A crisis of cynicism: The US cannot become a do-nothing country
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Missed in the top trending news last week was that the House and Senate Armed Services committees took the first step toward continuing the streak of passing the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), for the 56th year in a row — a comprehensive defense policy bill that increasingly legislates on broader national security issues across our government.

That’s right, the “do-nothing Congress” actually did something — something that’s both critical for our national defense and important for our political culture.

Given the media’s obsession with reporting on the “do-nothing Congress” and Congress’s abysmal job approval rating, one might think the passage of the NDAA would be national breaking news — news that cuts through the noise of President Trump’s tweets and Kim Kardashian’s paparazzi photos. 

I mean; the media wants Congress to do something, right?

Wrong. 

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We live in a time in which we value talk and cynicism over enlightened action. Cynicism has allowed many in our country to cope with the failures of our political leadership and has become a refuge for those disengaged from our participatory democracy. But a cynical and disengaged citizenry is not sustainable for the viability of our republic and the future of our country.

 

We have now entered a new and dangerous time in our nation’s history. Our republic is failing, and the fight for the future of our country has commenced.

The battlefield for this fight does not reside from without. Rather, the central, epic battle for the viability of our republic, and the future of our country, resides from within. 

As Abraham Lincoln said: “At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reaches us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

Abraham Lincoln’s warning is becoming our reality. America’s internal divisions are now our greatest, strategic vulnerability. They threaten not only our democratic institutions and processes but the republic itself.

So, what can we learn from the House and Senate Armed Services committees? How are they able to function within this context and pass large, comprehensive legislation each and every year?

The cynics would point to parochialism and lobbyists. These elements play a role, but this explanation is not sufficient.

Based on what I have witnessed and experienced first-hand, the reasons include the Constitution, politics and culture.

The Constitution. The Constitution explicitly enumerates Congress’s responsibilities in Article I, Section 8. Within the Armed Services Committee jurisdiction, it includes: “To raise and support Armies...To provide and maintain a Navy…To make rules for the Government and Regulation of land and naval forces.” Therefore, the political question for these committees is not whether Congress should carry out such a role — the question is simply how. Given our deep, internal divisions, we must more closely adhere to the Constitution in all that we do as a nation to maintain the legitimacy of our democratic institutions and processes. 

Politics. Today, politics has become tantamount to a four-letter word. But politics matters. We cannot enter into our great debates of our time, from the priorities of the federal government to war and peace, without starting from a worldview. But, even more importantly, politics brings legitimacy into the legislative process through representation of the views and interests of the American public. This is a critical feature of our democratic republic. The American people’s voice is the basis of legitimacy for all that the United States does.

Culture. Culture, and more specifically functional political culture, is what I believe, above all, we are missing today. The dominant political and popular culture in our society — cynicism — is incongruent with the ideal of maintaining the republic. Even though our founders recognized the self-interested nature of people, they also knew that for our experiment in self-government to work, it would require an enlightened citizenry committed to liberty and maintaining the republic. Central to the Armed Services committees’ work is the preservation of our republic and the interests of American people. The preservation of our republic must become again the centerpiece of our political culture.

We must build a new political movement in our society, a political movement that adheres to the Constitution, looks to the people for legitimacy in all that we do as a nation, and rebuilds an enlightened political culture committed to liberty and preserving our republic.

John F. Kennedy counseled us: “Love our country, not for what it was, though it has always been great —not for what it is, though of this we are deeply proud — but for what it someday can, and, through the efforts of us all, someday will be.”

The House and Senate Armed Services committees know that our democratic processes, our politics and our republic require stewardship, dedication and people who are committed to making our democratic institutions work.

Therefore, I implore all of us to consider the example of these committees. And instead of being those cynical critics on the sidelines, we should try to figure out how each of us can contribute to preserving our republic for future generations of Americans. 

Happy 241st birthday to our great experiment in self-governance — and to many, many more.

Alex Gallo served as a professional staff member on the House Armed Services Committee for five years. He is a West Point graduate, a combat veteran, and a graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School. His work has been published by The Washington Post, National Review The Huffington Post, The Hill, and Foreign Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @AlexGalloUSA and through www.newrepublicanism.com.


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