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CV Commentary: Is The U.S. Broken?

Robert Smith headshot
Robert Smith

The following commentary was written by Dr. Robert Smith, Dean of the College of Public Affairs and Administration at the University of Illinois Springfield.  

Is the U.S. broken?

Boy, what a question to be asked!

But, unfortunately this is an actual question I was recently asked by a local high school student. What should I say? Why did this bright student ask this question? How many students, faculty and citizens are asking this same question? Do I respond truthfully? Do I paint a rosy picture? Do I say everything will be ok? And in fact, what do I think?

As a scholar of political science and public administration and a long time administrator at colleges and universities that elevate the public interest and celebrate public service for more than 20 years, I think I’m in a position to offer an answer of sorts. And, as a former candidate for public office on several occasions in the past, I think I understand our sometimes “spirited” political system. But more fundamentally, as a citizen I also have a perspective to share.

Before I respond, let’s do a quick review of where we seem to stand at the federal government level and in our national political discourse these days:

The coronavirus continues to haunt us. Testing is better, but is still lagging. Protective gear is available but maybe it’s too late. The federal government and many state responses have been lame. A disregard for fellow citizens’ health and safety abounds, and many governments have loosened COVID-19 restrictions on social gatherings only to see them imposed yet again.

As for racism in America, it’s always been here, but many never saw it . Indeed many aspects of racism have been institutionalized in our culture. Protests and outrage are finally bubbling to the surface across the nation. The government’s focus on curbing immigration somehow also seems to fall into this maelstrom.

Police incidents, a discrimination no better illustrated than by many recent police actions against African Americans, make us realize we need to do better. But don’t we need police? Hence the debate is front and center and calls for an effective police force that seeks to protect when needed, but understands more than just its policing function. And, perhaps more important, a police force in which its officers are empowered to assist and partner with their communities.

Election questions and process in many places are in disarray or uneven or disorganized. Primaries have seen long lines and endless delays. There’s no conspiracy here, just a long history of political gamesmanship, positioning and sometimes, malfeasance or outright fraud or incompetence in how elections are administered. Yet, elections and participation are the cornerstone of democracy (for everyone). Let’s get it right, let’s make it easy, let’s make it secure and let’s make it relevant in society today.

The national economy always seems to be the gauge that determines political fortunes. If we’re doing good and the economy is booming, the party or president in power reaps the rewards. If the economy nosedives,  the party in charge and the president pay a price at the ballot box. Again, no major revelations there. But regardless of political party or president, who wants the economy to fail? No one. But federal actions matter and our economy is tanking. Yes, coronavirus is to blame, but the federal response seems inadequate. Unemployment at staggering levels, with millions out of work. Where is the federal government to mobilize and fix that? Yes, let’s stop COVID-19, but where is the help or programs we all need in the meantime?

A related issue is the devastating effect on corporate America. But in somewhat typical American fashion, we seem to always balk at federal interference with business when things are rosy (safety, environmental or health regulations), but are the first to orchestrate massive billion dollar corporate bailouts. But what about a people or worker bailout in the billions to get us through this?  It doesn’t have to be one or the other -- how about both? With a likely resurgence in COVID-19, we will all probably need more help.

Moreover, President Donald Trump was impeached and the drama about the White House and its questionable interactions and political manipulations in federal government are front page news stories. The President’s leadership in response to COVID-19 and the prevalence of racism in the U.S. is in question.

The Democratic controlled House and Republican Senate have an ideological and almost nonsensical divide between them that paralyzes meaningful legislation and policy decisions at this critical time. It is a win-win mentality that epitomizes the political world we find ourselves in. The calculus behind all decisions is simply who wins and who loses. In this type of calculus, everyone loses!

The final point is that rank and file citizens seem polarized on a whole host of issues, even the simple health proposition about whether or not to wear a facemask during the COVID-19 pandemic seems political. There have always been deep political divides at certain points in our history, but we have always somehow prevailed. Maybe not to everyone’s satisfaction, in many instances, but we compromised and advanced as Americans first.

Wow, after listening to all that, how can my student not think we are broken? It sure sounds and feels that way.

Of course, I have no magic or inside information that allows me to definitively answer the question about whether or not America (especially its political and government systems) are broken. But nonetheless. I do have an answer that I shared with my student.

No, we are not broken!

From my perspective as an educator and Dean of a College of Public Affairs and Administration there is no shortage of students, alumni, public servants across all walks of life, and in the federal and state and local service and elected positions that care deeply about serving citizens and hold a keen obligation to our democracy and institutions of government. That is part of the answer I think. And for rank and file American citizens, despite being unhappy and frustrated and hurt, they also value democratic institutions and processes in this country. They turn to and expect our elected and appointed officials to “fix things.”

No we are not broken!

In fact, some colleagues of mine observe that maybe its ok if we have these periodic “down” moments in our history and political life. In fact, maybe that’s how things are supposed to work.

Now, hold on, I’m the first to admit that sometimes that view is hard to accept when we see political stalemate, record unemployment, overt racism or the rising death rate from COVID 19. No one wants that and no one accepts those are acceptable outcomes of a normally functioning democratic system of government. But I think I may see my colleagues point.

First, democracy is messy and it always has been. Democratic nations (including the US) have seen many ups and downs whether from economic collapse, domestic turmoil, world wars, terrorist attacks or political malfeasance. We’ve been there and done that!

Second, whenever we find ourselves at these moments we ask what went wrong? Is there something better? Or, who can we blame? We further insist it’s not our fault -- it’s the virus, it’s the economy, it’s the media, it’s the Democrats or the Republicans. My point here is that we don’t need to look that far for someone to blame.

I conclude that in fact the system is not broken, American democracy is not broken, the Republic is not broken, political parties are not broken, elections are not broken, the media is not broken and government is not broken.

And that leads to my third point. If there is anything that may be broken, it is the American citizen.

Citizenship is a two-way street. Remember the pronouncement “…ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." In this bold pronouncement by President John F. Kennedy, in what seems like eons ago, it essentially means that government cannot work properly without citizens being involved, vested, participating in and reforming our system of democratic government.

Let me be direct. The way to fix government, reform government and make things better and to get the government you/we deserve depends on you. You must participate, you must vote, you must run for office, support candidates you think best represent you, advocate for policies and legislation that you want and realize that everyone in your neighborhood is bound by one far reaching label that binds us all together…and that is we are citizens of the United States of America. 

But, let’s get back to my student. I explained to him that government is not broken, and that maybe it’s our role as citizens in how we uphold, how we support, and what we demand of government and our politicians is what is really broken. I continued, if we can fix citizenship, then maybe we can easily fix what seems to be broken in government and politics.

My student looked at me and smiled, scratched his head, and walked away. He didn’t say a word. I’m not quite sure what that meant.

But I think he wanted to think some more about that. And that’s a good thing. I hope that’s what you will do also.

Take care during these tumultuous times,

Dean Smith

Robert Smith is a host for NPR's Planet Money where he tells stories about how the global economy is affecting our lives.
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