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Literally and Figuratively, We Are Constipation Nation

A national laxative shortage is the perfect metaphor for the United States these past four decades.

Marilyn Monroe and Tom Ewell
George Rinhart/Corbis/Getty Images
Marilyn Monroe and Tom Ewell in 1955’s “The Seven Year Itch”

“Let’s get this country moving again,” John F. Kennedy preached in the 1960 presidential campaign. The slogan, coined by the Vietnam hawk Walt Rostow, was premised on the conceit that the Eisenhower years were sleepy and silent, which they weren’t. The missile gap that Kennedy campaigned on, for example, didn’t exist. But Kennedy’s message of vigor and renewed strength inspired idealistic government programs like the Peace Corps and Volunteers in Service to America (Vista); paved the way for Great Society innovations like Medicare and Medicaid; and helped open the door to epochal civil rights legislation.

No presidential candidate today would urge that we get America moving again. It would scare people too much! Instead, candidates talk about Change We Can Believe In and Making America Great Again and Stronger Together and Building Back Better. Only this last commits the voter to any tangible activity, and even here the building is apparently something we were going to have to do anyway (“better”). God forbid that a political candidate order America to get up, unbidden, from its power-lift vinyl recliner with waterproof cupholders on each arm and consider for one brief moment not what its country can do for it but what it can do for its country.

These irritable generalizations are prompted by the fascinating news, reported by Rachel Wolfe in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal, of a national shortage in prescription and over-the-counter laxatives:

Surging demand is contributing to a shortage of polyethylene glycol 3350, the generic name for laxatives like Miralax and Glycolax, gastroenterologists and suppliers say. Consumers are noticing emptier shelves in drugstores across the country as a result.

The reasons for the shortage, Wolfe writes, are an aging population and bad eating habits on the part of the young, who don’t consume enough fiber and believe that moving their bowels at least once a day helps them lose weight, which it doesn’t. Covid made everything worse as people stopped leaving the house, stopped going to the gym, and ate more unhealthy snacks. But even before Covid, the United States led the world in the consumption of nature’s laxative, prunes, devouring about 50,000 metric tons in 2021, the last year for which data are available. France, despite its more robust culinary tradition of cooking with prunes, placed a distant second, gobbling up about 14,000 metric tons.

My beloved country is perched atop the porcelain throne like Jake Portnoy, “listening for distant thunder,” its “kishkas … gripped by the iron hand of outrage and frustration.” It’s a powerful metaphor for our political epoch, which began with the election of Ronald Reagan and is struggling, finally, under President Joe Biden, to drop a deuce.

We are Constipation Nation. Please bear with me as I explain.

The largest fecal mass our republic can’t expel is Donald Trump. Elected president in 2016, twice impeached, and now under prosecution in two federal courts and two state courts for a variety of forehead-smiting alleged crimes, Trump is currently the front-runner for the Republican nomination in 2024, polling, at 52 percent, higher than all his rivals put together. This is worrying for Democrats but even more worrying, I think, for Republican officeholders, most of whom quietly loathe the man and understand that he’s, well, a turd. If he’s their nominee, he’ll probably lose. If he wins, he’ll destroy what’s left of the Grand Old Party’s reputation. Yet they can’t get rid of him.

Did I mention that Trump is 77 years old? The incumbent is 80. It’s pretty hard to get a country moving when it’s a gerontocracy. As I explained in an essay four years ago, in 1982, the year Leonid Brezhnev died, the median age within the Politburo—much-mocked every May Day when the old farts appeared on a Red Square reviewing stand, rheumy-eyed and immovable as a stuffed Kamchatka brown bear—was 71. Today, the median age of America’s closest equivalent—the president, the top leaders in Congress, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, and the leading candidate to challenge the incumbent in 2024—is 72. The median age of a U.S. senator is 65, the highest it’s ever been. The median age for a U.S. representative has for the past 10 years been 57 or 58, which is also higher than ever before.

There’s a simple explanation for this: Voters are older than ever before. The Baby Boom cohort, combined with the much greater tendency of older people to vote, has pushed the median voting age up to about 53. In the primaries, where most races get decided, the median is an even higher 62. As New York City Mayor Eric Adams, age 63, pointed out on primary election night 2021, “Social media does not pick a candidate. People on Social Security pick a candidate.” (I’m grateful, as ever, to Phil Keisling, a former secretary of state in Oregon and board chairman of the nonprofit National Vote at Home Institute, for updating these numbers.)

