Newt Gingrich has won the South Carolina GOP primary. Why should anyone care?
The coverage of the GOP presidential debates, the caucus in Iowa, and the Republican primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina offer conclusive proof that our political system is broken and perhaps near death. While attention was focused upon Newt Gingrich's truculence, Mitt Romney's reluctance to release his income tax returns, Rick Santorum's willingness to permit the state to invade a woman's uterus, and Ron Paul's bizarre fixation on the gold standard, our political culture continues to unravel.
A study by the Central Intelligence Agency reports that the U.S. ranks 50 out of 221 countries surveyed for life expectancy. The average life expectancy of 78.37 years places the U.S. below all Western European countries and is only slightly higher than Cyprus, Panama and Costa Rica.Numerous studies report that more than 47 million Americans, including 9 million children, do not have health insurance. A study by Harvard University Medical School in 2009 attributed that the lack of medical insurance to about 45,000 deaths per year in the U.S.
Researchers for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2010 reported that 17.2 million households - or 14.5 % of all households in the United States - were "food insecure" and that in one-third of those households "normal eating patterns were disrupted." In 3.9 million of those households, children went hungry.
As the real unemployment rate climbed to approximately 20 million Americans in 2011, another 2.6 million Americans, according to the Census Bureau, descended into poverty. Almost simultaneously, the World Bank observed that the United States had a higher level of income inequality than Canada, South Korean or any country in Europe with exception Turkey.
In October of last year, the Internal Revenue Service and the Congressional Budget Office released findings which showed that the top 1% of the American population continued to receive a disproportionate share of the country's wealth. In 2009, the 1.4 million who belong to the top 1% made an average of $1 million dollars in 2009. Further, since 1979, the share of U.S. Income enjoyed by the top 1% has increased from 9.18% to 17.9% as of 2009, or more than the entire bottom half of the U.S. population.
Perhaps as unsettling, Forbes magazine reported that, as of November, 2011, the four hundred richest Americans enjoyed a combined worth of $1.53 trillion, which figure had increased from $1.37 trillion over the previous year. Their combined wealth was thus approximately equivalent to the GDP of Canada.
The news about the current plight of American education is equally disturbing. Children in twelve European counties rank higher in mathematics literacy; and in eight European countries, children were ranked as possessing better scientific literacy than their peers in the U.S. The 2003 results from the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) documented the comparatively poor performance in mathematical proficiency, on average, of fifteen year olds in the United States. "Out of 30 OECD countries which participated in PISA 2003, the average performance for the United States was statistically higher only than that of five countries (Portugal, Italy, Greece, Mexico and Turkey) and statistically lower than that of twenty countries."
As of 2006, the average adolescent in European Union countries completed 17.5 years of education, versus his counterpart in the United States who, on average, completed only 16.5 years of education. In nine European countries, more young people entered university education than in the U.S. and, as of 2006, the United States slipped from first to seventh in the number adults aged 24-35 who have received a bachelor's degree, as opposed to Canada (53 percent), Japan (52 percent), Sweden (42 percent), Belgium (41 percent) and Ireland (40 percent).
The totality of the evidence suggests that American education, at almost every level, is experiencing a profound crisis and has failed to create a literate, educated citizenry. For example, the National Adult Literacy Survey found that over forty million Americans age 16 and older have significant literacy deficiencies. In addition, more than 20 percent of Americans read at or below a fifth grade level which is far below the level needed to earn a living wage. The data with respect to scientific literacy is also disquieting. Americans in general do not understand what molecules are, less than one third can identify DNA as a key to heredity, and one adult in five thinks that the Sun revolves around the Earth.
These critical concerns signify the existence of severe, intractable structural problems that, if not addressed, will ultimately cause our political system to collapse. How many questions about these issues were asked by the media and their pundits during the GOP presidential debates? Why were the GOP candidates themselves given carte blanche to mouth sonorous platitudes about the virtues of unregulated free enterprise and the need to roll back an already meager safety net, with suggestions that, if food stamps were abolished and child labor laws suspended, perhaps the poor would learn the value of hard work?
Leo Strauss, a political philosopher in the European conservative tradition, observed that the proper object of political theory and inquiry is to discover the Truth of the human condition. Measured by that standard, what passes for a discussion of serious issues and ideas in American politics is woefully deficient. Our politics has been reduced to the equivalent of a food fight in which the superficial - who's up? who's down? - has become the standard by which our leaders are chosen.
Who is responsible for the trivialization of American politics? Undoubtedly media and the enormous infusion of money from corporations - with their legions of lobbyists and super PACs sanctioned by the Citizens United case - have played a large role in the decline of meaningful political discourse, but they are not alone.
Who else bears responsibility? We all do. By our apathy, our lack of active participation in the political system, our unwillingness to challenge the lunatic fringe, and our tolerance of political lies, we have allowed the democracy to which we claim allegiance to be gamed and stolen.
Howard Zinn once warned that, "If those in charge of our society - politicians, corporate executives, and owners of press and television - can dominate our ideas, they will be secure in their power.They will not need soldiers patrolling the streets. We will control ourselves." His prophecy is now becoming our nightmare.