I’m not a big Charlie Cook fan, and I think he’s deeply confused about economics in this post. But I feel like he definitely gets it right about the era we’re heading into.

Over the course of history, Congress and the White House have seen highs and lows. Times that can be remembered with pride and other times when politicians failed to meet the American people’s expectations. Right now, we are at a very, very low point—the worst I’ve seen since I moved to Washington in September 1972. Never in my memory have both parties and both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue appeared as dysfunctional as they do today [...]

Several days ago, I was stopped repeatedly, including once by a security guard in my office building and three times by different people at the grocery store. All were seeking some explanation as to what was happening with the debt-ceiling debate and hoping that I might be able to provide some assurance that things were going to work out OK. In some of these encounters, I tried to come up with a hopeful response; other times, I just threw up my hands.

That same day, one of my brothers-in-law e-mailed me a long and involved joke about a man who was born with a silver screw in his stomach instead of a belly button. As he grew up, he furtively searched for a way to have the screw removed; finally, at a monastery in Nepal, he found a monk who could make it happen. To make a long story short, a giant screwdriver appears out of a purple mist, removes the screw, and disappears out the window. Jubilant, the man jumps up, and his rear end falls off. The moral of the story is, “Don’t screw around with things you don’t understand—you can lose your butt.” Appended to the joke was the notation that Congress is screwing around with things it doesn’t understand, such as the economy, and that’s why we are all losing our butts. Lawmakers may not realize they are becoming national jokes, but they are.

We are coming out of three straight wave elections and I predict we’ll see a fourth in 2012. People don’t know which side to blame but they sure know that this group of elites has failed completely. This episode over the debt limit only confirms that.

In a normal era, this wouldn’t matter so much. The United States had many natural advantages and accumulated wealth based on resources going back to its founding. But we have larger challenges than at any time in our history: an unbalanced economy, a planet boiling from climate change, a broken health care system threatening to crowd out everything else, a determined, sophisticated and fully stocked corporate/conservative movement dedicated to grabbing as much for themselves as possible. So that just magnifies the dysfunction.

And incidentally, we’re seeing this kind of failure in Europe and throughout the world; it’s not unique to the United States. Yes, we have a pathetic couple of political parties, and a cult of balance in corporate-run media that poisons the discourse. But institutions all over the world, at every level, have been rotting for some time, and the same elites who have failed the world have pressured these institutions into acting on their behalf.

And it drives a sense of helplessness among the public, something I see and hear every single day, which could go one of two ways. It could result in people massing together, rebuilding a mass movement to end the careers of those who put us in this predicament, or it could result in a mass pulling back. People could retreat to other pursuits, places where they can maintain a modicum of control. This of course plays right into the hands of unaccountable elites, giving them practically everything they want. I reject it totally. But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.