America's sway is waning too even in regions where its influence was traditionally huge. The U.S. cannot shape an Israeli/Palestinian peace process; it watched from afar as the Arab Spring unfolded; and, in the honest but infelicitous phrase of an Obama aide, "led from behind" in Nato's Libya campaign. That approach may have made eminent diplomatic and financial sense. But for proponents of US exceptionalism and the country's global calling, it was thin gruel indeed.
Nowhere, though, is the disillusion, and the sense that the old ways no longer work, greater than Americans' views of their political system. When times were good, the imperfections did not matter: the federal government was traditionally a remote entity, and the checks and balances contained in the constitution were designed to keep it that way. But when times are bad, people look to Washington for solutions. Today's dysfunction and paralysis raise questions whether the two-party system in its present form is workable at all.
Americans, by and large, are pragmatists and moderates. Yet they look to Washington and see only polarisation and endless feuding between two parties driven by their extremes. In the US system of divided government, politics can work only by compromise, and compromise flows from the middle ground. Yet in Washington, the centre has mostly been destroyed. For the majority of incumbent senators and congressmen, the main threat they face is not the opposing party at the election, but a more radical rival in their own party primary, where a minority of committed activists determine the outcome.
The result is a Democratic Party dominated by its liberal wing, and a Republican caucus that has grown ever more conservative. Each is dug deep into ideological trenches. Americans generally favour robust argument and divided government - but not this divided. Checks and balances are all very well, but when one legislative body (the Senate) requires a vote of 60 of its 100 members for the slightest contentious legislation even to come to a vote, things, they feel, have gone too far.
After last summer's debacle over an increase in the national debt ceiling, dissatisfaction turned into disgust. A recent CBS/New York Times poll showed an approval rating for Congress of just 6 percent - to which the common reaction is, who on earth are the 6 percent?
But nothing seems to change. Last Tuesday, the House of Representatives did manage to pass, by a majority of 396 votes to six, a resolution reaffirming "In God We Trust" as the official motto of the United States. But anything that matters rots. The Republicans' theological aversion to higher taxes, even for the superwealthy, last week blocked a bill that would have provided jobs for hundreds of thousands, improving the country's ageing infrastructure. Similar resistance also looks likely to prevent the bipartisan congressional "super-committee" set up under the debt- ceiling deal from agreeing a plan for $1.2 trillion of further cuts in the deficit over the next decade by the appointed deadline of Thanksgiving. The price of failure may be a further downgrade of U.S. sovereign debt by the ratings agencies -- and yet more scorn for politicians from ordinary citizens.
No wonder Americans cast around for new saviors. No wonder the emergence of protest movements on both left and right, and no wonder
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