Two small points on an end-of-summer weekend. One is connected to Labor Day and the meaning of work. It grows out of an observation Mike Huckabee made on his Fox show a few weeks ago. He said that we see joblessness as an economic fact, we talk about the financial implications of widespread high unemployment, and that isn’t wrong but it misses the central point. Joblessness is a personal crisis because work is a spiritual event.
A job isn’t only a means to a paycheck, it’s more. “To work is to pray,” the old priests used to say. God made us as many things, including as workers. When you work you serve and take part. To work is to be integrated into the daily life of the nation. There is pride and satisfaction in doing work well, in working with others and learning a discipline or a craft or an art. To work is to grow and to find out who you are.
In return for performing your duties, whatever they are, you receive money that you can use freely and in accordance with your highest desire. A job allows you the satisfaction of supporting yourself or your family, or starting a family. Work allows you to renew your life, which is part of the renewing of civilization.
Work gives us purpose, stability, integration, shared mission. And so to be unable to work—unable to find or hold a job—is a kind of catastrophe for a human being.
There are an estimated 11.5 million unemployed people in America now, and those who do not have sufficient work or who’ve left the workforce altogether inflate that number further.
This is the real reason jobs and employment are the No. 1 issue in America’s domestic life. And what I have been thinking in the weeks leading up to this weekend is very simple: “Thank you, God, that I have a job.” May more of us be able to say those words on Labor Day 2014.
And may more political leaders come up who can help jobs happen, who can advance and support the kind of national policies that can encourage American genius. One of the things missing in the current political scene is zest—a feeling that can radiate from the political sphere that everything is possible, the market is wide open.
In the midst of the economic malaise of the 1970s the TV anchormen spoke in sonorous tones about the dreadful economic indicators—inflation, high interest rates, “the misery index.” But Steve Jobs, in his parents’ garage, was quietly working on circuit boards. And strange young Bill Gates was creating a company called Microsoft. All that work burst forth under the favorable economic conditions and policies in the 1980s and ’90s.
What is needed now is a political leader on fire about all the possibilities, not one who tries to sound optimistic because polls show optimism is popular but someone with real passion about the idea of new businesses, new inventions, growth, productivity, breakthroughs and jobs, jobs, jobs. Someone in love with the romance of the marketplace. We’ve lost that feeling among our political leaders, who mostly walk around looking like they have headaches. But American genius is still there, in our garages. It’s been there since before Ben Franklin and the key and the kite and the bolt of lightning.
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The second point is about a kind of cultural unease in the country that is having an impact on the national mood. I think it’s one of the reasons the right track/wrong track polls are bad.
To make the point, we go back in political time.
Really good politicians don’t try to read the public, they are the public. They don’t try to be like the people, they actually are like them. Ronald Reagan never thought of himself as a gifted reader of the public mind, but as a person who had a sense of what Americans were thinking because he was thinking it too. That’s a gift, and a happy one to have—the gift of unity with the public you lead. The lack of that quality can be seen in many current political figures, who often, when they speak, seem to be withholding their true thoughts. As if the people wouldn’t like it, or couldn’t handle it.
Reagan was a good man, and part of his leadership was that he thought Americans were good too. He had high respect for what he saw as the American character. He liked to talk about the pioneers because he was moved by their courage, their ability to endure and forge through hostile conditions. He thought that was a big part of the American character. He was similarly moved by the Founders. He talked about the men who founded Hollywood, too, because those old buccaneers were great entrepreneurs who invented an industry. He admired their daring and willingness to gamble. They were wealth creators—that’s who Americans are. He liked to talk about inventors who create markets—that’s us, he thought. He liked to talk about barn raisings—the practice out West of local settlers coming together to build some neighbor’s barn, so pretty soon they’d have a clearing and then a town.
By celebrating these things he felt he was celebrating not the America that was, but the America that is. That America, he felt, was under threat of being squashed and worn down by the commands and demands of liberalism. He would fight that and, he thought, win, because Americans saw it pretty much as he did.
So Reagan didn’t just have something, the ability to lead. He was given something—the America he grew up in, knew and could justly laud.
To today: I’ve been thinking about the big bad stories of the summer, the cultural ones that disturb people. The sick New York politician who, without apparent qualms, foists his sickness into the public sphere again. The kids who kill the World War II vet because they’re bored. The kids who kill the young man visiting from Australia because they too are bored, and unhappy, and unwell. The teacher who has the affair with the 14-year-old student, and gets a slap on the wrist from the judge. The state legislator who’s a sexual predator, the thieving city councilor and sure, the young pop star who is so lewd, so mindlessly vulgar and ugly on the awards show.
We’re shocked. But we’re not shocked. And that itself is disturbing. We’re used to all this, now, this crassness and lowness of public behavior. The cumulative effect of these stories, I suspect, is that we’re starting to fear: Maybe that’s us. Maybe that’s who we are now. As if these aren’t separate and discrete crimes and scandals but a daily bubbling up of the national character.
It would be good if we had some political leaders who could speak of this deflated and anxious feeling about who we are. Conservatives have been concerned about our culture for at least a quarter-century. Helpful now would be honest liberal voices that speak to our concerns about who we fear we’re becoming. They might find they’re thinking the way the American people are thinking, which is step one in true leadership.