THE BLOG

America, the Can't-Do Nation

Aug 06, 2007 | Updated May 25, 2011

What do last week's Minneapolis bridge collapse, the Iraq war, and the big mess in New Orleans have in common? No, this is not trivial pursuit. Not so long ago, the United States was a superpower that could actually accomplish things abroad and at home. You know, things like winning wars, reconstructing Europe and Japan, sending men to the moon, building highways -- and bridges and levees that stayed up.

Now, thanks to a confluence of problems -- including, but not limited to, the current administration's hostility to the government it's running -- incompetence and outright shoddiness have become the national hallmarks. Whether it's all those great things we were supposed to be building for the Iraqi people, or our own infrastructure, things are falling down.

I looked at this question in a piece in Sunday's Washington Post called "Can't Do Nation":

Has there ever been a period in our history when so many American plans and projects have, literally or figuratively, collapsed? In both grand and humble endeavors, the United States can no longer be relied upon to succeed or even muddle through. We can't remake the Middle East. We can't protect one of our own cities from a natural disaster or, it seems, rebuild after one. We can't rescue our citizens when they're on TV begging for help. We can't even give our wounded veterans decent medical care.

We're supposed to be an optimistic, problem-solving nation, the country that tamed a vast wilderness, won World War II and the Cold War, put men on the moon, built the Panama Canal and the Hoover Dam. But somehow, can-do America has become a joke, an oxymoron. We've become the can't-do nation, slipping on every banana peel on the global stage. Of course, we've had our share of failure in the modern era -- the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Vietnam War, the Iranian hostage crisis, two space shuttle disasters -- but the sheer scale of our current predicament is something different.

What's the diagnosis? The White House's privileging of hunches over facts and analysis. The hangover from the Great Society. The explosion in government contracting, without the means to make sure contractors do their jobs. These problems are all of a piece; in one way or another, they spring from an interest group-driven politics that has become increasingly toxic and disengaged from the actual functioning of government.

We're off to a rocky start on the 21st century. The nation and the world face complex challenges very unlike those of the 20th, while many of our government institutions are stuck somewhere in the 1970s, and our politics still dominated by boomer angst. But given the public's frustration and hunger for something different, I hope -- and believe -- we're finally reaching a turning point here. We had better be, or we're just going to keep digging deeper down the hole we're already in.