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For the last few weeks everyone has been talking about Washington's dysfunctional political culture.

A lack of bipartisanship is only the beginning. Republicans are determined to do nothing that might help President Barack Obama. To that end, they have largely abandoned legislating in favour of simple obstructionism. Democrats, despite enjoying historically large majorities in both houses of Congress, seem unable (or unwilling) to exercise the power voters have given them.

For many political observers on both sides of the aisle the Senate, in particular, has become a study in dysfunction: a place where a lethal combination of ego and tradition make it nearly impossible to get anything done.

How have we come to this sorry pass?

At moments such as this it can be useful to pause and spend some time examining history.

Whenever friends from overseas ask me to recommend a book that explains Washington and its political culture the first work I mention is Democracy by Henry Adams. This is not a work of careful social science but, rather, a novel. Though published in 1880 it remains almost without peer in its portrait of power and how it is exercised within the American system.

Adams, a distinguished historian and the grandson and great-grandson of presidents, was as astute an observer of the American system as the country has ever produced. Take away the gas lamps and hoop skirts and his fictional Washington of 130 years ago is recognisable as a place not far removed from today's American capital.

Democracy was an enormous best-seller in its time but the work for which Adams is best remembered today is his autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, first published in 1907.

Flipping back through his memoir of the political intrigues that gripped Washington in the late 1860s when he was what we would today call a political operative, allied with the government of then president Ulysses S. Grant, one encounters, once again, a distant city that seems eerily familiar.

Of the House of Representatives, he wrote:

"One never expected from a Congressman more than good intentions and public spirit. Newspaper men as a rule had no great respect for the lower House; Senators had less; and Cabinet officers had none at all. Indeed, one day when Adams was pleading with a Cabinet officer for patience and tact in dealing with Representatives, the Secretary impatiently broke out: — ‘You can't use tact with a Congressman! A Congressman is a hog! You must take a stick and hit him on the snout!'"

Beyond belief

As for the upper house, senators, he writes, "passed belief." He describes them as comically pompous and so partisan that at times "the whole Senate seemed to catch hysterics … without apparent reason." The body's "great leaders" defied parody. "They were more grotesque than ridicule could make them."

One could dismiss this as the crotchety rant of an old man (Adams was close to 70 when the Education was published), were it not so close to what many in Washington are saying about the Senate today.

Democrats in 2010 are spending much of their time debating whether the only way to enact Obama's agenda is by changing Senate rules to take away the GOP's power to obstruct even routine business.

As Adams wrote over a century ago: "The most troublesome task of a reform President was that of bringing the Senate back to decency."

It would be easy to look at this situation and conclude that because, in some respects, so little has changed, Washington's present paralysis is, in fact, nothing to worry about.

The obvious problem with this thesis is that the dysfunctional Washington of 1869 was not a superpower with global responsibilities. Moreover, while the ego-driven pettiness of today's Washington may resemble that of 140 years ago, what has changed is the speed with which each side's charges make their way through the country thanks to TV, radio, Facebook and Twitter, and the corresponding speed with which counter-charges are hurled back in the opposite direction.

The result is a political culture that seems to have little concern for governing. The rough-and-tumble world of politics is, from these people's perspective, much more fun.

What America needs today is a collective realisation that with the world watching, its latitude for collective self-indulgence is much narrower than it once was. The United States is not the blundering giant of its critics' caricatures. Neither, however, is it the isolated land with no need to think about others' cares and concerns that some Americans would like to envision. Squaring that circle will be the Obama administration's biggest challenge.

Gordon Robison, a writer and commentator who has lived in and reported on the Middle East for two decades, teaches political science at the University of Vermont.