Focus on size of U.S. government misses real threat to America’s future

One of the things I find most confounding about the United States is how it is that such nice people ended up with such strange politics.

Politics is a dysfunctional profession in most of the world, but things have become exceptionally strange in the United States, where a curious brand of Republican Party conservatism, led by a mercurial former Alaska governor and vice-presidential candidate and a Delaware senate candidate who once expressed her opposition to masturbation (!), looks likely to sweep the country in tomorrow’s midterm elections.

Thirty years ago, the stereotypical Republican was something akin to the socially ambitious Nancy Reagan, or to the snobbish members of the fictitious Bushwood Country Club in the 1980 hit movie Caddyshack.

Since then, the Republican Party has changed dramatically. Ronald Reagan, the affable two-term California governor who went on to win two presidential elections by a landslide, has been replaced as the party’s standard-bearer by Sarah Palin, a snarky less-than-one-term former Alaska governor and gaffe-prone former vice-presidential candidate.

The old-style Republican, if the stereotype is to be believed, shopped at Bloomingdale’s, enjoyed weekends on the golf course and the occasional glass of fine French wine, and religiously watched Nightly Business Report — even if it was on PBS.

The new-style Republican, again if the stereotype is to be believed, shops at Wal-Mart, loves his guns, prefers beer but is okay with wine as long as it’s not from France, and religiously watches The O’Reilly Factor.

What hasn’t changed over the years is the distate for Big Government.

But is it Big Government that is the problem, or just misgovernment?

Last week, Transparency International released its latest Corruption Perceptions Report. The global corruption watchdog assessed the United States’ ability to control corruption at 7.1 out of 10.

A score of 7.1 is hardly the worst thing in the world, but it’s still merely at the higher end of ‘mediocre’ nevertheless. While it’s far below the gold-star assessments given of Denmark, New Zealand, Singapore, Finland and Sweden — which all got scores of 9 out of 10 or higher — it still leaves the U.S. ranked 22nd overall for honest and transparent government, putting it in the same league as Belgium and France.

Which might be reassuring if it weren’t for the fact that Belgium is in such a mess that a government still hasn’t yet taken shape nearly five months after the June 13th election, while France’s government lurches from crisis to crisis and is difficult to take seriously.

If that didn’t serve as a wake-up call, this might: Chile of all places (7.2 out of 10) has been more or less tied with the United States in terms of the perceived honesty and openness of its government over the past five years, and ambitious Uruguay (6.9 out of 10, up from 5.9 in 2005) might be about to overtake the U.S.

Ditch your preconceptions about generals and banana republics. Chile has well and truly buried Augusto Pinochet, who died in 2006 appropriately enough under the rule of Michele Bachelet, one of his regime’s many torture victims. That Chile would elect Bachelet — a socially liberal agnostic elected to lead a traditionally religious, socially conservative country — showed how much the country wanted to exorcise the memory of the old man at the end of his life.

Uruguay, once called the Switzerland of South America for its relative peace and prosperity before drinking from the poisoned chalice of populism and then military rule, is once again a model to its neighbours as it moves up in the world.

While Uruguay moved up a full point in Transparency International’s 10-point scale between 2005 and 2010, the U.S. slipped backwards, dropping from 7.6 out of 10 in 2005 to 7.1 this year.

The war against corruption and for openness and ethics in public administration is a key part of the battle for a better life. Countries that do more in this regard tend to end up wealthier, to have governments that are in better financial shape (as this blog pointed out last week) and to have a larger percentage of the population reporting high levels of satisfaction with their lives.

Just as people tend to behave differently when they’re being watched — such as not belching at a Canadian Club luncheon, whereas they might feel more comfortable doing so in the privacy of their kitchen — elected and non-elected public servants behave differently when subject to some healthy scrutiny.

The ability of the United States to restore a feeling of prosperity and well-being, and to play a more constructive role on the world stage, depends on its ability to improve its reputation for running a clean, open and ethical system of government.

This means that playing in the same league as France and Belgium is no longer an option, and that a “7 out of 10” is not good enough for a country that wants to continue playing an important leadership role in the world.

Failure to improve will have far-reaching consequences for the United States: diminished leadership ability on the world stage, a deteriorating political situation at home and a lower quality of life for Americans.

America’s ability to turn things around is of vital interest to Canada, given our close ties to the U.S.

Americans, a generally friendly, charming and generous-minded people despite their politicians, also deserve better.

The battle for honest and open government in 2010: Still way too much red and orange. (Source: Transparecy International; labeling of Chile and Uruguay is mine.)

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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

4 Responses to Focus on size of U.S. government misses real threat to America’s future

  1. John Dobbin says:

    Deleware defeated said candidate. What does that mean in terms of where their support lies? lol

  2. John Dobbin says:

    ha, Sorry, that was Delaware.

  3. unclebob says:

    After looking at the amount of red and the amount of orange, I am concerned that the do-gooders of Canada are going to feelobliged to get closer to the middle of the pack by formally undertaking initiatives to make us less transparent, less ethical and more self serving. Yikes!

  4. theviewfromseven says:

    It would be the wrong thing to do. A clean and honest government is a huge competitive advantage in a world full of corrupt and unreliable governments.

    I think that’s where the U.S. might have gone wrong, and it’s alarming that so little corrective action is taking place.

    A lot of American politicians talk about restoring American greatness without acknowledging what it was that once made the United States the envy of the world. During its first 200 years, the U.S. threw out the old handbook of how to run a country and chose instead to lead the way on human rights, education, scientific advancement and the pursuit of knowledge, rule of law and minimizing corruption.

    Maybe imperfectly, but until World War II it was probably one of the five or 10 best countries in the world in this regard. The U.S. model of government stood for quality and reliability in a world where governments routinely acted arbitrarily and offered no guarantees from one ruler to the next. This made the U.S. a very attractive place to live and to do business.

    The “culture wars” were the turning point. While other countries turned away from “belief systems” in the management of their affairs in favour of getting the best advice they possibly could, the U.S. went in the opposite direction. People with good advice to offer began to be crowded out by political ideologues, religious fundamentalists and lobbyists.

    Out went the leadership role on human rights, making government more of an honest broker, etc. Other countries were left to be the innovators in those areas.

    Little progress was made in cleaning up a political system increasingly seen as zany and unable to tell good advice from bad.

    If many Americans felt powerless — and angry about it, since humans are happiest when able to control their fate and trust those around them — it wasn’t without justification.

    Since a healthy America is to Canada’s benefit, my hope is that the U.S. can fix its problems without sliding into a traumatic situation first, such as insolvency (which it could be one world crisis away from), or the culture wars escalating into separatism or violence.

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