The United States was once an indisputably great country, and in some respects perhaps the greatest country. I speak not of American Exceptionalism, the belief of neoconservatives and some fundamentalist Christians that God made this nation to spread liberty and democracy to the unwashed masses, in the case of the Iraq War at point of gun. I speak of a nation where prosperity and success could be attained through hard work, where there were myriad educational and job opportunities, and where borders were open to people in pursuit of the American Dream.
But in recent decades America’s standing has steadily eroded, and today it is indisputably no longer a great country, ranking at or near the bottom among the 17 industrialized nations in quality-of-life and other social measures. This, of course, will come as news to many of us, not the least of whom are the inside-the-Beltway politicians who fiddle while America crumbles.
America is first by some measures, all of them negative: These include infant mortality, incarceration rates and anxiety disorders, as well as a gulf between the rich and everyone else that accelerated during the Bush Recession as the economy tanked and unemployment soared, but CEOs and their corporations pocketed record stock dividends and profits. But by other measures, including life expectancy (despite by far the highest health-care costs in the world), as well as obesity, child poverty, commitment to infrastructure development, broadband access and arts funding, America ranks dead last or nearly so.
This hellbent race to the bottom (“We’re Number 17! We’re Number 17!”) has been a group effort, but the three arms of government — the executive, legislative and judicial branches — that are supposed to be the custodians of our national interests must shoulder most of the blame.
Nixon’s excesses and Clinton’s infidelities aside, the Bush-Cheney interregnum was not merely the darkest chapter in modern American history with its gross distortion of presidential power, including the use of torture and governance by fear, it has remained a debilitating presence in the four-plus years since Barack Obama took office. While the young president has suffered his share of self-inflicted wounds, as well as the slings and arrows of cruel Republicans and spineless Democrats, the toxic fallout from the first eight years of the decade has compromised his ability to lead.
Congress deserves the harshest criticism because it is so out of touch with all but the most affluent and powerful Americans. I recently reread David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest and was struck by how President Johnson and his advisers had to escalate the Vietnam War by stealth because Congress would never have approved massive troop increases and a sustained bombing campaign because the American people would not have supported them. Contrast that with how Congress rolled over on gun control in fawning obeisance to the National Rifle Association, America’s largest terrorist organization, although most of us favor toughening laughably weak federal laws and demanded action in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has become a branch of the Republican Party and the plutocracy, its hackery evident in decisions from Citizens United to enshrining workplace discrimination and validating civil liberties abuses, to protecting Big Pharma from liability for killer drugs and medical devices.
I am in the clutches of a malaise. It is impossible for me not to conclude that America is abandoning its youth, its elderly and its poor; is suffocating its middle class, increasing numbers of whom have become working poor; is timid and risk averse; is allowing the drift from productive manufacturing to a service economy where little is made of value; continues to give obscene tax breaks to the super rich and corporations; fails to confront the fossil fuel monster that saps our resources and further dirties our environment, and has turned its back on newcomers while disenfranching voters.
And not least has turned away from its own rich history, core values and virtues to the point where many of us, if shown a copy of the Bill of Rights, would believe it to be a subversive document.
What makes my malaise so deep is that I do not merely believe things will continue to become worse in a land for which I have bled red, white and blue. I believe they may never get better.
If you feel otherwise, please offer your thoughts on how the country can rebound within the present political and social framework. And if big changes are necessary beyond that framework, as well, what are they? If the darkest hour is before the dawn, what should a new American dawn bring?