US politicians overestimate America's stability

In the maelstrom of the shutdown, a debt-ceiling suicide attempt and the cutting off of nutrition support for poor people by the Congress, it's clear that America's political class has unbounded belief in national stability.

What other country in the world would have its senior political leaders engage in a string of irrational, self-destructive political actions and not suffer major consequences? In what other nation would the stock market rally after its parliament almost sends the country over a hill, plunging it into the proverbial ravine of economic ruin?

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You have to assume that confidence in stability is approaching “irrational exuberance” — as onetime Federal Reserve chief Alan Greenspan said — when you examine the devastating effects of slashing food support for the poorest citizens while simultaneously maintaining generous tax rates for wealthy individuals, a la Mitt Romney, who pay less than 14 percent income tax, or corporations like Apple, which is able to shelter most of its profits from taxation.

Or, as the old joke goes, “That's how they got the Tzar.”

One of the most chilling scenes in the classic history of the Roosevelts, No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin, depicts FDR's first inaugural. Not shown in the newsreels, the Capitol and most of Washington was an armed camp. Army units were on high alert, with machine gun pillboxes built on the National Mall, stationed there for the possibility that the gathering would spark a popular revolution.

The recent Tea Party rallies in the capital aside, no one is predicting an insurrection any time soon. But clearly the sum of the parts of these serial acts of national recklessness has a real impact. We can measure that effect in plummeting consumer and business confidence before, during and after the shutdown debacle. 

We can also look at the supermajority of Americans who think that the country is heading in the wrong direction, and we must wonder how this acute sense of pessimism will manifest itself long term.

Surely we are not on the cusp of a 1930s-style uprising, the kind of political roller coaster that rocked Depression-era Europe right into a second world war.

But then again, taking food from poor people and cutting off unemployment benefits — in an economy the Federal Reserve considers weak enough to continue ad infinitum on a bond-buying life support system totaling some $80 billion a month (essentially the annual GDP of Libya every 30 days) — will have lasting impact on both the national economy and psyche.

Foreigners always comment on Americans' fundamental, cultural optimism. “We can do it!” Rosie the Riveter tells us. Si se puede! But the mounting incompetence of the U.S. Congress, cheered on by the right-wing equivalent of the French mob chasing down Luis and Marie Antoinette, will test any country's stability.

Yes, America is exceptional, just like the Romans thought of themselves as beyond history and immune from the fate of other nations. And Pax Americana is vulnerable to the barbarians not at the gate, but those comfortably ensconced in the U.S. Capitol.

Espuelas, a Henry Crown Fellow at the Aspen Institute, is a political analyst on television, radio and in print. He is the host and managing editor of “The Fernando Espuelas Show,” a daily political talk show syndicated nationally by the Univision America Network.