Or is it the consequence of a crisis of government?
There is certainly a dis-ease here and it has spread for quite a long time. Justin Dyer makes the attempt to diagnose.
On a stage in St. Paul, Minnesota (in 2008), the first-term Illinois senator (Barack Obama) positioned himself as a visionary leader ushering in a new era of American politics, shedding past partisan divisions and uniting a generation around the promises of hope and change.
So what went wrong?
Perhaps we were just not willing to work for that vision, to fight for it and believe in it. Or perhaps—as James Piereson suggests in Shattered Consensus: The Rise and Decline of America’s Postwar Political Order—Obama misread the moment, trying to make it into something it was not. In his new book, Piereson, president of the William E. Simon Foundation and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, argues that the Obama presidency marks the end of a political era rather than a beginning.
Intriguing. So far, Piereson posits, American political history can be divided into three major chapters, up to the present time. But now we’ve arrived at a grave turning point.
A major premise of Piereson’s book is that broad consensus “is required in order for a polity to meet its major challenges”; his thesis is that “such a consensus no longer exists in the United States.” (emphasis added) Without a consensus on basic priorities, Piereson predicts, our “problems will mount to a point where either they will be addressed through a ‘fourth revolution’”—ushering in a fourth major chapter in American political history—“or the polity will begin to disintegrate for lack of fundamental commitment.”
At the moment, a “broad consensus” is unimaginable. America is more divided and polarized and at odds than it has seemed to be in a very long time.
Simply put: we have a greying population with fewer workers and no consensus about the purpose and mission of our vast military infrastructure. At the same time, many of our state and local governments face unsustainable pension obligations born of the same demographic trends and short-term political calculations…
One thing both parties generally agree on is maintaining those government programs—Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security—that require massive amounts of money we don’t have. As Piereson suggests, the blueprint for a successful political order in the twenty-first century will require meaningful entitlement reform, pro-growth economic policies, regulation or elimination of public sector unions, and a reinvigorated American federalism. To this we undoubtedly must add a vibrant and healthy civil society.
How to get from here to there? Can anyone running for president right now, among other elected offices, aspire to envision such a plan, embody the leadership to execute it and inspire the necessary consensus so people will really invest in the growth of civil society to something once again healthy and vibrant? Really?
Or, as some people ask, can anyone inspire true hope for positive change?
In Reagan’s 1980 nomination-acceptance speech, he cited a “community of shared values.” He repeatedly paid homage to the power of individuals, in voluntary community, to overcome obstacles. He ran on a platform of bold new tax cuts (when tax cuts were not yet fully Republican orthodoxy), energy development, domestic spending cuts, a devolution of power to states and localities, and a bolstered military. The Republican platform that year called for a firm re-commitment to protecting private property from government intrusions…
Reagan’s announcement speech in November 1979 described an America that was “a living, breathing presence, unimpressed by what others say is impossible, proud of its own success; generous, yes, and naïve; sometimes wrong, never mean, always impatient to provide a better life for its people in a framework of a basic fairness and freedom.”
…Reagan said America could be great again not because he himself was a powerful magician who could make it so, but because the people themselves were resourceful and would succeed if only the government didn’t hamper them. As he said in his 1980 convention speech, “’Trust me’ government asks that we concentrate our hopes and dreams on one man; that we trust him to do what’s best for us. My view of government places trust not in one person or one party, but in those values that transcend persons and parties. The trust is where it belongs — in the people.”…
All of this — and more — should be promoted in terms of unlocking vast human potential, and especially American potential, not by administrative command-and-control but through the incentives and dynamism of ordered liberty in a strong, voluntary, civil society.
These visions are closely related. But how do people feeling adrift and unmoored from once shared principles recover the courage of conviction and motivation to speak out, encourage others and try to re-order liberty together, for “a strong, voluntary, civil society”?
Robert Royal at least offers some sobering thoughts to start this consequential election year.
In 2016, the disproportion between the magnitude of our problems and the smallness of the candidates who claim to be able to fix them is large, perhaps larger than ever before in our history.
