U.S. Capitol police stand outside the Capitol building as the Senate votes on debt ceiling legislation to avoid a historic default at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., June 1, 2023 (OSV News photo/Evelyn Hockstein, Reuters).

According to President Biden, “the American people got what they needed” in the recent much ballyhooed budget agreement. More accurately, Congress got what it needed: an escape from a contrived and utterly unnecessary crisis. 

While the deal allows Americans to breathe a collective sigh of relief—the government has decided after all to pay its bills—let’s not kid ourselves. It solves nothing, merely kicking further down the road a disconcerting reality that few in Washington are even willing to acknowledge: our so-called “indispensable nation” finds itself increasingly hard-pressed to manage its own affairs, much less the world’s. 

Future historians will marvel at how swiftly the United States fell from the pinnacle to which it ascended with the collapse of communism in the 1980s. Embedded in the so-called budget crisis are insights into how it happened so quickly. Not least among them is the collaboration between politicians and the media to imbue an essentially theatrical event with a veneer of seriousness.

What are the sources of the dysfunction that afflicts present-day Washington? Chief among them is a habit of pretending that facts aren’t facts. Attributed in particular to Donald Trump, this tendency is by no means limited to the former president, with his habit of labeling as “fake news” aspects of reality that he finds unwelcome or inconvenient.

Trump is by no means alone in indulging this inclination. At least nominally, the budget crisis centered on an imbalance between what the federal government spends annually and what it collects in the form of taxes. For the current fiscal year, spending exceeds available revenues by nearly a trillion dollars. The cumulative debt resulting from this mismatch currently exceeds $31 trillion, larger than the overall size of the U.S. economy.

In recent years, that number has soared. As recently as fiscal year 2001, the total national debt was less than $6 trillion. While the GOP goes through the motions of bemoaning this imbalance, the profligacy of recent Republican presidents exceeds that of their Democratic counterparts. Even so, politicians of both parties periodically treat constituents to a sort of kabuki dance in which they profess a commitment to fiscal restraint, which they then proceed in practice to disregard. All concerned blithely assume that the dollar’s status as the reserve currency of the global economy is sacrosanct, endowing the United States with the unique prerogative of playing by its own rules.

Future historians will marvel at how swiftly the United States fell from the pinnacle to which it ascended with the collapse of communism in the 1980s. Embedded in the so-called budget crisis are insights into how it happened so quickly.

The realm of national security offers a variation on the theme of Washington making its own rules. Here, too, the tendency to ignore inconvenient facts is rampant.

In the blink of an eye, Republican senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina described the bipartisan budget agreement as “a win for China.” Graham’s complaint is that by allocating a mere $886 billion of new military spending—a sum double what it was a decade ago—the deal shortchanges the Pentagon. 

Paralleling bipartisan agreement on the budget is similar bipartisan agreement on national security. Graham’s operative assumption, widely shared in Washington, is that the United States is already locked in a new Cold War with China, with hot spots such as Taiwan potentially causing this cold war to boil over at a moment’s notice.

The result is another kabuki dance, with provocative behavior by U.S. forces marketed under the heading of “deterrence.” As with the status of the dollar, Americans are long accustomed to having U.S. forces assert privileges—maintaining several hundred bases abroad, for example—that Washington would find objectionable in others. Just recall the near panic triggered by a wayward Chinese surveillance balloon drifting across the continental United States. 

As they jockey for position in the Indo-Pacific, U.S. forces are incrementally moving toward a quasi-war footing. So too, of course, are Chinese forces. Deterrence becomes indistinguishable from a game of chicken conducted with warships and military aircraft. 

Gearing up for a showdown with China comes at a convenient time for the Pentagon and the national-security apparatus more generally. It provides cover to disregard the costs and consequences of failed policies such as the now all-but-forgotten wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

When it comes to asking for money, the Pentagon adheres to this hard-and-fast rule: Don’t look back; danger lies dead ahead. And indeed, hawks are already examining ways of using the Ukraine War to circumvent the cap on military spending written into the budget agreement. Their success is all but assured.

Distracted by bread and circuses—TV shows and pop stars—the American public neither demands nor expects anything better. A politics of escapism has vanquished the politics of accountability. This terrifying reality defines the actual state of our democracy.

Published in the July/August 2023 issue: View Contents

Andrew Bacevich is chairman and co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His new book, a novel about race and the Vietnam War, needs a publisher.

Also by this author
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.