Seth Wescott coming from last place to take a gold in snowcross, an injured Lindsey Vonn winning a gold in the downhill, Apolo Ohno winning his sixth Olympic medal in an almost miraculous way — these XXI Winter Olympics are giving us Americans memorable and even epic moments.

Savor these moments. Once this Olympics ends, we will be surveying a national landscape littered with problems we seem incapable of resolving. We need more of the kind of grit and determination that marks the best of our Olympians in the public arena.

Instead what we have are the ”best” leaving the public stage. The latest is Sen. Evan Bayh, respected Democratic moderate from Indiana. With strong support in his home state and a sizeable campaign war chest, Bayh still decided to throw in the towel, saying that the extreme partisanship and gridlock in the Senate were simply too frustrating to continue to endure.

James Fallows, writing in the January-February edition of the Atlantic, gives a thoughtful perspective on the current state of the nation. Fallows has just returned to this country after living in China for three years so he has an unusual vantage point from which to observe his native country.

While Fallows is impressed with what the Chinese are accomplishing in building infrastructure and expanding higher education, he finds much to appreciate in contemporary America — ”room on the streets and sidewalks, trees to walk under, wildflowers at the edge of town — yes, despite sprawl and overbuilding.” He notes that if what he sees is a ”decline,” it is from a level that the rest of the world largely envies.

Nonetheless, Fallows laments an aging infrastructure and a fiscal situation locally and nationally that makes it unlikely we will be able ”to rebuild the ship.” He quotes a Chinese student he knows who recently arrived at graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley who said the Bay area seemed ”beautiful, but run-down.”

In spite of the challenges to infrastructure and the competition from nations such as China, Fallows remains optimistic about America’s prospects, provided we continue to build on what he sees as the two absolute pillars of American strength: ”continued openness to immigration and a continued concentration of universities that people around the world want to attend. This will remain America’s advantage — unless we throw it away.”

And, Fallows cautions, we threaten to throw this advantage away because our governing system is simply incapable of dealing with significant problems. He fingers the Senate as the most anachronistic feature of our system of government.

Extreme partisanship, from both parties, coupled with archaic rules make it possible for a determined minority to thwart any significant initiative.

This is exactly what we saw played out in the recent debate on national health care policy.

The question is what can be done. Fallows examines several alternatives. First is an ”enlightened coup.” As Fallows puts it, this could — but wouldn’t necessarily be — a military coup. It could be led by someone like Warren Buffett — a benign and respected figure to take over and set things right. This is intriguing, until one realizes a coup could be masterminded by Dick Cheney instead.

More appropriate would be a serious effort to address what is wrong with current governance. Theoretically this could be done with constitutional amendments or even a constitutional convention.

California’s governance is in such a state of dysfunction that a state constitutional convention there is a real possibility. We might learn from California’s example.

Alternatively, one might hope for what Fallows refers to as ”another Sputnik moment” — an event that shocks us to action without being life-threatening.

In a sense this is the only reason Congress passed a Stimulus Package in 2009 — the threat of the meltdown of the global financial system was severe enough to move even the Senate to action. Of course, the global financial crisis was life-threatening. We must be careful what we wish for — we dodged a big bullet in 2009, but only just.

Lastly, there is always, as Fallows suggests, ”muddling through.” The most disappointing aspect of this brilliant piece is that, in the end, Fallows suggests muddling through is what we must do. He bravely makes the case for muddling, but, to my mind, he is simply giving in. Jim Fallows is not up to his Olympic moment.

No, let us reassess our alternatives. Muddling through is no longer good enough if we want our children and grandchildren to have the kind of opportunities this generation has enjoyed.

Wake up, America. Shake off the torpor, put the iPod on max, and let’s have an Olympic moment.


Ron Bancroft is an independent strategy consultant based in Portland. He can be contacted at: [email protected]


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