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BREMMER: The Selfishness In Congress Is Far From Over

Ian Bremmer for Reuters
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When I write about our new G-Zero world, I am describing an international phenomenon: a global environment inwhich no power or group of powers can sustainably set an international agenda. 

The  global community, used to orienting itself around a collection of U.S.-led powers, has fallen victim to a widening leadership vacuum, what with  the   United States  disengaging  from  foreign affairs and  Europe  too busy with its own crisis.

Emerging powers like China have grown large enough to undermine a Western-led global agenda — but not yet developed enough to prioritize their own international role  over  their domestic concerns.

Every major power  is  too busy watching out for its own needs to focus on  the  bigger picture. As a result,  the international community has been unable to make any progress on pressing crises like global warming, a civil war in  Syria, or  the  rise of cyber warfare. A vacuum of leadership has led to a dearth of mutually beneficial planning.

What I did not expect was to see  the  G-Zero mentality bleed its way into American domestic politics. As we all breathe a sigh of relief  in  response to  the  U.S. averting self-destruction with an 11th hour budget deal, it's important to put this "success"  in  context. First of all, how did things get so dire to begin with? Second, how likely are we to experience a sickening bout of déjà vu when  the  punted deadlines once again draw near?

Unfortunately, Washington simply isn't built for long-term thinking. Instead, each actor  in  Washington focuses on his or her own individual constituency — just like  the  international community.  In  a country this polarized, there are no potential consequences back at home that would impel enough stakeholders to do anything different.

That's  the  crux of this current crisis: society's polarization has eroded politicians' use for bipartisanship.  In  1995-1996,  the  last time  the  U.S. had a government shutdown, more than 33 percent of Congressional Republicans came  from  districts that had voted for Bill Clinton  in   the  previous presidential election.

Today, only 7 percent of Congressional Republicans hail  from  districts that voted for Obama last year. When  the  electorate  is  this segregated, it's no wonder  the  politicians they elect are interested  in  placating, not legislating.

So what  is  driving this polarization? For starters, it's been helped by a fracturing media landscape. On TV, Fox News  is  a proxy for GOP groupthink, and MSNBC  is  a haven for liberals.  In  social media — how a third of young people now get their news — people build newsfeeds of like-minded friends and journalists, insulating themselves  from  viewpoints that challenge their preconceived notions.

Media  is  disaggregating into smaller and smaller demographics, all of them catering to their very specific audience's sweet tooth.  The  news' tone ends up being as placating as possible, fearing that otherwise  the  audience will turn to one of  the  myriad other options.

That allows some politicians to narrowcast their behavior.  The  more people learn about Ted Cruz, for example, the  less they like him. But to his base, and to his district, he's a standard-bearer, valiantly defending what so few others are willing to champion. Cruz isn't  in  danger of losing his job, because his actions play well with  the  people holding him accountable.

Then, of course, there's also  the  gerrymandering, which de jure bifurcates  the  country where de facto polarization hasn't.  The  redrawing of House districts has allowed Republicans and Democrats to hone their message for their homogenous constituencies.  Congress  as a whole may be at a record-low approval rate, but most individual congressmen are insulated  from   the  bitter sentiment.

So what can we expect going forward?  The  recent deal avoided apocalypse, but it did nothing to bring  the  two parties closer together on  the  underlying politics. Back  in  2011,  Congress  saddled itself with painful consequences that would automatically take effect  in   the  absence of a successful super-committee bargain.

Even under  the  guillotine,  the  committee couldn't find sufficient common ground and sequestration took effect. This time around, there  is  even less incentive for Democrats and Republicans to avoid failure. So expect  the  two parties to barrel towards  the  new deadlines and engage  in   the  same damaging political gymnastics before kicking  the  can once more.

The  reason G-Zero has arrived  in   the  U.S.  is  because  the  consequences for individual actors are low, even if  the collective stakes are high.  The  U.S.  is  too wealthy for issues like budgets and debt ceilings to have urgency — until  the  deadline approaches.

Only then does public opinion shift against  the  obstinate. Until then, it's every constituency for itself. When Americans are so focused on their own livelihoods, they're not willing to punish  the politicians who selfishly do  the  same. That's  the  gap that creates a vacuum of leadership, at home and abroad.

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