US reputation for leadership taking a beating in Europe

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Marco Werman: The partial shutdown of our federal government is the news story here in the US of course, but it's also fodder for a lot of international news coverage. Gary Younge is a feature writer and columnist for the British newspaper The Guardian. He's a Brit, but he's also based here in the US for many years, currently in Chicago, so he's got a unique perspective on what's going on in Washington right now. I asked him earlier for his reaction to the shutdown.

Gary Younge: It feels like America is feeling a bit more like Italy in terms of how it governs itself or doesn't govern itself.

Werman: What does that mean?

Younge: Well, in a permanent state of legislative governmental crisis, a kind of standoff that is perpetual and that, my personal take on it is that the Republicans are upset, so a kind of display of their resistance and their impotence actually, an acknowledgement that there's really nothing they can do about it but throw the toys out of the pram, which is what it looks like.

Werman: And Brits must see that and they see the government shutdown back when Clinton was president and phrases like fiscal cliff, sequester, government shutdown. All this drama. What do they make of it?

Younge: Brits are familiar with American politics. They can name the American president in the way that most Americans couldn't name the British president, for example. There isn't really a keen understanding of how American government works, and so the extent to which the president is described as the president of the free world, but can't, almost literally, make his trains run on time, then people wonder, well, how this can be. Then again there is a weariness. It feels like America has been living on the edge of some kind of cliff, a shutdown, debt ceiling, for a couple of years now. And there is a sense that somehow this would have been settled by the election, that that's what the election was about.

Werman: People know countries' dysfunctional governments quite well. What is distinctive about the American dysfunction right now?

Younge: The degree to which it sits in stark contradiction to America's self-image. I mean, first of all, Greece really did fall of a cliff. Italy ballets around cliffs habitually and has done so for a long time. And there is a sense in both Greece and Italy of, the world has a sense of dysfunctional government. Now if you were looking for a model for good government, you wouldn't look to Greece and Italy. The Greeks and the Italians don't generally suggest that they're the greatest country in the world and have a model which other people should follow. And they don't claim to be the leaders of the free world.

Werman: But your point is that the United States does.

Younge: The United States claims a level of supremacy, functionality, leadership, which is severely undermined by a perpetual series of self-inflicted crises, where the root of those crises are difficult to fathom for most Europeans. What they say is, why wouldn't you want health care? One of my friends wrote to me from England and said, 'What have Americans got against antibiotics?' And so the notion that not even universal health care would be the flashpoint for this crisis is difficult for people to grasp.

Werman: What do your readers make of that, because today, of course, is the day that the Affordable Care Act, or otherwise known as Obamacare, comes into effect. Does that kind of muddy the waters even more for your British readers who have this pretty amazing national health care system, and how do they see that whole discussion?

Younge: National Health Service is one of those things, although Brits will routinely complain about it, they will also stoutly defend it against any notion that it would ever be gotten rid of. It's the one thing Thatcher couldn't touch. So there was some sense that this argument had been won.

Werman: Gary, you're The Guardians' man in the US, more of a feature writer, been here for about ten years, you meet Americans, you write about this country and kind of interpret it for the UK. Why do you do the job you do?

Younge: I was actually trained as an interpreter, funnily enough.

Werman: Really?

Younge: Yes. Growing up black in Britain, as my parents are from Barbados, and I was born in Britain, there's a sense in which I've always been, always felt an outsider. And so speaking foreign languages, having that kind of anthropology, foreign languages, both literally and metaphorically, is actually kind of part of who I am. And there is something about relaying the language of a country. Not literally the language of a country, but finding someone who is a liberal who loves guns, finding someone who's a conservative who is pro-immigration. Finding a country's stories is always more complex than the stereotypes, not because the stereotypes don't exist, but because they are only part of the story.

Werman: Well, Gary Younge, thanks so much for coming in.

Younge: Thank you.

Werman: Gary Younge is a columnist for the British newspaper The Guardian. His latest book is "The Speech: The Story Behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream."