Imagine a nation split in two: about one-half of the population hates and distrusts their government while the other half believes the government can still provide solutions. With the country divided in this way, an environment of hostility would naturally be created. During any national crisis, people on the opposite sides of this divide would find it essentially impossible to come together and get anything accomplished. When a large segment of a country’s population hasn’t the slightest faith in its own elected government, that place is going to have some problems. A once mighty and united nation could begin to falter when attacked from without and within. It is precisely this situation which America finds itself in today.
An internationally known correspondent for Time Magazine and CNN, Fareed Zakaria brings up many startling facts about America’s slippage from number one in the world in just about everything in his article “Are America’s Best Days Behind Us?”. Things today are even more dire than when he first posted this essay back in 2011. We’ve had one of the most divisive presidential elections in our history, in the aftermath of which it has become harder than ever for the congress and president to accomplish anything constructive. Zakaria correctly labels our current politics as nothing much more than a “sideshow” where smoke and mirrors essentially obscure the very little that is getting done.
There is one group of people in America, though, that I would argue are getting just what they want from government gridlock. Back in 2010, angry about President Obama’s economic stimulus plan and his Affordable Healthcare Act(or Obamacare as it was bitterly renamed by conservatives), a movement seemed to spring up out of nowhere in America. They came to call themselves the Tea Party Movement, and claimed to arise from the grassroots level of the country. This claim is somewhat dubious to start with as many Tea Party functions have been bankrolled by an organization called Americans For Prosperity, the chairmen of which are the Koch brothers, multi-billionaire businessmen who seem far from the mainstream of the U.S. Be that as it may, the Tea Party has gained considerable influence over the established Republican Party in a very short time. Their main call to arms is that they detest “Big Government”, which is undeniably what America has.
In an excellent article entitled “Tea Party Movement: Will Angry Conservatives Reshape the Republican Party?”, journalist Peter Katel details the origins and growth of this lively movement. A large number of Tea Partiers appear to be waging an angry crusade to take this country back from what they label the “socialist” policies of Barack Obama. They depict him as a sort of grandiose combination of deranged serial killer and angry muslim extremist who has somehow hijacked our government for his own evil agenda. They frequently label our democratically elected leader as a “tyrant”. Katel quotes Tea Party activist and radio host Dana Loesch: “We’re in the middle of a war. We’re fighting for the hearts, minds and souls of the American people.” These are not the kind of folks you can have a reasonable debate with.
The Tea Party Movement is not devoid of rational, reasonable conservatives who are just as disillusioned by the policies of George W. Bush as Barack Obama. But their voices tend to get lost in the babble. This movement seems to me to have been hijacked by radicals who just blindly hate anyone who has a different point of view than them. Common representations of the Tea Party in the media show that they are anti-Immigrant, anti-Equality and plain anti-Government, and by their own antics they have earned that perhaps stereotypical perception. The Tea Party runs candidates for congress who, when they get there, add nothing constructive to the debate but seem to exist solely to block anything from getting done. Their over-riding mantra (a word they would hate because of its foreignness) is that “Big Government” is the enemy of all freedom-loving “true Americans”. Compromise is seen as weakness and surrender. It seems they’d much rather go down with the ship than collaborate with “enemies” to make the necessary repairs to save the ship we’re all riding on.
In the wake of 2008’s global financial crisis, the entire world was in a scramble to just keep their heads above water. Here in the U.S we had major difficulties but were largely able to weather these storms and somehow keep afloat. The problem with that is we begin to feel a certain invulnerability. We think we are “too big to fail”, to borrow a phrase from the banking bailout debate. It’s extremely difficult to bring down a juggernaut like America. While many of our citizens suffer on a personal level, the nation keeps on. Zakaria feels that this makes us as a whole pretty complacent that our nation will always survive. After all, if major global crises don’t bring us down, what will?
The answer to that question is that the American people will probably wreck this country ourselves, with no help from the outside needed. Let’s take a look at how we have been “solving” problems lately. Back in 2011, as a consequence of the American debt ceiling debate, a bi-partisan committee in congress came up with the idea of sequestration. If our government could not agree on a budget by a certain deadline, we would forcibly go into sequester. This was a means of forcing across the board budget cuts at the federal level. The idea was that politicians would find the thought of these arbitrary cuts so damaging that it would enable them to make a deal. With both parties screaming nonsense at each other across the divide, predictably, no deal occurred and the sequester began this year.
In her article “Government Spending: Will Steep Cuts Hurt the Country?”, journalist Marcia Clemmitt relates the details on the sequester: $85.4 billion worth of spending cuts beginning in 2013 and continuing each year through 2021. These numbers won’t put a dent in our $14 trillion deficit, however. Both sides decry the tremendous debt that the U.S. is carrying, but their outrage tends to halt when it comes to making concessions. Clemmitt quotes resident scholar of the American Enterprise Institute Alan Viard as saying sequestration “didn’t force action on the big stuff. It’s just squeezing the part of the budget that’s already small.”
