People are increasingly fearing the divisions within, even the potential coming apart of, our country. Rich/poor, black/white, young/old, red/blue: The things that divide us are not new, yet there’s a sense now that the glue that held us together for more than two centuries has thinned and cracked with age. That it was allowed to thin and crack, that the modern era wore it out.
What was the glue? A love of country based on a shared knowledge of how and why it began; a broad feeling among our citizens that there was something providential in our beginnings; a gratitude that left us with a sense that we should comport ourselves in a way unlike the other nations of the world, that more was expected of us, and not unjustly—”To whom much is given much is expected”; a general understanding that we were something new in history, a nation founded on ideals and aspirations—liberty, equality—and not mere grunting tribal wants. We were from Europe but would not be European: No formal class structure here, no limits, from the time you touched ground all roads would lead forward. You would be treated not as your father was but as you deserved. That’s from “The Killer Angels,” a historical novel about the civil war fought to right a wrong the Founders didn’t right. We did in time, and at great cost. What a country.
But there is a broad fear out there that we are coming apart, or rather living through the moment we’ll look back on as the beginning of the Great Coming Apart. Economic crisis, cultural stresses: “Half the country isn’t speaking to the other half,” a moderate Democrat said the other day. She was referring to liberals of her acquaintance who know little of the South and who don’t wish to know of it, who write it off as apart from them, maybe beneath them.
To add to the unease, in New York at least, there’s a lot of cognitive dissonance. If you are a New Yorker, chances are pretty high you hate what the great investment firms did the past 15 years or so to upend the economy. Yet you feel on some level like you have to be protective of them, because Wall Street pays the bills of the City of New York. Wall Street tax receipts and Wall Street business—restaurants, stores—keep the city afloat. So you want them up and operating and vital, you don’t want them to leave—that would only make things worse for people in trouble, people just getting by, and young people starting out. You know you have to preserve them just when you’d most like to deck them.
Where is the president in all this? He doesn’t seem to be as worried about his country’s continuance as his own. He’s out campaigning and talking of our problems, but he seems oddly oblivious to or detached from America’s deeper fears. And so he feels free to exploit divisions. It’s all “the rich versus the rest,” and there are a lot more of the latter.
Twenty twelve won’t be “as sexy” as 2008, he said this week. It will be all brute force. Which will only add to the feeling of unease.
Occupy Wall Street makes an economic critique that echoes the president’s, though more bluntly: the rich are bad, down with the elites. It’s all ad hoc, more poetry slam than platform. Too bad it’s not serious in its substance.
There’s a lot to rebel against, to want to throw off. If they want to make a serious economic and political critique, they should make the one Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner make in “Reckless Endangerment”: that real elites in Washington rigged the system for themselves and their friends, became rich and powerful, caused the great catering, and then “slipped quietly from the scene.”
It is a blow-by-blow recounting of how politicians—Democrats and Republicans—passed the laws that encouraged the banks to make the loans that would never be repaid, and that would result in your lost job. Specifically it is the story of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the mortgage insurers, and how their politically connected CEOs, especially Fannie’s Franklin Raines and James Johnson, took actions that tanked the American economy and walked away rich. It began in the early 1990s, in the Clinton administration, and continued under the Bush administration, with the help of an entrenched Congress that wanted only two things: to receive campaign contributions and to be re-elected.
The story is a scandal, and the book should be the bible of Occupy Wall Street. But they seem as incapable of seeing government as part of the problem as Republicans seem of seeing business as part of the problem.
Which gets us to Rep. Paul Ryan. Mr. Ryan receives much praise, but I don’t think his role in the current moment has been fully recognized. He is doing something unique in national politics. He thinks. He studies. He reads. Then he comes forward to speak, calmly and at some length, about what he believes to be true. He defines a problem and offers solutions, often providing the intellectual and philosophical rationale behind them. Conservatives naturally like him—they agree with him—but liberals and journalists inclined to disagree with him take him seriously and treat him with respect.
This week he spoke on “The American Idea” at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. He scored the president as too small for the moment, as “petty” in his arguments and avoidant of the decisions entailed in leadership. At times like this, he said, “the temptation to exploit fear and envy returns.” Politicians divide in order to “evade responsibility for their failures” and to advance their interests.
The president, he said, has made a shift in his appeal to the electorate. “Instead of appealing to the hope and optimism that were hallmarks of his first campaign, he has launched his second campaign by preying on the emotions of fear, envy and resentment.”
But Republicans, in their desire to defend free economic activity, shouldn’t be snookered by unthinking fealty to big business. They should never defend—they should actively oppose—the kind of economic activity that has contributed so heavily to the crisis. Here Mr. Ryan slammed “corporate welfare and crony capitalism.”
“Why have we extended an endless supply of taxpayer credit to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, instead of demanding that their government guarantee be wound down and their taxpayer subsidies ended?” Why are tax dollars being wasted on bankrupt, politically connected solar energy firms like Solyndra? “Why is Washington wasting your money on entrenched agribusiness?”
Rather than raise taxes on individuals, we should “lower the amount of government spending the wealthy now receive.” The “true sources of inequity in this country,” he continued, are policies “that enriches the powerful, and empty promises that betray the powerless.” The real class warfare that threatens us is “a class of bureaucrats and connected crony capitalists trying to rise above the rest of us, call the shots, rig the rules, and preserve their place atop society.”
If more Republicans thought—and spoke—like this, the party would flourish. People would be less fearful for the future. And Mr. Obama wouldn’t be seeing his numbers go up.