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Excerpt from 'Our Divided Political Heart' - Introduction

Excerpt from 'Our Divided Political Heart' - Introduction

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Published by Patt Morrison

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Published by: Patt Morrison on Jul 05, 2012
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INTRODUCTION Who We AreLiberty, Community, and the American CharacterFear of decline is one of the oldest American impulses. It speaks, oddly, to our confidence that weoccupy a lofty position in history and among nations: we always assume we are in a place from which we
can 
 
decline. It’s why there is a vast literature
 
on “American exceptionalism” and why wethink of ourselves as “a city on a hill,” “the first new nation,” “a beacon to the world,” and “a lightamong nations.”
  When they arise, our declinist sentiments usually have specific sources in economic orforeign policy travails. These apprehensions quickly lead to bouts of soul-searching that go beyond
concrete problems to abstract and even spiritual worries about the nation’s values and moral
 purposes. When we feel we are in decline, we sense that we have lost our balance. We argue about what history teaches us
 — 
and usually disagree about what history actually says. We conclude thatbehind every crisis related to economics and the global distribution of power lurks a crisis of thesoul.Because of this, gifted politicians from Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy to RonaldReagan and Barack Obama have been able to transform national anxieties into narratives of hope:
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” “Get the country moving again.” “Let’s make Americagreat again.” “Change we can believe in.”
 
 A yearning to reverse decline played just below the surface in Obama’s campaign in 2008.
His victory was a response to a national mood conditioned by anxiety. By the end of George W.
Bush’s second term, Americans worried that in the first decade of the new millennium, their country 
had squandered its international advantages, degraded its power with a long and unnecessary engagement in Iraq, and wrecked the federal gov 
ernment’s finances. Then came the devastation of 
the worst financial crisis in eighty years. This was happening as not just China but also India andBrazil were widely seen as challenging American preeminence.
Obama’s
2008 campaign was well calibrated to respond to the na
tion’s longing for
reassurance. Consider the emphasis in his posters featur
ing the “Hope” and “Change we can believein” slogans. Whether by design or luck, the words hope and believe were pointed responses t
o aspiritual crisis engendered by fears of lost supremacy. They help explain why the Obama campaignso often felt like a religious crusade.Still, the election of a young, bold, and uplifting president so different in background fromall of our earlier leaders
 — 
and so different in temperament from his immediate predecessor
 — 
 wasnot an elixir. Obama alone could not instantly cure what ailed us or heal all of our wounds. Thedifficulty in producing a sustainable economic upturn (even if the hopes for a miraculous recovery  were always unrealistic) only de
epened the nation’s sense that something 
 was badly wrong. Obamahimself could not fully grasp the opportunity the sense of crisis presented, and he failed, particularly in the first part of his term, to understand h
ow the depth of the nation’s
political polarization wouldinevitably foil his pledge to bring the country together across the lines of party and ideology. Thesame fears of decline that bolstered his 2008 campaign quickly gave force to a rebellion on the right
that looked back to the nation’
s Revolutionary origins in calling itself the Tea Party. Embracing the Tea Party, Republicans swept to victory in the 2010 elections, seizing control of the House andexpanding their blocking power in the Senate. Whatever Obama was for, whatever he undertook, whatever he proposed
 — 
all of it was seen as undermining traditional American liberties and moving the country toward some ill-defined socialism. Whatever else they did, Republicans would make surethey prevented Obama from accomplishing anything more. Over and over, they vowed to make hima one-term president. The result was an ugliness in Washington typified by the debilitating debt
 
ceiling fight in the summer of 2011. It fed a worldwide sense that the United States could no longergovern itself.
Late in Obama’s term, the Occupy Wall Street movement rose up in rebellion against abuses
in the financial world that had caused the meltdown. The new wave of protest focused the
country’s
attention on the extent to which the
nation’s economic gains over the previous three
decades hadbeen concentrated among the very wealthiest Americans
 — 
the top 1 percent of earners, andespecially the top sliver of that 1 percent. Decline was not simply an abstract fear; many Americanssensed its effects in their own lives. This book is an effort to make sense of our current political unhappiness, to offer anexplanation for why divisions in our politics run so deep, and to reflect on why we are arguing so
much about our nation’s history and wh
at it means.I believe that Americans are more frustrated with politics and with ourselves than we have tobe, more fearful of national decline than our actual position in the world or our difficulties wouldjustify, and less confident than our history suggests we should be. The American past provides us with the resources we need to move beyond a lost decade and the anger that seems to engulf us all.But Americans are right to sense that the country confronts a time of decision. We are right to feelthat that the old ways of compromise have become irrelevant to the way we govern ourselves now. We are right to feel that traditional paths to upward mobility have been blocked, that inequalitieshave grown, and that the old social contract
 — 
written in the wake of World War II and based onshared prosperity 
 — 
has been torn up. Musty bromides about centrism and moderation will donothing to quell our anxieties and our fears. At moments of this sort, bookshelves and reading devices quickly fill with politicalcookbooks and repair kits. They offer recipes for national renewal and carefully wrought step-by-step suggestions for national renovation. Many of these offerings are thoughtful and well conceived.But our current unease arises less from a shortage of specific plans or programs than from a sensethat our political system is so obstructed and so polarized that even good ideas commanding broadsupport have little chance of prevailing. We do
n’t
have constructive debate because we cannot agreeon the facts or on any common ground defined by shared moral commitments.
 We typically blame this on our “polarized politics,” our “vicious political culture,” our“gotcha” and “partisan” media climate. Our first response is to look for mechanical and
technological fixes because these seem within easy reach. Proposals are rolled out to build new  websites or media structures, promote electoral refor
ms that will invigorate the “political center”
anddraw congressional districting lines in a nonpartisan way, establish new forums for publicdeliberation, and create new political parties for the fed up and the alienated, or for politicalmoderates.But procedural, technical, and symbolic reforms are inadequate because our difficulties rundeeper. Underlying our political impasse is a lost sense of national balance that in turn reflects a lossof historical memory.
 Americans disagree about who we are because we can’t agree about who
 
we’ve been.
We areat odds over the meaning of our own history, over the sources of our national strength, and over what it is, philosophically and
spiritually, that makes us “Americans.” The consensus that guided our
politics through nearly all of the twentieth century is broken. In the absence of a new consensus, we will continue to fight
 — 
and to founder.Building a new consensus will be impossible if the parties to our political struggles continueto insist that a single national trait explains our success as a nation and that a single idea drives anddominates our story. At the heart of this book is a view that American history is defined by anirrepressible and ongoing tension between two core values: our love of individualism and ourreverence for community. These values do not simply face off against each other. There is not a
party of “individualism” co
mpeting at
election time against a party of “community.” Rather, both of 

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