There are times in the life of a republic, wrote Machiavelli, when the people must return to first principles, and renovate public morals and institutions. The US may be approaching such a moment.
We, the American people, seem divided and confused. We don’t like the direction in which the country is headed. We treat our public figures with disgust. Glenn Reynolds has called our elected officials the “worst political class ever” – but what does that say about the voters who raised them to positions of power – about us?
To the rest of the world, friend and foe, we look like a country in retreat.
The return to founding principles isn’t an exercise in nostalgia, much less a jihad or a bonfire of the vanities. It’s wrestling with the angel of destiny: relaunching our shared adventure in a spirit of tolerance and moral seriousness. Before we can even consider such a step, we have to make an honest accounting of ourselves. The answer to how we got here will frame the question of what is to be done.
Let me suggest that in recent years our public life has acquired a number of unattractive habits. Let me suggest, further, that we are not powerless: we can change the tenor our public life. To approximate American ideals of life and government in the future, we must simplify the present. We must let go of some of what we have become.
Begin with president-hatred and president-sacrifice. I don’t know how many Americans actually engage in this ugly habit – maybe less than one might think. But we have allowed the most unrestrainedly vicious language to be used against our last two presidents, and we have elected to high office people whose only merit has been an ability to spew such hysterical abuse.
President Bush in particular was the object of personal attacks from opponents who seemed to have lost all sense of proportion. He was called cunning but stupid. He was called a lying liar. He was called the second coming of Hitler and worse. Because his foreign policies, whatever their merits, were those of the United States, the demonization of President Bush bordered on self-loathing, and gave ammunition to those who wish our country ill. Osama bin Laden chuckled over Michael Moore’s Bush jokes.
The president represents all of us. He’s the only official, other than the eunuch-like vice president, who does so. Thus when we diminish the president’s character, we diminish ourselves. Disagreement with policies is not only acceptable, it’s traditional. Criticism is necessary to correct mistakes.
But shouting “You lie” to the president’s face on national TV shames the shouter, not his target. Such a lack of moral restraint weakens the ties which bind us to a common purpose, and throws dirt in our eyes to blind us to the true nature of the world we live in. Presidents Clinton and Bush served the last years of their administrations as sacrificial victims to their political enemies, while Bin Laden planned 9/11 and the Iranians built their bomb.
President Clinton left office in another age. Let him go. President Bush now lives in Texas, not the White House. Let him go. Vice President Cheney is a private citizen. Let him go. With President Obama, we stand on the brink. Disagree and criticize, but do it in a manner worthy of our best ideals. I don’t think we can afford another ritual slaughter.
Next, financial scapegoating. The lending crisis and ensuing recession weren’t caused by “greed,” because greed is a constant. It’s embraced by employees who ask for a raise and borrowers who sign a gimmick loan, no less than by automakers who overcharge for a shoddy product or bankers who sell gimmick-ridden contracts.
Our economic problems weren’t caused by “Wall Street,” or the Fed, or the government. They certainly weren’t caused by “ unbridled capitalism” – check North Korea and Cuba for noncapitalist points of comparison. I’m not sure there is moral blame in what was the failure of a massively complex system – but if there is, it touches all of us. We danced with the billions in the fat years, now must tighten our belts in the lean times.
Finding scapegoats won’t create a single job. Let it go. Blaming financiers won’t push the clock back to the good old days. Let it go. Disappointment is a natural reaction to loss, but dwelling on it permanently is unattractive, unworthy, and unproductive. Let it go.
Potential employers should be incentivized to hire. Those who have lost their jobs should be provided the information and training to find new ones. Those of us fortunate enough to still be working should live within our means. Most Americans have endured an economic setback, but anger and self-pity will only stand in the way of recovery. Look to the future. Let the past go.
Finally, idol-worship and idol-smashing. Sports and entertainment celebrities aren’t “role models.” Tiger Woods was never Mother Theresa. Barry Bonds can’t be compared to the firemen who rushed up the World Trade towers. Great strength and coordination are wonderful, and should be admired – but their possessors, who are subject to great temptation, can be firm or weak, honest or frauds, good or evil.
True heroes exist even outside TV shows, but their characters must be examined with some care. Athletes and movie stars don’t qualify. Let it go. When scandal smirches the famous, it’s petty and mean of us to dwell on it, morally repulsive to feel any satisfaction. Look away from such human disasters. Let it go.
Only by focusing attention on our own circle, our own communities – and, yes, our own failings – can we achieve the virtues required of free citizens. The rest is distraction and self-delusion, at a time when it is foolhardy to indulge in either.
I could go on, but I think the point has been made. Many Americans hope that a strong invigorating breeze will cleanse the poison from our public life. Many of us believe that a reformation of public morals is both desirable and possible. Before we act, however, we must be rid of much clutter. Before we move forward, there are many bad habits which we must let go. The protagonist of this story isn’t Presidents Obama or Bush, or Bear Stearns, or Tiger Woods.