Stephen M. Walt

Decade of decadence

Responding to E.J. Dionne, Andrew Sullivan wants to know at what point the U.S. political system became "decadent," and he offers up a number of possibilities: the Weiner scandal (E.J. Dionne’s nomination), the odd notion that Sarah Palin could be considered a serious candidate for any office above a local Parks and Recreation board, or ...

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Responding to E.J. Dionne, Andrew Sullivan wants to know at what point the U.S. political system became "decadent," and he offers up a number of possibilities: the Weiner scandal (E.J. Dionne's nomination), the odd notion that Sarah Palin could be considered a serious candidate for any office above a local Parks and Recreation board, or congressional "assent to torture" in 2006.

I'm glad he (and Dionne) raised the issue, but trying to pinpoint a single moment or cause is probably futile. Corruption and decadence don't occur all at once; it's a progressive disease with no clear tipping point. Part of it lies in the rise of the conservative movement post-Goldwater, when wealthy conservatives began to bankroll think tanks and media organs that were more interested in waging political warfare than getting facts right. Part of it is a pop-media culture that lets an ignorant buffoon like Rush Limbaugh or a bizarre whack-job like Glenn Beck become influential voices in our national debate. Part of it is the culture of non-accountability that is pervasive in official Washington, where the frauds that helped produce the financial crisis of 2007 barely get investigated, or where a deputy secretary of defense can play a key role in causing the Iraq debacle and then get rewarded by being named president of the World Bank, screw that up too, and bail out to a safe sinecure at a D.C. think tank. As L'affaire Weiner demonstrates, in today's America you're more likely to derail your career by sending some lewd and idiotic tweets than by sending thousands of your fellow citizens to their deaths (along with tens of thousands of Iraqis) in an unnecessary war.

What else is to blame? A political order that creates enormous incumbency advantages through gerrymandering. An electoral system that depends on an ocean of campaign contributions, thereby empowering special interest groups with deep pockets and focused agendas. A presidential election cycle that lasts for more than one-fourth of a term, thereby forcing candidates to spend too much time running for election and too little time actually governing. A Senate that spends more time preventing the appointment of needed judges and other government officials than it does debating the wisdom of going to war. And I could go on.

Responding to E.J. Dionne, Andrew Sullivan wants to know at what point the U.S. political system became "decadent," and he offers up a number of possibilities: the Weiner scandal (E.J. Dionne’s nomination), the odd notion that Sarah Palin could be considered a serious candidate for any office above a local Parks and Recreation board, or congressional "assent to torture" in 2006.

I’m glad he (and Dionne) raised the issue, but trying to pinpoint a single moment or cause is probably futile. Corruption and decadence don’t occur all at once; it’s a progressive disease with no clear tipping point. Part of it lies in the rise of the conservative movement post-Goldwater, when wealthy conservatives began to bankroll think tanks and media organs that were more interested in waging political warfare than getting facts right. Part of it is a pop-media culture that lets an ignorant buffoon like Rush Limbaugh or a bizarre whack-job like Glenn Beck become influential voices in our national debate. Part of it is the culture of non-accountability that is pervasive in official Washington, where the frauds that helped produce the financial crisis of 2007 barely get investigated, or where a deputy secretary of defense can play a key role in causing the Iraq debacle and then get rewarded by being named president of the World Bank, screw that up too, and bail out to a safe sinecure at a D.C. think tank. As L’affaire Weiner demonstrates, in today’s America you’re more likely to derail your career by sending some lewd and idiotic tweets than by sending thousands of your fellow citizens to their deaths (along with tens of thousands of Iraqis) in an unnecessary war.

What else is to blame? A political order that creates enormous incumbency advantages through gerrymandering. An electoral system that depends on an ocean of campaign contributions, thereby empowering special interest groups with deep pockets and focused agendas. A presidential election cycle that lasts for more than one-fourth of a term, thereby forcing candidates to spend too much time running for election and too little time actually governing. A Senate that spends more time preventing the appointment of needed judges and other government officials than it does debating the wisdom of going to war. And I could go on.

But let’s not forget that the underlying cause of all this decadence is America’s remarkable structural position in the international system and the wealth we accumulated over the past century or more. If we were facing an imminent threat of invasion, we’d be looking for our Lincolns, Marshalls, Roosevelts, and Eisenhowers, and we wouldn’t be wasting our time with the Palin circus, which is nothing more than a "reality TV" version of real politics. Back when another Great Depression was looming in 2009, you actually saw the political system work, precisely because even head-in-the-sand politicos dimly understood that we were in Big Trouble and needed to do something. But once that immediate crisis was over, it was back to gridlock and grandstanding as usual.

What makes political decadence possible is the luxury of a secure international position, which makes it possible both to meddle in various global problems where our vital national interests are not really at stake (Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya, etc.) and permits Americans to think that it’s perfectly OK to put climate-change deniers, religious fanatics, former bodybuilders turned actors, and other unqualified individuals in high office. But the most embarrassing aspect of all this is that we’re surprised by the results.

But you can only do this for so long. To be sure, the United States has lots of fundamental strengths left, especially when compared with some other major powers. But unless we start electing and appointing more grown-ups to handle the public’s business (and I might add, more realists to conduct our foreign and defense policies), we are going to squander those strengths through a series of mostly self-inflicted wounds.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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