Older leaders can be an invaluable resource. President Joe Biden, at 80, has managed the economy superbly. Nancy Pelosi, who stepped down in January at 83, was the greatest House speaker since Sam Rayburn. Senator Mitch McConnell, 81, was performing very competently (if infuriatingly) as Republican leader until recently. But now he isn’t, and despite Senator Rand Paul, a medical doctor, pointing out that cameras have twice captured troubling neurological mishaps, McConnell is refusing to step down. His Republican Senate colleagues don’t appear willing to force the issue. Similarly, Senator Dianne Feinstein, at 90, has stayed in office too long, and her fellow Democrats are stuck with her because Senate Republicans won’t allow her to be replaced on the Judiciary Committee, where a Democratic majority is needed to confirm Biden’s judicial nominations. In both instances, Democratic and Republican leaders are just … stuck.

The Founders’ vision of governmental checks and balances has degenerated into a deadlock machine. You’ve heard this before. Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institution labeled the phenomenon Demosclerosis in a book of that title published three decades ago. Rauch favored the metaphor of arteriosclerosis. I think a more precise metaphor (if less Brookings-friendly) is constipation, because it better conveys inaction.

The GOP mechanism for barring Feinstein’s replacement is the filibuster, which allows 41 dissenters to block legislation. The filibuster has been eliminated for nominations, but Democrats have hesitated to eliminate it for legislation, and when they tried to suspend the filibuster for a single vote on ballot access (Biden would also like to suspend it for a vote affirming abortion rights) they were blocked by Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema (average age: 61.5). Republican Senator Tommy Tuberville, age 68, is demonstrating right now that a single senator can hold up hundreds of military nominations and promotions, just because he doesn’t like that the Pentagon reimburses service members for traveling out of state to have an abortion. It’s like a Quaker meeting gone berserk.

Neither the filibuster nor the Senate “hold” is mentioned in the Constitution. They are governed, instead, by Senate rules (supplemented, in the case of the hold, by legislation in 2017 and a Senate resolution in 2011). And yet they remain.

Other desirable changes in governance would require a constitutional amendment. It would be helpful, for instance, finally to rid ourselves of the Electoral College, a creaky and undemocratic mechanism that dates to the eleventh century, or to pass, finally, the Equal Rights Amendment. In the not too distant past, constitutional amendments were pretty common. During the twentieth century we did it no fewer than a dozen times. But no constitutional amendment has made it past the finish line since 1992, when the Twenty-Seventh Amendment changed the procedure by which Congress gives itself a raise. The country is too divided now to permit it.

The persistence of a too-high federal budget deficit (projected this year to be $1.4 trillion) is, I think, a form of constipation. President Bill Clinton got rid of it in 1998, and the nation heaved a great sigh of relief. (Ahhhhh.) Then, to pay for tax cuts to the rich and the Iraq War, President George W. Bush brought the deficit back (also, funnily enough, to $1.4 trillion, though that’s $2 trillion in current dollars) and the country once again doubled over in pain. The deficit persists—and, consequently, ambitious ideas for new government programs get set aside—because the thought of raising taxes gives Congress gastric distress. Mostly the fault lies with Republicans, but the Democrats deserve some blame too. When Biden proposed lifting the corporate tax rate to 28 percent (before Trump it was 35 percent), his fellow Democrats in Congress balked. It was the same when Biden tried to raise the top capital gains rate to 37 percent (up from the current 20) and when Biden tried to tax unrealized gains at death. These proposals were all designed to hold harmless taxpayers making less than $400,000. That’s pretty constipated too. But even so, Biden couldn’t get traction. (I should here acknowledge former New Republic editor Michael Kinsley for pioneering use of the word “constipated” in a political context to mean “blinkered” or “incomplete.” That’s not precisely how I apply it here, but it’s close enough to warrant mention.)

Psychopaths have turned America’s elementary schools into shooting galleries. According to Education Week, which keeps a running tally, we’ve seen 28 school shootings this year and 172 since 2018. Clear majorities support various gun-control measures, including a ban on assault weapons. But we don’t get them. Why not? It’s easy to blame the National Rifle Association, a not particularly well run lobby group. The real problem is the highly motivated electoral minority that, as candidate Barack Obama got in trouble for saying in 2008, “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” They sound a little constipated, no? This minority’s frustrations are with an economy that tells them to get lost. Congress could help them expel all those Glocks and AR-15s if it passed the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which would make it easier for working people to join a union. But it doesn’t.

The only big new social welfare program created since the Johnson administration was Obamacare, which lowered the cost of health insurance and now extends coverage to 18.2 million. Republicans tried to kill it and failed, but they’ve sabotaged it wherever they can. Obamacare needs to be absorbed into Medicare so that the U.S. can rejoin the community of civilized nations. But universal health care isn’t even discussed these days in Washington.

I could go on. We are the wealthiest nation in the world, and a scandalously impoverished one. We aspire to greatness and settle for mediocrity or worse. We can’t be budged. America needs to get the hell up out of its chair, walk down the hall and to the right, close the door, turn on the fan, and make it happen. Let’s get this country moving again.