Americans are proud of dreaming big and taking big chances, and as far as individual feats go, it may still be true.
But the larger truth is that, foreign military adventurism aside, the American government hasn't really acted boldly since the days of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. Americans talk a lot about change during elections, but they recoil from action once the election is over. In this article from the L.A. Times, Neal Gabler provides examples:
- An economic stimulus? Make sure it is a small one.
- Health care reform? Be happy with half measures.
- Climate change legislation? No action at all.
We blame politics, deficits and bad leadership, when we should be blaming our cowardice and complacency.
A bit of history
When the United States was founded, its leadership class was more or less equally divided between Federalists who believed in a vigorous national government and Republicans who emphasized decentralization. The former looked toward shaping an expanding nation in a changing world. The latter looked toward conserving a pastoral way of life that the changing world threatened. Thus action and inaction, change and conservation were posited as two sides of the American enterprise.
Throughout the 19th century, during America's adolescence, the country vacillated between these poles. The Whigs and their successors, the Republicans, were the proponents of boldness -- forming a national bank, a national university, a national rail system, a homestead act -- chiefly as a way to facilitate mercantile interests. The Democrats, descended from Thomas Jefferson's old Republicans, remained wary, and focused more on the pastoral and agrarian life.
By the early 20th century, the roles had largely reversed, at least at the national level. It was the Democrats, infused with energy from populism, progressivism and a general mistrust of big business, who proposed new initiatives. The Republicans -- with the exception that proves the rule, Teddy Roosevelt -- advocated maintaining the status quo. Eventually there emerged a governing pattern -- forward, stand pat, forward, stand pat -- with Democrats generally doing the moving forward and Republicans standing pat, immobile.
But even this overstates the case for governmental boldness.
Republicans became America's default party as early as the 1890s. Since then, Democrats have been elected to the presidency only when Republicans screwed up: Taft by dividing his party, Hoover with his Depression, Eisenhower with his recession, Nixon with Watergate, George H.W. Bush with his recession and George W. Bush with practically everything.
Democrats are tapped to ride to the rescue, but this has largely been more a matter of throwing out the rascals than of empowering action.
The two 20th century exceptions have been FDR and LBJ. The New Deal and the Great Society were bold, progressive movements, but they were achieved only as a result of disaster -- in the first case, a convulsive Depression; in the second, the assassination of JFK.
So why hasn't our great recession, another deep convulsion, created an equally effective cry for government activism?
The need for the Democratic cavalry to clean up the Republican mess could hardly seem clearer. And that was precisely why Barack Obama was elected: to act boldly. But no sooner did he enter office than the old chants of fearfulness reverberated across the country: An economic rescue would only ratchet up the deficit; the regulation of Wall Street would destroy Wall Street; health care reform would result in socialism. Or so people feared.
What happened to our resolve? Nothing really. Americans just reverted to form.
It's easy to blame Republicans and their long, relentless campaign asserting that any action besides cutting taxes is dangerous, and one wouldn't be entirely wrong to do so. Rank-and-file Democrats, after all, still tell pollsters they would opt for a bolder stimulus package and more extensive health care reform. "It's just those damn Republicans (and Bluedog Dems) who wouldn't let these two things happen."
But the Republicans' and the tea partyers' successes only underscore how much of the nation is terrified by any action whatsoever. For better or worse, Americans are a timorous bunch who, rather sadly, only press their government to act when they think national security is at stake. That's how Eisenhower sold the interstate highway system, how LBJ sold Vietnam and how George W. Bush sold the Iraq war. When we aren't defending ourselves, American government just can't seem to muster a consensus to do much of anything.