As anyone who has read any of my many commentaries has likely already guessed, I have a tremendous interest in the issues facing our world today—and I am ready for a good debate most any time someone else is willing to engage in a discussion devoid of the typical invective. Although my obsessive writing—and far more obsessive reading—generally put me a good position to debate many issues on their merits, I find many opportunities for thoughtful discussion are more and more stymied by a single factor: pervasive pessimism regarding the possibilities for positive change in our nation.
One cause of this problem seems to spring from the belief that any changes are impossible because well-funded and media-savvy interest groups will defend their favorite programs and perks to the death—without the least regard for the well-being of our nation as a whole. So many of my recent discussions with family and friends about how we might get America back on track end up dying on the same trump card: “[Fill in the Blank] will never allow that to happen.”
Have an idea about how to reduce income inequality? “The 1% will never allow that to happen.” Have an idea about improving public education? “The teachers’ unions will never allow that to happen.” Have an idea about reducing corporate welfare? “Big corporations will never allow that to happen.” I could provide additional examples, but you get the idea.
This weary cynicism about the capture of our political processes by myopic and well-funded single-interest lobbyists (thank you, Citizens United!) does not spring from thin air, and I must admit that I am not immune from the urge to throw up my own hands in despair. It sometimes seems that all we have left in our nation’s capitols are a bunch of back-scratching buffoons who decide the fate of our country at ritzy resort retreats ringed by security guards. The message to the average citizen is plain: “Unless you have a few million dollars to hand over, don’t waste my time with your pipsqueak opinions. I have rings to kiss and campaign donations to collect!”
Yet another source our pessimism seems to spring from our belated discovery that, as regards the ability of government to spend and spend, the party is definitely over. Given that so many have spent decade upon decade believing that more government is the solution to every problem, I suppose that running out of money is a real downer for those who seek to improve our lives by raising our taxes. Our collective imaginations are now so limited by our bureaucratic mindset that our range of options for almost every issue that confronts our nation has been ruthlessly narrowed to (a) spend money, (b) spend yet more money, or (c) impugn the character and values of those who no longer want to spend money. I am not certain what the end game will be when our ability to tax and borrow finally comes to a cataclysmic end, but I know we can at least expect lots of shock and screaming.
Finally, we often find that our ability to change the course of our country runs—again and again—into yet another barrier: Special interest groups, corporate lobbyists, and unions have worked over the last half century to encase our national existence in a rubber room of regulations that protect the few at the expense of the many. Every effort to effect changes (all of which can, of course, be viewed as either positive or negative—depending on your perspective) inevitably devolve into endless court battles. I suppose that Washington’s bold crossing of the Delaware to defeat encamped British mercenaries at the Battle of Trenton violated overtime statutes, impinged upon somebody’s human rights, or inadvertently destroyed the habitat of some tadpoles—and I am eternally grateful he was not hauled into court to defend his actions through endless discovery, depositions, and administrative hearings. However, now that the bedrock of our democracy is courtroom combat, the Father of Our Country might today need to first check with his team of attorneys before proceeding.
I wonder if we will be ready—or able—to cross our own “Delaware” when the time comes. It is certain that we cannot continue as we are, but perhaps we are now too timid a people to get our feet wet—even though the boat is going down—and we prefer our leaders homogenized, sterilized, and smiling as we sink.