Sign Up

The New BSE Syndrome

Has the United States fallen victim to another BSE syndrome, this time in the political sphere?

January 27, 2010

Has the United States fallen victim to another BSE syndrome, this time in the political sphere?

Back in 2003, much of the United States and the world at large was gripped by headlines about BSE, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy. That is the scientific name for mad cow disease, a chronic, degenerative disorder affecting the central nervous system of cattle.

These days, another kind of BSE seems to be at play in the United States. Only this time, the reference is not to the afore-mentioned bovine spongiform encephalopathy. Rather, it captures the “Blame Somebody Else” syndrome — whether it is Republicans blaming Democrats, or the other way around. This disease doesn’t just affect the U.S. capital city, but much of the country.

Politics is almost always partisan, sometimes fiercely so. But it is a sign of serious trouble when in an otherwise very developed society, the blame game becomes all pervasive.

This isn’t just the result of deep-seated frustrations in some circles that Barack Obama won a historic victory in 2008 when he was elected U.S. President. And it isn’t just the result of the lingering effects of the 2008 global financial crisis.

Washington spinning its wheels

Rather, it is becoming a state of mind. Too much political power within the United States has been focused on infighting — instead of on remedying pressing problems. Just about everybody in the legislative branch is happy to introduce their own bill for this or that — with virtually all of them being destined for the ash heap of history.

Those that want to play the BSE game actually have an easy hand in the United States. The constitutional structure that was established for the political process, very much unlike what applies to a parliamentary democracy, is one where laws are not to be made, but prevented.

This state of play explains turns into a depressing reality for people active in the legislative and executive branches. They are, at best, spinning their weeks.

All of which goes to show why the appeal of the “BSE Syndrome” that so thoroughly and acerbically manifests itself in U.S. domestic politics. The only exception to that rule, it seems, is that everybody is quite prepared to blame the Chinese.

Such political polarization is quite astounding for the nation that so readily calls itself the world’s “greatest.” This situation is neither good for the United States nor for the world at large.

In practical terms, what we are witnessing is the blowback from a two-decade-old process of systematically shaping — and exploiting — the political divisions in the U.S. debate. The overarching goal is to fixate them in place, not to overcome them.

Yes, that is extremely cynical on the part of the operators of the political “game,” but it is very much the purpose of many focus group analyses that are being conducted every day.

Doctoring the political terms of reference is another way in which this cancer manifests itself. Examples include relabeling the inheritance tax as the “death tax,” to give fair taxes on this massive wealth transfer a bad name.

Or the talk of “racial quotas” (as compared to affirmative action) in order to end programs to advance the still much lacking fortunes of African Americans in U.S. society.

Or talk of the “pro-life” movement, in an effort to indirectly label women who choose abortion as “anti-life,” if not murderers. Or that great neologism of “job creators,” to give the 1% a rosier name and to defend their takings from the U.S. economy.

The word needs political pragmatism

One wishes that the United States would snap out of this mode of vitriol. The rest of the world is urgently awaiting a return of America’s greatest competitive power (and comparative advantage): political pragmatism.

If the current obsessive infighting drags on much longer, many of the benefits of America’s pragmatism could be lost entirely. The current vituperative style of American politics certainly stands in the way of securing a socially balanced future for the country.

One wonders whether the BSE syndrome is not a consequence of the United States never having had a real workers’ party, as many European nations did, especially in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Their role back then created better balanced societies, where the role of the economically less successful people found a vital and powerful voice. The same cannot be said for the United States.

The biggest effect of this longtime imbalance is that Republicans and upper-income people have long had the upper hand in the U.S. political process. Campaign finance contributions further aggravated this imbalance in the effective representation of divergent economic interests. So did the systematic effort to sideline labor unions in the U.S. economy (even though that, in part, was also the result of their failure to modernize in time).

Giving this imbalance, Republicans and their business allies are all the more determined to uphold the imbalanced status quo. They have gotten away with it for so long. It would be foolish to give in now, at least without putting up a relentless defense. This explains much of the vitriol and outright hatred that now shines through.

Only one thing is certain under these circumstances: Neither the citizens nor the country nor the world are well served by the current state of play. A politically paralyzed America cannot play its proper role in advancing modern civilization. Just think of the disastrous paralysis on the climate change front to have a hands-on example for the real-life effects of this.

This essay, previously published on January 27, 2010, was updated by the author in JUne 2015.


The only beneficiaries of an America hell-bent on paralyzing itself are the enemies of modern civilization.

Is the current political crisis in the US not a much-belated consequence of never having had real workers' parties?

One wishes that the US would snap out of its mode of relentless introspection and self-imposed vitriol.

The world is waiting for a return of the US’s greatest comparative advantage - political pragmatism.