America’s Growing Political Impotence

First-world countries have governments that work. Perhaps imperfectly, and perhaps not in the most economically efficient way, but they successfully fulfill their responsibilities. But what happens when government not only fails to perform as expected, but its execution is inept to the point of being an embarrassment? To invoke an old image, the trains not only fail to run on time, but few move at all and when they do operate, they are accident prone and chronically late while often arriving at the wrong stations.

More is involved than public inconvenience or squandering funds. At some point public confidence is so weakened that the government itself loses legitimacy. And, as legitimacy declines, voters may well consider once unthinkable alternatives. Recall that “making the trains run on time” was the slogan that helped bring Benito Mussolini to power in 1922. This is the politics of exasperation, the belief that something must be done, and that perhaps a new political order is needed. This Is not a good situation for democracy.

Unfortunately, America may be slowly inching to this point where government incompetence undermines its legitimacy. Why support a country run by bumbling fools? This is not just the usual cynicism encapsulated by the comic phrase, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.” This is the level of ineffectiveness that makes America a laughingstock to foreigners.   

Consider, for example, how many Americans must feel watching pictures of migrants by the thousands from all over the planet almost effortlessly wading across the Rio Grande and then, with Washington’s approval, relocating to a benefit-filled life anywhere they could travel. Not even the most minimal pretense of legality exists, and who knows how many border crossers have criminal backgrounds?  That many are also drug smugglers or human traffickers compounds our sense of futility. Nor can anybody believe that those entering our nation illegally will, as ordered, eventually report to authorities to be processed legally? This is a sham spectacle where “border guards” resemble airport TSA agents directing arrivals to passport control. Further add how the Biden administration repeatedly announces how the uncontrollable influx is “under control.” Our mighty military, armed with nuclear weapons, is daily outfoxed by impoverished teenagers from El Salvador.

Just as exasperating is the huge increase in shoplifting, much of it going unpunished. Here we watch security camera footage of shoplifters strolling the isles stuffing their booty into plastic bags while “guards” calmly observe the thievery. Apathy is apparently the official corporate policy as if smash and grabbers were just regular customers, albeit non-paying ones. And, in those rare instances where the culprit is apprehended, he almost immediately returns to “work,” all to be repeated dozens of times. Even for those not personally witnessing this unpunished thievery, its existence is conspicuous by the sudden appearance of glass doors in drug stores putting toothpaste and soap under lock and key. This is an epidemic not of stealing per se, but of thievery that nobody bothers to stop, let alone punishes.  

Then there were the massive and widespread “George Floyd” riots of 2020 during which the police largely served as uniformed observers while journalists told TV watchers that despite the arson, gunshots, and mounting death toll, these events were “largely peaceful.” It even became fashionable to celebrate the rioters while our future vice-president contributed financially to quickly bail the rioters out of jail. Meanwhile, public health “experts” explained that while ordinary Americans should wear masks, practice social distancing, and generally avoid crowds, these social-justice protestors smashing windows for their Gucci handbags enjoyed dispensations from COVID restrictions due to the sanctity of their cause. To rub it in, those asserting that this mayhem was just racially driven looting were condemned as racists responsible for the violence. In this upside-down world, rioters were now the “good guys” and those condemning them were the “bad guys.”

Then there are the homeless encampments that now plague urban landscapes. Especially in California, they are virtually small cities filled with the mentally ill who exhibit little respect for public decency or elementary hygiene. Rat-attracting garbage is everywhere and streets are used as public toilets. These homeless destroy local businesses and turn neighborhoods into “no-go” zones. In San Francisco, luxury downtown hotels have removed all lobby furniture for fear of being overrun by squatters. LA recently counted some 42,000 homeless residents. Of the utmost importance, cities blithely ignore residents’ demands calling for their removal. Instead cities try to cure the problem by even greater spending on everything from substance abuse programs to job training, which, unsurprisingly, only seems to exacerbate the problem.

These examples are hardly exhaustive. There’s the uncontested destruction of public monuments and renaming of schools that honor the Founding Fathers, drag queen shows for toddlers in public libraries, the shouting down of campus speakers who say gender is a biological imperative, communities defunding the police in the midst of a crime wave and on and on.  People are angry but the incompetence continues.

The common element in these tribulations is that each entails failure of a fundamental government responsibility. Controlling the border, preventing crime, stopping riots, and keeping public order are the very raison d être of government. Ditto for protecting our cultural heritage and upholding public morality. Unlike sending a person to the moon, these are not optional responsibilities to be fulfilled only after core obligations are accomplished.

Moreover, the government is fully capable of sustaining a first-world civilization. Ending rampant shoplifting is not rocket science or hugely expensive -- just lock them up. Even the Keystone cops could seal a border or eliminate a homeless encampment and do so cheaply and quickly.  

Paradoxically, this highly visible impotence occurs at a time when America is displaying its bedazzling technical skill. Thanks to the James Webb telescope, we can peer into the beginning of time even as the same TV show might feature videos of feral teenagers pillaging Nordstrom’s jewelry department while “security” haplessly watches.

Even more ironic, as government fails in its most fundamental responsibilities, it embarks on the most Utopian missions such as altering the climate and imposing racial and sexual equality.  A visiting Martian might suspect that these odd priorities reflect mental illness, an inability to separate the Quixotic from the practical here and now. Why not first stop the mentally ill from pooping on the street before building a moon base to explore the cosmos? Who established these bizarre priorities?

The cost of these humiliating government failures far exceeds the wasted money, though the squandering is hardly trivial. More consequential is the humiliating pain from watching the ineptitude. How is one to react after hearing about illegals escaping the Border Patrol by hailing Uber rides to cities in Arizona?  Such discomfort is infuriating and may well set the stage for leaders who put ending the humiliation front and center. The slogan “Make America Great Again” (emphasis added) perfectly captures this exasperation -- at least some crave an America where adults protect toddlers from raucous bare-breasted drag queens. Donald Trump may soon exit politics, but the daily humiliations that gave rise to him are still with us.

Image: Goya

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