To Fix a Broken Country: The Critical Limits of American Politics

Both Democrats and Republicans are widely criticized for failing to fix a broken country, but America's core problems are not remediable in politics.  By itself, no American government -- no president, no Congress, no national legislation -- can ever halt the corrosive withering of heart, body, mind, and spirit that now imperils these United States.  No matter how well-intentioned, informed, and bipartisan, no formal rescue program can do more than tinker at the edges of what is truly important.

There can, of course, be tangible increments of apparent progress, but nothing to drown out the growing lamentations of a lonely American crowd.  Driven single-mindedly by considerations of taxation, commerce, and consumption, our system of governance has now institutionalized a bitterly ironic amalgam of plutocracy and mob rule.  Unsurprisingly, our national redemption must now lie elsewhere, far beyond the incestuous and secondary spheres of government, economics, and politics.

Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, the presumed differences are now largely beside the point.  National renewal can never come from Washington, or from any state capital.  Ultimately, as Swiss psychologist Carl Jung understood, every society is essentially the sum of its individual souls seeking "redemption."  These souls, we have yet to learn, can never be mended by judgments based upon mass taste, visceral imitativeness, and empty slogans.

We Americans now inhabit a society so numbingly false that even our melancholy is contrived.  Wallowing in the dim twilight of a near-desperate conformance, we the people display infinite forbearance for shallow thinking and demeaning amusements.  Our people still hide from a very basic observation: our commendable progress in technical and scientific matters has not prevented a growing and potentially explosive chasm between rich and poor.

When I first began to teach international law at Princeton in 1970, I always spoke of the "third world" as somewhere outside these United States.  Today, however, I need to point out to my students at Purdue that the traditional inter-national distinctions between first and third worlds are now also intra-national.

Nonetheless, even the wealthiest among us are sometimes deprived.  Resigned to a dreary future of suffocating banalities and unsatisfying work, many well-off Americans lurch thoughtlessly from one personal forfeiture to the next, content to take sides in utterly vacuous culture wars.  At the same time, treating education at every level as merely an instrumental opportunity for "getting ahead," our exhausted citizens at every income level consult popular literature only rarely, and genuinely serious literature not at all.

Expressed as genre, the "life of the mind in America" is now a very thin text, one perhaps best categorized as fiction.  Ralph Waldo Emerson's earlier wisdom that we Americans should seek "plain living and high thinking" has been turned on its head.  Even our best universities are quickly becoming little more than expensive training schools, utterly bereft of any genuine "higher learning."

Wherever one looks, we the people are not motivated by much of enduring human value.  Generally, we look not for equanimity and balance as an aptly healing counterpoint to our frenetic lives.  Rather, we search constantly for expanding opportunities to buy a life of pleasure and diversion.  Even now, when there is a revolving door between Wall Street and federal prison, we have yet to understand that our limping economy, like the disjointed broader society from which it sprang, has been built upon the wrong dreams.

It is possible for we the people to be lonely in the world, or lonely for the world.  Pitiably, our mass culture has somehow managed to produce both.

Whatever is ultimately decided in politics, we Americans will likely be carried forth not by any nobility of "high thinking and plain living," but by a sorrowful eruption of fear and collective agitation.  At times, we the people may even wish to slow down a bit and smell the roses, but our battered and broken country will still impose upon us the merciless rhythm of a tireless machine.  The unintended but still certain end of this delirium will be to prevent us from remembering who we once were and, more importantly, who we might once have become.

What can be done to escape the pendulum of our own mad clockwork?  We pay lip service to the high ideals of the Declaration and the Constitution, but almost no one truly cares about these musty old documents.  Invoked only for ostentation, the legal and philosophical foundations of the United States are now the manipulated province of a tiny handful of people.  For the most part, we lack any readily available sources of national cohesion except for celebrity sex scandals, pleasingly distracting sports team loyalties, and the always comforting brotherhoods of war.

Sadly, we Americans inhabit the one society that could have been different.  Once, we even possessed a unique potential to nurture individuals to become more than a crowd.  Emerson had described us as a people animated by industry and "self-reliance."  Now our motivators lie more regularly in paralysis, greed, fear, and trembling.

In spite of our insistently proud claim to "rugged individualism," we Americans are shaped most decisively by the mass.  Our fragmented and openly inelegant society bristles endlessly with annoying jingles, coarse hucksterism, crass allusions, and telltale equivocations.  Surely, we may think, there must be something more to this crumbling country than raw commerce and cheap entertainments.  "I celebrate myself, and sing myself," said the poet Walt Whitman, but today, the American Self is under assault by a vast, leveling mediocrity and an epidemic gluttony.

In the end, credulity is our country's worst enemy.  Our still willing inclination to believe that personal and societal redemption lies in politics remains a potentially fatal disorder.  To be sure, critical social and economic issues do need to be addressed by government, but so too must our much deeper problems be solved at the "molecular" level of individual human transformations.

A diseased civilization unhesitatingly compromises with its core afflictions.  To restore us, as a nation, to long-term health and prosperity, we the people must first look beyond a futile faith in politics.  Only when such a necessary swerve of consciousness becomes an irreversible gesture can we truly hope to fix a broken country.

Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is author of many books and articles dealing with literature, philosophy, international relations, and international law.  He was born in Zürich, Switzerland on August 31, 1945.

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