(His respected and considered opinion. I don’t entirely share it all. It’s a taller task than in recent memory. One or two candidates may be up to it, “may” being the operative word.)
And here it gets, in his word, “interesting”.
The central difficulty is our core doubt about what America and Western civilization are – or might be – anymore. This is no mere policy question. The feeling is widespread and non-partisan. People across the political spectrum – and, I’ve found, in other developed nations as well – complain that they “don’t recognize” their own countries anymore. An extraordinary, almost unprecedented thing.
We’re like the Israelites in exile, except we haven’t gone anywhere…
Does anyone think that if we only get taxes right, or immigration, or foreign policy, or healthcare, we’ll be back on the right road? Important issues, to be sure, but singly or together don’t address the real problem: a failing national vision…
And we ourselves are deeply troubled. Many particulars need fixing in America, but the thing we lack, the thing no political candidate currently seems to be able to give us, is a renewed and realistic sense of ourselves – something that has to be rooted in a truth deeper than economics and politics, in the “Creator” our Founders invoked and the condition of the American people. Without that spirit of confidence about the foundation, reforms won’t mean much.
So maybe take heart from that Reagan address so filled with hope and inspiration, because inspired, hopeful people can overcome considerable challenges.
I have seen the human race through a period of unparalleled tumult and triumph…
I have not only seen, but lived the marvels of what historians have called the “American Century.” Yet, tonight is not a time to look backward. For while I take inspiration from the past, like most Americans, I live for the future. So this evening, for just a few minutes, I hope you will let me talk about a country that is forever young.
There was a time when empires were defined by land mass, subjugated peoples, and military might. But the United States is unique because we are an empire of ideals. For two hundred years we have been set apart by our faith in the ideals of democracy, of free men and free markets, and of the extraordinary possibilities that lie within seemingly ordinary men and women. We believe that no power of government is as formidable a force for good as the creativity and entrepreneurial drive of the American people.
Those are the ideals that invented revolutionary technologies and a culture envied by people everywhere. This powerful sense of energy has made America synonymous with opportunity the world over. And after generations of struggle, America is the moral force that defeated Communism and all those who would put the human soul itself into bondage.
For a host of reasons, we seem to be seeing a lot of human souls in bondage again, in one form or another.
A fellow named James Allen once wrote in his diary, “many thinking people believe America has seen its best days.” He wrote that July 26, 1775. There are still those who believe America is weakening; that our glory was the brief flash of time called the 20th century; that ours was a burst of greatness too bright and brilliant to sustain; that America’s purpose is past.
My friends, I utterly reject those views. That’s not the America we know…Whether we come from poverty or wealth; whether we are Afro-American or Irish-American; Christian or Jewish, from big cities or small towns, we are all equal in the eyes of God. But as Americans, that is not enough, we must be equal in the eyes of each other. We can no longer judge each other on the basis of what we are, but must, instead, start finding out who we are. In America, our origins matter less than our destinations and that is what democracy is all about.
So, wrapping up that moment in time and hopefully inspiring future generations…
I want you to know that I have always had the highest respect for you, for your common sense and intelligence and for your decency. I have always believed in you and in what you could accomplish for yourselves and for others.
And whatever else history may say about me when I’m gone, I hope it will record that I appealed to your best hopes, not your worst fears, to your confidence rather than your doubts. My dream is that you will travel the road ahead with liberty’s lamp guiding your steps and opportunity’s arm steadying your way…
May each of you have the heart to conceive, the understanding to direct, and the hand to execute works that will make the world a little better for your having been here.
Does that sound outdated considering the times we’re now facing, and all that’s gone on since then, and all that fills the global news cycles now? We face an existential threat, we’ve grown so diverse (it was inevitable and can be good) and splintered (which is always bad) that recovering such values expressed not that long ago, but a lifetime ago, is daunting for some and undesirable for others.
However, as Justin Dyer wraps up his diagnosis of Our American Illness:
Now—before the next revolution—it is time to think on a practical level about what it will take to restore health to the American political system.