Bertelsmann Foundation.