At what point do we decide that a political system has become decadent?

The breaking point for me was the Anthony Weiner story. I mean, really. Perhaps it is old-fashioned, but I have been suspicious of politicians tweeting from the moment it became vogue. Do we really need to encourage them to limit their thoughts to 140 characters or make them think we want the same details about their lives that we expect from pop stars and marquee athletes?

And now social networking has taken us where human nature always threatens to go: downward. Thus, the fastest- and loudest-talking member of the Democratic opposition is caught out for sending lewd pictures of himself to strangers. He lied about it, he finally came clean, and then he choked up.

Weiner’s self-destruction is a terrible blow for cable television bookers and causes a certain sadness for liberals who are short of troops willing to take it to the other side from one five-minute news cycle to the next.

All the negative adjectives being thrown Weiner’s way are justified. “Icky” will do. What’s amazing is that the Scandal Management Handbook, 36th edition, offered him the perfect way out. When caught, fess up immediately, declare right from the start that you are a victim of a terrible addiction, go into treatment, and disappear for a while.

You are rarely challenged these days when you take a loss of virtue and turn it into a medical condition. And by doing this, you avoid the problem of engaging your friends and allies in defending you on a matter about which you know you are guilty. There is little sympathy for Weiner among his congressional colleagues because many accepted his denial and now feel burned.

Now, I am always wary of those who do what I’m about to do next: Take a tawdry sex scandal that people read about because we like to read about tawdry sex scandals, and then use it to make some larger point. But the Weiner episode struck me in a way the others have not. It marked the culmination of several months during which sideshows that also involved outrageous male behavior dominated news coverage — for starters, John Ensign and John Edwards — at a moment when our country’s future really is on the line. (Bill Clinton’s scandal played out when we were in very good shape, which is one reason he survived.)

Add to this the political media’s tendency to prefer covering personalities that the media created in the first place (Sarah Palin and Donald Trump above all) to those taking the trouble of running for president and thinking through what they want to say.

I have no particular sympathy for the political views of Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty or Rick Santorum, but at least they are doing the hard work of politics. Thus: Palin’s unusual comments about Paul Revere got far more attention than did Pawlenty’s economic speech this week. It fell to policy bloggers such as The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein to take Pawlenty’s ideas apart. Thus: Palin’s bus trip to the New Hampshire seacoast got at least as much attention as Romney’s announcement of a real, live candidacy.

But it’s not all the media’s fault. Nor is this just about politicians who conduct themselves badly in their personal lives. Much of what passes for debate right now consists of irritable ideological gestures. The recent disappointing economic news has not changed the set-piece Washington deficit debate one bit. Big numbers are thrown around — Sen. Jon Kyl said Tuesday that Republican agreement to raising the debt ceiling would require $2.5 trillion in cuts — with little inquiry as to how such reductions would affect actual people, future economic growth or our capacity to invest in ourselves. Ah, but trying to answer such questions would distract us from the Weiner story.

OK, most of us will always pay attention to sex stories, and apocalyptic fears are usually a form of paranoia. But we’re a superpower with big economic problems. We’re acting like a country that has all the time in the world to dance around our troubles by indulging in ideological fantasies and focusing on the behavioral fantasies of wayward politicians.

Britney Spears, appropriately enough I suppose, has a catchy song out with the refrain “Keep on dancin’ till the world ends.” Forgive me for wondering whether her song will provide the soundtrack for some future documentary on our national decline if we don’t get very serious, very soon.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)

© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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