Go to the United States with open ears and eyes. Read the serious U.S. media. Listen to informed observers of the U.S. political scene, be they of a leftist, centrist or rightist variety. The most commonly heard word to describe U.S. governance and politics: "dysfunctional."
That was before last week. If serious Americans thought their system dysfunctional before, wait until these events wash their way through their country.
Money - lots of money - is the lubricant of U.S. politics. That lubricant is about to become more important and pervasive, courtesy of an astounding 5-4 decision of the Supreme Court. It ruled last week to eliminate, on grounds of free speech, all limits on political contributions to corporations, unions and non-governmental groups.
Yes, of course, unions can have financial clout. So, too, can NGOs. But nothing can match the money of corporations pursuing self-interest.
For more than a century, since the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, progressive Americans have struggled to limit the political influence of corporate America. Now, unless Congress acts, some of that struggle will have been in vain, because there will be even more lobbying, frantic fundraising by incumbents and adversaries, intense pressure on politicians to follow the dictate of their corporate donors, and even more advertising, much of it of the attack variety. In other words, the disorder and "dysfunction" of the U.S. government is likely to get worse.
Last week also featured the Republicans capturing a Senate seat in Massachusetts. It is generally a Democratic state, but Republicans have won elections there, including three recent governors (William Weld, Paul Cellucci and Mitt Romney) and two postwar senators (Edward Brooke, Leverett Saltonstall), back when the Republican Party had a liberal wing.
A one-vote shift in the Senate should not mean anything, since the Democrats hold 59 seats there - except that it takes 60 votes to break a filibuster. The U.S. Senate is famous for many things, but especially for filibusters. What has been called the "world's greatest deliberative body" is often nothing of the kind, since this 60-vote convention (it is not a regulation or law) has often been used, and will now be used again, to frustrate the will of the majority. Another dysfunctional element will reappear in the system.
Anticipated Republican gains in November's midterm elections, for which campaigning is already under way, will make the Congress even more divided and embolden an already determined Republican Party to oppose everything President Barack Obama proposes.
As in health care. As in climate-change legislation, the prospects for which are somewhere between slim and nil. As in tackling the staggering U.S. budgetary deficit and swelling debt.
Last week was a fateful one for the deficit. Mr. Obama had proposed to Republicans a bipartisan commission to recommend ways of reducing the deficit, with Congress empowered only to vote Yes or No on the package. It was the same device used since the late 1980s to close military bases.
Predictably, the Republicans spurned the offer, claiming that it was a Democratic ruse to raise spending. Imagine, a bipartisan commission to reduce the deficit was considered a trick to raise spending.
Republicans are prisoners of a dogmatic and dangerous fiscal ideology. As their victorious Massachusetts candidate Scott Brown promised: Elect me, and I'll lower the deficit and reduce taxes at the same time. Such is the ideological nonsense of the Republican Party in a country where the Congressional Budget Office predicts an additional $9-trillion (!) in debt by 2019.
Americans haven't the foggiest idea how to stop their massive borrowing, which contributes to the tectonic shift of power and influence from their country to China and other lenders. In his State of the Union address tonight, Mr. Obama will almost certainly refer to this national challenge, but chances are it will be for naught.
The sad, alarming fact is that for some years now, the United States has been unable and unwilling to face up to its domestic challenges. George W. Bush's administration tried to tackle immigration and social security and failed, while running nothing but deficits. Mr. Obama's administration has tried health-care reform, but it too is failing. Climate change looks like a lost cause. Immigration, social security, health care, the deficit, burgeoning debt - the country has been unable to come to grips with any of them.
The dysfunctional governance and politics that have prevented progress just got a whole lot worse.