Wanted the Debt Talks to End Differently? Voters Must First Sacrifice Self-Interest

The debt standoff came down to the wire and, as expected, a deal was reached in time to avert predicted negative international repercussions. No one likes the deal. Representatives held their noses as they cast their votes. Extremists on both sides of the political spectrum call it a betrayal. Average Americans do not know what to think yet. How it will play out over the next year or decade is unclear. What is clear is that our representative bodies are not serving us as a nation very well.

However, it is not entirely their fault. After all, elected officials do not elect themselves. We have a democracy where less than half of those eligible vote. Those that do vote are often motivated by self-interest or support of a narrow set of interests. The issues that seem to propel most Americans to the polls are keeping taxes low, social issues, and business interests, and our elected leaders are a reflection of that. That is how democracy works and it also is why our goals are often short-term, shortsighted, and seem to be utterly divided or quite often just adrift.

It was not a surprise the agreement came down to the last minute. What was surprising, especially to the rest of the world, was America — the world’s leader — seemed willing to march over a cliff despite many opportunities to reach practical agreement. This brinksmanship has called our judgment into question and caused many to ask if we should be trusted to lead or if our model should be followed. The crisis has cost us more than money; it has cost us credibility.

Our elected leaders in both parties have adopted nearsighted, short-term goals along a narrow, self-interested line of policies that are a reflection of an electorate uncertain about the future. Our politicians know how to win elections, but they don’t know how to lead. The American people punish those who require sacrifice in the short term for the national good in the long run.

For the last 10 years we have fought a “War on Terror” and security is consistently among Americans’ top issues of concern. Our willingness to cut our Defense and State budgets before we will suffer even a small, targeted tax increase for less than 10% of Americans reflects dangerous self-interest. That this standoff will be repeated this fall and once again next year reflects limited thinking. That we would be willing to lose even more credibility by doing it again reflects shortsightedness. That some Americans seem willing to accept cuts to programs for the middle and lower classes in hopes it may create jobs reflects the desperation of the situation.

With this budget deal we are all losers. America needs a clear, farsighted strategy that reassures Americans of the future and reassures the world we are still a good partner and leader. Average Americans will have to cede self-interest. We need to put leaders, not politicians, in office who think about America, not themselves. To do this, Americans will have to do the same.

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