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The Politics of Sacrifice

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On January 16, PBS News Hour host Jim Lehrer interviewed President Bush. This encounter told us a lot about Bush's brand of conservatism, in particular, his feelings about sacrifice. Towards the end of the interview, Lehrer asked Bush:
[If the struggle in Iraq] is as important as you've just said... why have you not, as president of the United States, asked more Americans and more American interests to sacrifice something? The people who are now sacrificing are, you know, the volunteer military - the Army and the U.S. Marines and their families. They're the only people who are actually sacrificing anything at this point.
The President said Americans had sacrificed "peace of mind," then added:
Now, here in Washington when I say, "What do you mean by that?," they say, "Well, why don't you raise their taxes; that'll cause there to be a sacrifice." I strongly oppose that. If that's the kind of sacrifice people are talking about, I'm not for it because raising taxes will hurt this growing economy. And one thing we want during this war on terror is for people to feel like their life's moving on, that they're able to make a living and send their kids to college and put more money on the table.
The Lehrer interview made clear that Bush's notion of sacrifice is remarkably narrow: asking Americans to pay more taxes. His conservative ideology argues that we're all materialists: all Americans care about is money. In his September 20, 2001, speech to the nation the President reflected a similar view:
Americans are asking: What is expected of us? I ask you to live your lives, and hug your children... I ask you to uphold the values of America... I ask you to continue to support the victims of this tragedy with your contributions... I ask for your patience... I ask your continued participation and confidence in the American economy
At the onset of his "war on terror," Bush didn't ask Americans for broad sacrifice: didn't ask them to conserve gasoline or to donate blood or do any of the things previous Presidents have requested in time of war. He asked citizens to "keep on keeping on:" to be patient and support the economy, go shopping as usual. Why didn't Bush ask Americans for a broad sacrifice for the good of the country? It's not like this is an alien idea in western culture. The notion of personal sacrifice for the common good is a cornerstone of Christianity and has featured prominently in the rhetoric of previous US Presidents. But this brand of sacrifice is not supported by the President's materialistic conservatism. For the past six years, Bush's disdain for real sacrifice had a huge impact on the American psyche. It meant that the average citizen was keenly aware of Bush's "war on terror" but had no role to play other than to struggle to respond when the "threat level" was elevated from yellow to orange or red. This situation-Americans being continuously informed that they are at risk from a terrorist attack, but given no concrete way to respond-produced widespread public anxiety. Among other consequences, this made voters more malleable and, no doubt, helped Republicans politically in the 2002 and 2004 elections, when they played "the fear card." The Bush "no sacrifice" maxim produced a variety of atrocious Administration policies, the most notable of which was the decision to invade and occupy Iraq and not raise taxes. As a consequence, America went deeply in debt, and jeopardized the long-term viability of our economy. Nonetheless, the Federal government continues to spend more than it earns; an economic condition replicated in the lives of average Americans, who also spend more than they earn-typically financing their debt with home equity loans. George Bush's unwillingness to call for real sacrifice produced a policy horizon that refused to deal with the long-term. As a result, the Bush Administration has not prepared Americans for the coming decades of dramatic oil shortages and devastating weather produced by global warming. Experts leave no doubt that in order to prevent the worst consequences of both occurrences Americans must turn away from materialism and begin to conserve energy at an unprecedented pace. Nonetheless, conservation remains a dirty word with conservatives, because it implies personal sacrifice as well as an end to our unfettered exploitation of natural resources. President Bush and conservatives, in general, don't like to talk about real sacrifice. They prefer to pretend that Americans can have it all: wage an expensive "war" on terror and continue to run a deficit economy fueled by tax cuts; enjoy artificially priced gasoline and ignore global climate change. They are materialists who prefer to focus on the present: argue that tomorrow is another day, and until then, personal sacrifice is unnecessary. Of course, the day of reckoning will eventually come. Who will be the first brave politician to fully embrace a new American politics of sacrifice?
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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.
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