By Robert Schmuhl, Walter H. Annenberg-Edmund P. Joyce Professor of American Studies and Journalism in the College of Arts and Letters
Adapted from an essay published in the winter 2010-2011 issue of Notre Dame Magazine.
Americans are cranky and in a national funk. Weary of partisan acrimony that keeps sharpening political divisions rather than solving problems, people’s faith in Washington plummets while anger builds. Reeling from Wall Street shell games and ethics-be-damned business practices, confidence in corporations plunges to Depression-Era depths. Once-revered institutions, widely acknowledged for moral guidance and probity, suffer the ignominy of scandal — with public trust tested to unprecedented degrees.
Where on earth are we heading?
That question is particularly pertinent in assessing our contemporary political life and in confronting the polarization and democratic dysfunction that exist today.
Despite an array of opinion surveys, reflecting a jaundiced view of many institutions, including most governmental operations, faith in the larger system remains strong. That means purposeful reforms — in, say, campaign financing, in redistricting on a more democratic basis, or in nominating presidential candidates with a fairer, national process — could reduce some of the distrust and make Washington a less hostile environment and a better functioning capital.
The inchoate Tea Party movement, so much in the news since 2009, is a flashing warning sign that the status quo is no longer acceptable and that change is being demanded. Indeed, all the anger quantified in recent polls is the national kindling that keeps Tea Party proponents aflame.
Largely suspicious of government, this movement is as much a nostalgic throwback to an earlier time as a contemporary political force. With so many aspects of U.S. life under assault, can’t Washington, Tea Partiers ask, find some answers to thwart the decline in the nation’s standards for living and its historic self-image as a country?
The New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman is probably not alone in wanting to see the emergence of “a Tea Party of the radical center.” In his proposal, outlined in a column last spring, political independents and moderates would confront Washington’s partisanship and polarization directly to address key policy concerns.
“The radical center is ‘radical’ in its desire for a radical departure from politics as usual,” he wrote. “It advocates: raising taxes to close our budgetary shortfalls, but doing so with a spirit of equity and social justice; guaranteeing that every American is covered by health insurance, but with market reforms to really bring down costs; legally expanding immigration to attract more job-creators to America’s shores; increasing corporate tax credits for research and lowering corporate taxes if companies will move more manufacturing jobs back onshore; investing more in our public schools, while insisting on rising national education standards and greater accountability for teachers, principals and parents; massively investing in clean energy, including nuclear, while allowing more offshore drilling in the transition.”
A movement of what Friedman terms “hybrid ideas” would seek consensus or common ground across party or ideological lines, with give-and-take replacing political rigidity and rancor. Success, of course, requires leadership from both inside and outside government — leadership that looks beyond the self or a specific group to the more encompassing public at large, what in times past was referred to as the common good.
That same type of leadership is also desperately needed in business, education, religion and media — across the array of American institutions. With it, trust, confidence and faith would, undoubtedly, follow.
Yet, a hard-headed realist might wonder: Is such thinking even possible? Do we dare imagine a program of multi-institutional correction with the objective of national improvement?
It will take inspired and deliberate action, stressing long-term benefits over near-term, usually next-election results. And, instead of serving as spectators with thumbs pointing perpetually down, the public will need to get involved actively as citizens who are intent on helping to find workable ways to build more confidence and trust.
Exactly what shape these efforts might take is the province of speculation. At a moment of pronounced anger and frustration, will there be greater reliance on individuals and smaller, closer-to-home institutions? Will change take place more locally than nationally? Will mavericks play a central role, with their impact changing the direction of established institutions?
From America’s founding, a distrust of bigness has become a defining national characteristic, part of our civic DNA. In addition, another deeply rooted national characteristic is a native optimism, a forward-looking promise of a better tomorrow.
Undoubtedly, confidence and trust will continue to be tested. Yet, if we draw on our indigenous dynamism and constructively figure out what it takes to create a can-do future more faithful to our history, then maybe current ruminations about American decline will prove to be warnings without warrant.
In other words, it’s up to all of us.