Although it has become fashionable in some quarters to say so, I don’t think today’s Americans are any more selfish or shortsighted than we were in the past. As far back as the earliest recorded bit of history, two things were true: Everyone watched out for themselves and their loved ones, and everyone expected their government—or king, or chief, or whatever—to engage in priorities that reflected their own values. Whether our goal is to avoid insulting the gods or the bond market, we all want blessings to flow down upon us from the decisions of our leaders.
It does, however, seem a great deal more difficult than it once was for our leaders to make wise and just decisions that avoid arousing our collective wrath. Perhaps, as some now say, it is because our leaders are more stupid and venal that in the past, but we can cast our view backwards across the broad vista of American history to find our fair share of fools and crooks in high places. Perhaps it is because our problems are larger than ever before, but we’ve managed to muddle through some pretty miserable times in the past with both our nationhood and honor intact. Perhaps it is because we have less of sense of community than we once did, but there seem to be plentiful examples of citizens working selflessly to improve the lives of their neighbors.
So why is it that we can’t seem to come to any resolution to our staggering national debt—the size of which recently resulted in an unprecedented downgrade of the U.S. financial outlook by Standard & Poor’s—or make seemingly common sense moves to simplify our Byzantine government regulations or tax code? If we could once whip the Nazis and survive intact during the Great Depression, today why can’t we stop burying ourselves under mountains of bureaucratic pettifoggery and using our national credit card to splurge beyond our collective means?
I suspect there are two reasons why we seem like such a pitiful, helpless giant: our nation’s political atomization into myriad, and very well-organized, single issue interest groups and the high octane rhetoric of our mass media culture. Unfortunately, each feeds off the other and adds to our sense of hopeless terminal gridlock. Whenever a change—whether large or exceedingly small—is proposed, an army of experts and a blizzard of press releases demonstrating the utter stupidity of the change is sure to follow. If the proposed change does not succumb to a high volume howl of dismay, the next step is invariably to start flinging invective at those who disagree—a behavioral problem that affects the Right and Left alike.
Consider any suggestion to change a government policy. Now follow the inevitable timeline of results:
First, whatever the reason for the proposed change, it is sure to find a cold reception somewhere from someone whose livelihood depends on fiercely protecting the status quo. It might be a non-profit group, it might be an industry lobbyist, it might be an academic think tank, it might be a group of students or parents—it could even be an organization that promotes wooden fences over chain link ones. Whether it is a registered political organization or an ad hoc group of citizens, for any suggestion that we add or change a regulation, cut or increase a benefit, or add or subtract from a particular line of a government budget, one can count on the fact that somebody’s ox is being gored.
Second, take a swing onto the media circus to predict doom. Given that controversy translates into TV and radio ratings, most producers and hosts know it is imperative to pump up the volume by putting those who vociferously disagree in close proximity with little time to actually discuss the details of the idea, thereby promoting debate by one-liner. Given the pressing need on both sides to “win” the encounter during the limited time they are on the air, the level of debate descends to diatribe almost instantaneously. If you have to restrict your responses to only 10 seconds, a well-considered analysis that examines all the advantages and disadvantages in the context of our national interests is a sure loser. Better to reference a story about a struggling family, spry senior, or photogenic child whose lives will be devastated by your idea. That is how you demonstrate firm leadership in America when a camera or microphone is at hand.
Never mind the inconvenient fact that there is no idea in all of human history that has offered that perfect mythical mix of all advantages and absolutely no disadvantages. Context and reasoned conversation are for saps.
In closing, as the final nail in the coffin of informed and courteous conversation, attack the motives and character of the person or group who disagrees with your idea. If you’re attacking from the Right, phrases like socialist agenda, Big Brother, irresponsible spending, or naïve beliefs are handy conversational tics. If you’re attacking from the Left, heartless indifference, sacrificing our children, callous statement, or balancing the budget on the backs of the poor/seniors/government workers /our ecosystems can be inserted into almost any conversation to impugn anyone with an idea different from your own.
If you are unlucky enough to occupy the middle ground, you can enjoy the cozy sensation of being walloped from both sides while trying to play the peacemaker—which is one of the reasons why the broad middle of the spectrum of ideas is so underrepresented in our national political debate. Why would we possibly be interested in anyone trying to build a workable coalition that transcends ideology? They are wimps who aren’t demonstrating 21st century-style leadership.
We’ve got some big problems hurtling our way, not the least of which is that we are, as a nation, flat broke and staring at a future markedly grimmer than we could have imagined only a few years ago. The only way we are going to be able to get through the years ahead with some semblance of our political culture intact is to stop shouting—and start speaking. As naïve, socialist, callous, or irresponsible as some might surely say it is, we need to start listening, stop calling each other names, and begin a renewal of our society that respects differences of opinion and recognizes that many changes, while inevitably painful to some, will have to be made if we are to keep the great experiment of American democracy rolling forward.