“Ask not,” JFK urged at his inaugural, “what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.”
Half a century later, making sacrifices, large or small, has vanished from most Americans’ vocabularies, replaced by a raging sense of disappointed entitlement that leads them to blame everyone but themselves for what’s wrong with their country.
In bipartisan disgust, only 22 percent now approve of Congress, a 10 percent decline in two months and, in a reversal of precedent, fewer than half want to reelect their own representatives. Barack Obama, the avatar of Hope little more than a year ago, is holding on to a bare majority of support.
Such dissatisfaction is understandable in the light of Congress’ miserable performance, but something deeper seems to be involved–a grotesque growth of selfishness in the society from top to bottom.
The newest poll on health care, for example, shows only a minority of a minority supporting reform as a moral obligation to the uninsured with the majority, even though dissatisfied with the system, opposed in response to fears that have been aroused that they will have to pay more or get less.
“We pay for most of our health care indirectly, through taxes or paycheck deductions,” says a New York Times analysis, “which lulls us into thinking that the care is somehow free. As the Stanford economist Victor Fuchs notes, many Americans say they want to control costs–but oppose just about any policy to do so. It should be no surprise that politicians do the same.”
The Tea Party movement, fueled by fears that someone else in the society could benefit at their expense, may be only the tip of an iceberg of discontent that has been growing since JFK’s time.
Back then, wars were fought by young people drafted from every stratum of society rather than the mostly poor who volunteer now as much out of economic need and the hope of upward social mobility as patriotism.
Back then, home ownership was hard-earned by saving for a substantial down payment rather than promoted as an automatic right by uncontrolled easy-buck middlemen who created a bubble that has almost wrecked the economy.