Robert Gates, a respected elder statesman of the political establishment, recently delivered some provocative remarks on the health, or lack thereof, of the American political system. Brian Beutler had a good item on this the other day, noting the increasing frequency with which prominent voices, not prone to hyperbole or alarmism, are raising awkward questions.

The GOP’s hyper-partisan turn after Barack Obama’s victory in 2008 meant 112th Congress was destined to test the limits of dysfunctional governance. But it also happened to coincide with a moment in history when the country needed the government to do better than the bare minimum. Instead, it’s done less. And that’s shaken people who’ve spent their careers steering the ship of state.

“I do believe that we are now in uncharted waters when it comes to the dysfunction in our political system — and it is no longer a joking matter,” former Defense Secretary Robert Gates told an audience two weeks ago at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia, where he received the Liberty Medal for national service. “It appears that as a result of several long-building, polarizing trends in American politics and culture, we have lost the ability to execute even the basic functions of government much less solve the most difficult and divisive problems facing the country. Thus, I am more concerned than I have ever been about the state of American governance.”

James Fallows noted the same remarks, emphasizing Gates’ demeanor. “I specifically recognize how carefully he has always chosen his public words,” Fallows wrote. “For such a person to say plainly that the American government has lost its basic ability to function, and that he is more concerned than he has ever been about this issue is … well, it’s worth more notice than it’s received so far.”

I often think of a column E.J. Dionne Jr. wrote a while back, in which he asked, “Can a nation remain a superpower if its internal politics are incorrigibly stupid?”

I’m a chronic optimist about America. But we are letting stupid politics, irrational ideas on fiscal policy and an antiquated political structure undermine our power.

We need a new conservatism in our country that is worthy of the name. We need liberals willing to speak out on the threat our daft politics poses to our influence in the world. We need moderates who do more than stick their fingers in the wind to calculate the halfway point between two political poles.

And, yes, we need to reform a Senate that has become an embarrassment to our democratic claims.

And, I’d argue, we need well-intentioned Republicans who care about the national interest to realize something has gone fundamentally wrong with their party, and to work to help bring back.

Dionne wrote that column, by the way, in July 2010. There’s ample evidence conditions have deteriorated since and the incorrigible stupidity is more pronounced. Some have even begun suggesting it’s part of a larger effort on the part of the radicalized right to deliberately undermine confidence in America’s public institutions and create conditions in which voters give up on government altogether.

If the public considers this unacceptable, they’re going to have to say so.

This week, in the midst of a jobs crisis and intense public demand for congressional action, Republicans killed a credible jobs bill for no apparent reason. Most Americans support the American Jobs Act’s provisions; it enjoys strong support from economists; it includes ideas from both parties; and the CBO found it will even lower the deficit over the next decade.

And despite all of this, literally every Republican in the Senate — including the alleged “moderates” — not only rejected the popular jobs bill, they refused to even let the chamber vote on it at all. This happened, at least in part, because GOP officials didn’t want to “give [Obama] a win.”

As Gates put it, “It is no longer a joking matter.”

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.