American exceptionalism is a wonderful extension of manifest destiny and, earlier, the divine rights of kings. The idea is that the United States of America is the greatest nation in the world…period. I say it is wonderful, because the notion of being the best should be a powerful motivator for excellence. But I have begun wondering if this modern incarnation is more excuse, and less motivator. According to much of the public commentary coming from the general direction of the political right, there doesn’t appear to be much our nation can do any longer; we are the best, but we can’t handle our problems.
Some 150 years ago, a Republican president intoned that “the government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the Earth.” One decade into the 21st Century, conservatives have spent so much effort convincing the people they are no longer connected to their government, they seem to believe that we the people can no longer accomplish great things. Is this the truth? Do conservatives really believe America can’t accomplish tasks, simple or grand, without outsourcing them to tax-credited multi-nationals? Do conservatives believe in Ameri-Can’t?
It is a difficult concept to accept, given the confidence and patriotism that I see in my conservative friends. Separated from the pure politics of our time, my friends keep a clear recollection of all we the people have done with our democracy. We fought our way ought of the Great Depression by 1940; we did so running massive deficits that grew our national debt to almost 50% of GDP. We fought and defeated fascism and imperialism in World War II; we did so running federal deficits so large, that the debt ballooned to over 120% of GDP (the equivalent of a national debt today of almost $17 trillion).
From the end of the war until 1980, our democracy did great things; we fought the Cold War against Soviet expansion, we built a transportation system from sea to shining sea, we built the world’s premier space program, we established a program to ensure the medical care of all American senior citizens. We did all of these very expensive things while paying our deb down from the 120% peak. By the time President Reagan took office, our debt was hovering around 30% of GDP. All of those great tasks and dreams, by the by, were accomplished by a nation with top tax rates almost twice as high as they are now.
Think about that; the Great American Expansion, the American Century, all of the accomplishments of industry, labor, society, and defense made in an environment of high government spending, and high government revenue. What have we done since 1980? We finished the Cold War…to say our actions in the 1980’s were definitive by themselves is to disrespect the Cold Warriors of previous decades. We flew the Space Shuttle. We stopped a regional tyrant in Iraq. We made it easier for millionaires to become multi-millionaires. We flattened the growth in median household income and real wages for the working class. These are what passes for the definitive accomplishments of the last 30 years, and meager though they are, they pale in comparison to what some conservatives think we can’t do.
The Founding Fathers were, if nothing else, visionaries. They believed they were founding a nation that would (as their birth nation had) last centuries. They planned for growth and change. Conservatives say we can’t do that anymore. The oil industry (not environmentalists) tells us that we are in peak oil; the resource is at the beginning of a period of increasing scarcity. It will only get more expensive. Switching to renewables now will be expensive, but the Founding Fathers (thinking about the future) would point out that changing our energy system 100 years hence will be exponentially more expensive. But conservatives tell us we can’t switch now, because the democracy can’t take on an industry that supplies a product whose price varies throughout the year by huge amounts without ever changing its character.
Medical costs are exploding, and their growth is the principle threat to long term budgets. The Founding Fathers would suggest that steps be taken to control the costs; conservatives seem content to ignore the costs by pushing them off the budget. The democracy, in their view, can’t take on an industry that is out of balance. Our educational system is in crisis. Our students, every bit as intelligent and with all the potential as any others in the world, are being outperformed by students from around the world. Conservatives have struck on a unique solution; fire teachers and close schools (unless they are for-profit schools). They do this because America can’t afford the best education in the world; apparently the democracy won’t get enough return on an investment in education to justify the spend.
The democracy, it appears, can’t do much of anything anymore. Last week the House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor, reiterated his position that spending cuts would have to be made before disaster relief monies would be allocated for Joplin, MO. When one part of the family is struck by tragedy, others must sacrifice in order to help. Those are his words on the notion. Cantor may be right…conservatives may be right. Maybe America simply can’t afford to help victims of natural disaster. After all, we do have this large and crippling debt to manage. Right?
The debt is crippling if the arbitrary and economically meaningless debt limit isn’t raised by Republicans. We are the United States of America, and we are still quite able to support large deficits over the near term if we choose to, just as we did in the 1940’s. Those conservatives who believe in Ameri-Can’t do so largely because that belief serves a larger purpose. Restructuring Social Security doesn’t make sense for working class Americans (401k’s are wonderful, providing you don’t hit retirement at the same time as a cyclical contraction in stock values); privatizing Medicare makes no sense for anyone (working class or otherwise). But those programs, and the FICA tax that supports them (you know, the “flat tax” that supports both), are worth at least $1 trillion per year.
If they go private, Wall Street gets to “manage” them; you remember Wall Street, don’t you? They will reap billions of dollars per year in fees, regardless of whether working class beneficiaries get their benefits. And if you are ready to dismiss this as class warfare, consider this fact; without working class consumers, the rich will soon cease becoming richer. In the America that I know and love, the nation that believes in itself, the America that wants and works for the title of “Greatest Nation On Earth”, people depending on one another isn’t a bad thing. We Americans can do anything; we can do great things operating as individuals, we can do them privately, and we can do them through our democracy. Flawed though it may be, our democracy is the one tool where we the people can come together and do Earth-changing things…as long as we believe in Ameri-Can.