It is sometimes suggested that, apart from the King, there really are no Belgians anymore. Modern Belgium has always been a union of 2 regions: Flemish/Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia. Their shared Catholicism crossed the linguistic divide and united the different provinces at the time of their independence from the predominantly Protestant Netherlands in 1830. To celebrate Belgium’s National Day (July 21) last week, the King Albert II and the royal family attended the traditional Te Deum in Brussels’ St. Michael’s Cathedral. But no one seriously supposes that Catholicism continues to serve as Belgium’s social glue.
In any case, from its beginning, modern Belgium’s tribal linguistic fissure has seldom been far from the surface It was heightened by World War II and the subsequent dispute over the return of Leopold III to the throne. In recent decades, linguistic/regional autonomy seems to have been taken to the farthest extreme possible, short of a formal division of the country – famously even resulting in the breakup of the historic and prestigious University of Louvain (Leuven). Since the election of 2010, linguistic separatism has practically paralyzed Belgian politics, and the country has now gone more than 400 days without a Government. Two groups, which have long lived side-by-side and have shared so much history together (including the 20th century’s two World Wars) cannot compromise and form a coalition government.
The United States, of course, is vastly different from Belgium in size and in its superpower status. Yet its political class is comparably fractured and similarly unwilling to compromise. Of course, Democrats and Republicans both speak English, but they might as well speak two completely different languages. For, in spite of living side-by-side and having shared so much history together, Americans today express their values in such radically different languages that they might as well almost be foreigners to one another.
This is the real problem at the heart of the debt-limit debate. Like the Flemish nationalist party, the Republicans are stubbornly committed to a reluctance to compromise. They do not have all the power; but they have enough to prevent the government from functioning effectively. Like the parties negotiating to form a Government in Belgium, the parties to the debt-limit debate do not really speak the same language. In the American case, the different languages are different values about the very meaning of social life and the very purposes of political life.
One hopes that our “leaders” will somehow manage to cobble something together so that the country can at least continue to pay its bills. The modesty of that minimal aspiration speaks volumes about the sad condition of a country that doesn’t seem to know how to act like a serious country anymore – and maybe doesn’t really even want to be one.