The near disaster engulfing not only Washington, but the entire nation, was the outcropping of a far more basic issue than the funding of Obamacare. Underneath was a foundational concern. The debacle might have been little more than the latest struggle to define, again, just what sort of nation we believe ourselves to be. The distinction between two competing visions is the pivot on which turns the nature of the nation.
On one hand are those who find that America’s genius lies in the survival of the fittest, a social Darwinism framed as personal freedom. This perspective is rooted in the assumption that the nation’s basic meaning centers in the right of any person to rise above the masses and secure whatever comes within his/her grasp. Using that perspective as their polar star, the strong and the clever learn to manipulate the levers of power which control both the economy and the government. From this perception we are a nation of individuals who constantly need to ward off any interference with our right to seize whatever we can by hard work and personal initiative. Laws which inhibit this freedom must be beaten back. Taxes must not place an undue burden on the nation’s most effective producers. Taxes are to be used basically to support national defense, and encourage entrepreneurship. Regulations which seek to inhibit the right to personal growth must be rebuffed. Those policies and programs which undergird the weak and the less able are just too expensive as well as being outside America’s fundamental purpose. They are to be rejected as “big government," which becomes the arch-enemy.
This is the social philosophy that fought the New Deal, that was determined to kill off Social Security and Medicare, and has resisted the complex of laws supporting the less able, the young and the elderly. The bitter fight against The Affordable Care Act is only the latest attack on what is considered to be a false sense of the American genius.
On the other hand is the notion that the heart of America lies in a community of mutual concern in which everyone is included. The source of our significance lies in the viability of a robust middle-class. It is the task of government to provide a social network which sustains the weak, children, the elderly and the infirm because they are of worth. At the same time it celebrates the gifts of working people, the great middle class, and the rights of minorities. We are a community of mutual concern, a very large neighborhood where every person is of value. We are a nation of, for and by all the people. The Affordable Care Act is only the latest way to actualize the nation’s deepest purpose. Taxes are devices generated to provide national structures which include everyone in the American dream.
The question is not which of these visions will we follow, but how will the values inherent in each be part of the mix, and how shall the mix be determined? The freedom to succeed, to prosper — indeed to prosper inordinately — is an essential part of the American dream. But so is the generation of a fair, equitable and just society. The task of government is to negotiate a proper balance between these two visions. American democracy is a both/and system. Our two political parties these days represent the polarities.
Nations governed by a parliamentary system do not have the problem of the minority party stopping action by the majority. One party rule can only be broken by the election of a new government. While that system might provide a more unhindered way to move the nation forward, it lacks the checks and balances which demand political compromise.
While the emergence of the Tea Party has provided muscle for the anti-government sentiment in which the few rule at the expense of everyone else, the ensuing debate has been intrinsic to our constitutional democracy. As messy as it often gets, it is our system and for better or worse we are stuck with it. It lies with the wisdom of the American people to maintain a proper balance between these political and economic polarities. We accomplish that balance through national elections. The failure of congressional conservatives to beat back the next step in universal health insurance is a good sign the system is still working — with all its warts.