Loving America At Forty Cents On The Dollar
You Know We Can Do Better
I know who you are.
You work for about sixty cents on the dollar, once federal, state, and local taxes are taken out of your paycheck. You pay rent or a mortgage with what you have left, buy groceries, make car payments, and get insurance on your home, car, and health. You might put some away in savings, but not enough for retirement. If you have children, you might have a college fund, but not enough for a full university education. If you have pets, you try not to think about how much their food costs or what’s in it. You hope that you don’t get sick.
You can afford either health insurance or healthcare but not both, so you are fully insured but unable to use your coverage. Going to the doctor will cost about a hundred dollars out of your pocket, and it will take a month or more to get an appointment, so you go to work sick.
You debt-finance your life. Clothes, furniture, vacations, even groceries and gas. You’ve got credit card balances that stay the same or go up because that’s what you use to avoid fiscal anxiety – the fear that you can’t afford the things you need. The numbers are daunting but time is on your side. As long as you can live and work, you can pay it all off.
If you think about your country, it is grade-school lessons on Valley Forge, the Declaration of Independence, the Civil War, and World War II. If you think about your government it is a different story, colored by media coverage, partisan bickering, and the squabbling petty siblings Congress has become since Watergate.
You love America, if you think about it. If you were raised on stories of the Revolution, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and D-Day you do. If you look around at all we have built and accomplished, you do.
There are American footprints on the moon. How could you not?
But you wonder. All the tax money you are forwarding on to Washington never seems like enough. The national debt is skyrocketing. Veterans are committing suicide at a rate of nearly two dozen a day. American children are going hungry. Rich people and companies are getting richer. Prices are going up. You are getting older but don’t have much saved. Retirement is a bedtime fairy tale told by your grandparents. You’re afraid you’ll die at work.
You don’t look to the government to solve your problems, but you know it is looking at you when it needs more money. And it always needs more money. As problem solvers, Congress and the Administration seem less and less capable. The daily news seethes with outrage; somewhere there is a crisis with two opposing opinions about the cause, two competing ideas on the solution, and a ton of blame to go around. Nothing ultimately gets done.
Politics in America is the same day over and over again. If it feels like in your lifetime we have made no progress, you’re right. The same people have been fighting over the same issues, with the same non-solutions, since Richard Nixon flew home in disgrace. Abortion, gun laws, healthcare, immigration, and Mideast peace are all still unsolved after decades of candidates promising to fix them for good. The international situation is grim. Our soldiers are still deployed all over the world. America is everywhere and nowhere; we are more hated than loved and more feared than adored. We are the world’s policeman and they are our bankers, lending us the money we need to make up the difference. If you’ve been alive and alert in the last fifty years nothing much has changed, except this: the country feels less and less united. Americans are incited every new day to turn on each other over some scrap that falls off the Congressional table or something the President said.
Your leaders don’t have any answers for you, because you are not part of the constituency they serve. The left governs to the bottom twenty percent of income earners and the right governs to the top twenty percent. The sixty percent in the middle gets to pay for it. Congress is for sale to the highest-paying campaign donors and owes more of its allegiance to the political parties they belong to than to the voters who put them in office. Many of our politicians are as corrupt as the ancient Romans on the day before their empire fell.
You know we can do better. As you spend more and more time in the real world—where two plus two equals four and if you only have a dollar you should only spend a dollar and dropped objects fall to the ground and stay there—you feel as if there is something wrong at the highest reaches of our government. You know that you are not represented in the rooms where the laws get written and the decisions get made. The time where your voice counted is past. All you get now is Election Day. Elected representatives are ignoring your phone calls and waiting to be told what to do by people who don’t live in your district or state. Partisanship is the new opiate of the masses.
You believe that out there in the night your fellow citizens are working and sacrificing and suffering and doing their best the same as you are, and so it is not out of line to expect the same of those who presume to work in our service.
Then you watch the news.
Deep down you know this for sure: there has never been a nation like ours in all the world. There has never been a people like us in all of human history. We wrote our strongly held beliefs into law and then fought against our own worst impulses to enforce them for everyone. We took our manifest destiny and made it the ground from which we launched heavenward. We started with nothing and took the world.
If it feels like those days are over, you’re wrong. Like most of us, you have internalized the crassness of our political class and the cynicism of those who make a living from it. We have given a sense of normalcy to aberrant things. It’s not the country that is broken, it is the politics. The governing power of the country rests in a divided Congress with insufficient majorities to blast through their legislative priorities. Every now and then one side or the other gets a win––a Supreme Court justice or a bill or some appropriation to help a group of Americans in need. More often than not, Congressional victories are blocking maneuvers––the success of the party ideologues in Washington is measured in their ability to stop the other side from getting its way. The politicians need us to give up, to believe that there is no way to change our dysfunctional government, and they have largely succeeded.
But the blueprint for good governance was written two and a half centuries ago. Our national situation doesn’t require innovation—it needs to be reminded of its source. The institutions and principles created by the Founding Fathers work as designed. They have simply become corrupted and abused over time. It is by no means a full solution to amend the Congress, to take its power away from the money men and the loudest megaphones and return it to whence it came––the people.
But it’s a start.
Many American ideas seemed naïve at the start—settle a wilderness, throw off British tyranny, conquer a continent, keep the Union intact after a great civil war, rebuild the nation even more powerful than before, take giant steps onto the world stage, end a Depression, win a global war, pass Civil Rights, lead the world. Our history is full of wild ideas that we made work. Americans rise to their greatest heights when presented with the impossible.
Our institutions and symbols get their meaning from the generations of Americans who made them real. The same way a currency can be backed by gold and thereby have value, our flag, our representative government, our high offices are sacred because they are built on the blood and sacrifice of soldiers and workers and statesmen. It has come time to remind ourselves why these things matter, and why they should be protected.
It starts there.