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How to Engage Americans in Solving Our Problems

The US government seems deeply committed to dysfunction.  The Keystone Cops approach to raising the debt ceiling in August was the last straw in a string of frustrations over the inability of leaders of both parties in Washington to come together to work for the common good.

The depths to which the regard for government has sunk was reflected in last week’s nationwide poll by the NY Times and CBS News.  Only 10 percent of Americans believe they can trust the government to do what is right.  This is the lowest rating for confidence in government since this question started being asked in 1976, some 35 years ago.

Moreover, over ninety percent of Americans disapprove of the way Congress is handling its job – the highest disapproval rating since this polling began, also in 1976. Simply put, this country is in a sorry state.  It is also getting dangerously close to being in an angry state.  At this time of deep concern about the ability of government to do “what is right”, the Occupy Wall Street movement is reminding us of significant cracks in America’s social fabric.

One of America’s fundamental tenets has long been the belief that hard work and education would lead to opportunity regardless of one’s social standing or income level. In no other country in the 18th century world would someone like Alexander Hamilton, a poor, illegitimate young man from the Indies, be able to rise to the highest levels of government and society.  The history of America has been built on an ability to offer opportunity to those less privileged – often those who have come to this country as immigrants. 

Yet in the 21st century we seem to be losing much of this important part of the American experience. This was one of the messages from last week’s report from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office documenting the rising concentration of wealth in the top one percent of wage earners and the growing gap compared to the wealth of the middle class.

According to the CBO, the top one percent of earners increased their share of the nation’s income by 275% from 1979 to 2007.  Meanwhile, the middle three-fifths (60% of all Americans and the heart of the country) saw their after tax income rise also but only by 40% over the 28 year period.

  No wonder we are seeing pockets of protestors with the Occupy Wall Street movement.  The movement itself seems youthful, fragmented, and ineffective.  Yet it has tapped a vein of discontent that is much broader.

Many of us who think of ourselves as pro business moderates are upset about the fact that Wall Street nearly brought down the Country, but many of the most egregious offenders have been richly rewarded.  So it is not surprising that almost 50% of moderates identify with the views (such as they are understood) of the Occupy Wall Street movement- again as reported in recent polling by the New York Times and CBS.

Where do we go from here?  Fortunately, we have a resilient democracy.  I do not think the Occupy Wall Street movement will go very far.  However, we are bound to see some significant backlash in the elections of 2012.  Just what form this backlash against the ineptitude of government will take I am not sure.

I would hope that moderates in this country get fired up enough to force out   ideologues on both sides of the political spectrum.  In this effort No Labels, the recently formed movement dedicated to bringing more moderates into elective office, may be our best hope.  No Labels has funding and a promising game plan – targeting a national convention next year to endorse a series of candidates who support key bi-partisan legislation such the deficit solution proposed by the Bowles-Simpson Commission last year, a solution that requires both spending cuts and tax increases.

A parallel approach to less partisan solutions to national problems is being followed by the group Americans Elect.  This group is going to conduct a national on-line electoral process that will nominate a bi-partisan ticket for President and Vice President and get that ticket on the ballot in all fifty states. It is an attempt to tap grass roots voters with direct democracy.

Some good old American innovation in the political process may be just what the Doctor ordered. Something different from our current approach to governing is desperately needed.  Check out both No Labels and Americans Elect.  They may end up playing pivotal roles in the elections of 2012.