Zakaria cites the main drivers of our long-term deficit as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. These gargantuan programs account for about sixty-four percent of government spending and fall under the heading of “mandatory spending.” This is an area that requires a change of law to apply any kinds of cuts to. The vitriolic debates between Democrats and Republicans tend to ignore those sacred cows and focus on the small stuff. How will refusing to face facts result in anything substantive done? Simpson-Boles is an interesting case to illustrate this. This was a bi-partisan effort by two senators, one democrat and one republican, who did a thorough study and came up with what Zakaria describes as “highly intelligent solutions to our fiscal problems.” The commission detailed how $4 trillion in savings could be found through budget cuts and tax increases. Unfortunately, this is a main issue of the current divide. Democrats flinch at the thought of cuts, and Republicans refuse to entertain the idea of tax increases. Thus, Simpson-Boles was discounted by both parties and voted down. Interestingly, in our last presidential campaign, Romney-Ryan and Obama-Biden both hammered each other for not applying these policies. Hypocrisy at its finest.
Thus, the divide keeps on widening in America. The national election we all just suffered through clearly indicates this. Some of us held onto a slim hope that the re-election of Obama might cause the other side to realize he is our actual president, not a creature of evil, and to stop demonizing the guy. This has not happened; it has just gotten worse. Four years ago Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell was famously caught on video saying the party’s number one goal was to see that Barack Obama was not re-elected. Really? Fixing our country’s problems wasn’t number one to his party? Apparently not, judging by their own words. And even though to their dismay the president ended up being re-elected, they still will not work with him. On the other side, Obama doesn’t do much to make things easier for them to do so. The best days of America, Mr. Zakaria, are behind us. And they will be forever if we don’t bridge this divide.
Tea Party Republicans say that America has become a nation of “givers versus takers”. We have the infamous words of presidential candidate Mitt Romney from last year saying half of our nation just wants what they can get for free and don’t contribute to the country at all. I’m not that old, and even I can remember when the U.S. stood for “US”. As in “all of us”. And I’m not saying only the Tea Party is at fault here. Sometimes it seems that President Obama would rather score cheap points off of the Republicans rather than offer them terms of constructive debate. But the way the Tea Party goes after the poor and seems to think that cutting these programs is good for the nation just comes off as elitism and, in my opinion, very un-American.
Republicans, Tea Partiers and non-crazy conservatives alike, are currently eager to start cutting “entitlement programs” while Democrats want to raise revenue by tax increases. Republicans maintain they won’t negotiate on taxes until entitlements are on the table. Democrats refuse to discuss entitlement cuts until revenues are increased. This is a simplified statement, but it’s essentially how simple the issue is. Both parties seem to agree that solutions to our budget crises lie in the middle ground, but neither side appears to be willing to compromise to move things forward. So many issues remain unsettled by this failure of our elected representatives. We as Americans are feeling increasingly frustrated by this seeming inability of our government to resolve any of its issues and collaborate across the aisle on reasonable solutions.
While we continue to tear ourselves apart, the world is moving forward. New global paradigms are being created with fresh ideas: an area the U.S. once took the lead in. Clemmit here brings in Allen Schick, professor at University of Maryland’s school of public policy, who relates “Countries used to say ‘What can we learn from the United States?’ But now they say ‘Why can’t the Americans get their act together?’” Zakaria wants the U.S. to try to learn from other nations’ successes, but I wonder how we can do that when we don’t even listen to each other anymore. The divide between us just seems to grow larger and larger and no one is interested in building bridges anymore. Politicians are only concerned with satisfying the short-term desires of the most rabid of their constituents according to Zakaria. In the past we tried to do what was right without regard for whether it was the easy thing to do or not. But today, do we still have the stomach for that kind of resolve?
This toxic climate seems to me destined to continue into the foreseeable future. Picture for a moment the possible results of our next presidential election. It’s hard to imagine a divided congress that embraces a centrist liberal like Hillary Clinton, or even a moderate conservative like Chris Christie. Not with the Tea Party sending more and more people into the government they hate and are opposed to in every way. A faction of Tea Partiers recently labelled Mitch McConnell as “too liberal”. Yeah, that Mitch McConnell. I’d love to end on an optimistic note like Zakaria, so I’ll just say this: America once stood united despite our differences. So we do have it in us. But if we don’t learn from our past, we don’t have a very bright future. And then, we’ll be history.
So there’s my latest revision of essay #2. I reordered most of the paragraphs and put in new, flashier sentences here and there. I made a very sexy new title. Hopefully, my grade will rise a few points!