Opinion | Richard North Patterson

Kicking America’s landmines down the road

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Donald Trump’s second year as president commenced with another government shutdown. But such systemic dysfunction is merely symptomatic. If a great country is one that confronts its urgent problems, America should beware.

Start with the ballooning debt, which Janet Yellen warns is unsustainable. In 10 years, the Congressional Budget Office projects, the national debt could reach 91 percent of GDP. Unless we reverse course, in another 20 years that figure could rise to 150 percent.

Aside from everyone else, why should boomers care? Because we like our kids and grandkids. The rising interest rates required to finance such a debt could strangle government spending on everything else, from national defense to the social safety net. America would become a financial mendicant, the Greece of 2050.


The greatest accelerants of debt — entitlement programs — capture our political fecklessness. Social Security is sliding toward insolvency: The trust fund will run out in 2034, requiring a 21 percent cut in benefits. Similarly, the rising cost of an aging population will gut Medicare and Medicaid or turbocharge the deficit.

Together, the CBO estimates, Social Security and Medicare spending constitute 40 percent of our $4 trillion federal budget. Here, as elsewhere, both parties have been derelict. The GOP proposes to slash these programs while cutting taxes for the wealthy; Democrats exploit that threat to frighten seniors rather than offering achievable proposals to preserve entitlements for those who need them most.

Protecting those programs is even more imperative because of rising income inequality fueled by technological change, the decline of unions, and tax policies that benefit the 1 percent. Yet we have not made the investments in updated vocational or technical education or affordable college that would counteract diminishing opportunity for many Americans. That failing inevitably affects our long-term societal and economic health.


Other defining problems fester. Climate change spurs rising sea levels and catastrophic fires; our president enfeebles the EPA. Our once-great infrastructure crumbles beneath the dead weight of ideology, parochialism, and partisan maneuvering. Eleven million undocumented immigrants, many young, have become hostages in a callous game of political bait-and-switch.

We cannot even defend American democracy. Our president and his party refuse to address a hostile power’s aggressive intrusion into the 2016 election — or the likelihood that, in doing so again, Russia will attack our voting systems, subverting our confidence in voting itself. Forget our borders; our leaders will not even protect our institutions.

This corrosive inability to meet our greatest challenges is not just a function of balky institutions or partisan polarization. All these failures of policy reflect the deeply ingrained failings of our political process — and the ways our system has failed us.

A primary example is the rising influence on public policy of the unlimited campaign money unleashed by the Citizens United decision rendered by a partisan Supreme Court majority. The recent tax “reform” demanded of elected Republicans by their donors — a massive wealth transfer that will burden future generations with increased debt — captures how income inequality and money in politics feed each other. Absent a mass demand for constitutional limitations on what is becoming, effectively, legalized bribery, we are stumbling toward plutocracy.

Other systemic reforms, while challenging, face lesser obstacles. Take another grave impediment to representative democracy: gerrymandering. Because the political party in power can redraw congressional and legislative districts in any given state, politicians can effectively choose their voters, instead of the other way around. Thus, in the House elections of 2014, Democrats won roughly 1.4 million more votes nationwide but Republicans won 46 more seats.


In the past, Democrats have done much the same. So what is the systemic cure? Most obviously, a state-by-state citizen demand for bipartisan commissions, which redistrict without regard to political advantage. Slow going, but as California shows, it can work.

A further ingredient of political dysfunction is two-party control over the conduct of elections, most evident in the closed primary system. Take a congressional district gerrymandered to skew Republican. If only registered Republicans can vote in the party primary, a minority of motivated voters — often the most extreme — effectively selects the congressperson for everyone else.

But were there, instead, a single bipartisan primary open to all candidates and voters, the surviving two candidates would represent the electorate as a whole. And, to prevail, the ultimate winner might become more amenable to compromise and reason. Here, again, look to California.

And to ourselves. Too often, our parties serve their own immediate interests at our collective peril. Americans at large must demand a politics, and process, sufficient to overcome our national stasis — seizing the future before it seizes us.

Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Globe. His latest book is “Fever Swamp.” Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.