To the relief of just about everyone —with the possible exception of advertising sales staff at the nation’s media companies — the 2022 midterms will soon be over.
In just a few days, Americans are likely to know the answers to a host of momentous questions:
- Will the work that’s finally commenced to address the global environmental crisis proceed or stall?
- Will the levers of democracy in several states be placed in the hands of politicians who embrace delusional conspiracy theories?
- Will the nation soon come face-to-face with the real prospect of default on the national debt and a federal government shutdown?
- Will U.S. opposition to Vladimir Putin’s aggression and its support for democracy in Ukraine continue or be upended?
- Will abortion rights in states like North Carolina be further eroded?
Across the nation, candidates of all partisan and ideological persuasions are making their last best push for votes and attempting to explain why the positions they espouse will lead to the best answers to these and many other questions.
Sadly, however, despite the hundreds of millions of dollars being spent in this cause, there is a simple and undeniable truth that’s almost universally absent from the discussion. And interestingly, it’s a truth that was once embraced — largely without question — by both major American political parties.
President John F. Kennedy probably voiced this truth most eloquently and memorably in his 1961 inaugural address when told the American people “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”
Perhaps it was the widespread deprivation and threats to comfort and stability to which the Great Depression and World War II had given rise, but whatever the origin, Kennedy’s call to practice sacrifice for the common good was not an especially unique or controversial position for a politician to espouse for much of the 20th century.
His Republican predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower put it this way in his 1953 inaugural speech as he addressed the need for the need for the nation to work tirelessly for global peace:
“We must be willing, individually and as a Nation, to accept whatever sacrifices may be required of us. A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both.”
Republican Richard Nixon echoed this same sentiment in a 1971 Labor Day address to the nation, in which he called for “sacrifice,” “inconvenience,” and “temporary restrictions on our economic freedom” to strengthen the nation’s economic well-being, and asked, plaintively:
“What’s happening to the willingness for self-sacrifice that enabled us to build a great nation, to the moral code that made self-reliance a part of the American character, to the competitive spirit that made it possible for us to lead the world?”
Today, tragically, such statements are — despite their still glaring accuracy — widely seen and treated as political poison by virtually all serious political candidates of both major parties.
Social and political scientists have pointed over the years to a host of contributing causes to this change in popular attitudes. There was the rise of the Baby Boom generation that largely knew only increasing prosperity and material comfort. And there was its subsequent emergence as the “me generation” of the 1980s that helped spur capitalism to new heights of consumption and wealth accumulation.
And, of course, the demise of the Carter presidency with its message of sobriety and temperance, and the rise of Reaganism with its embrace of unfettered market capitalism, helped cement the shift in the political class — so much so that by 2001, President George W. Bush felt empowered and obliged to urge Americans to fight the “war on terror” that followed the September 11 attacks, not by saving or sacrificing, but by shopping.
Today’s world of ever-more-instant gratification, and the fears spurred by cynically pandering politicians like Donald Trump who warn ominously that we must arm ourselves with more weapons and walls to preserve it, seems only to have abetted this trend.
But whatever the causes and current manifestation of this sobering reality, there can be little doubt that, at some point in the near future, the pendulum must swing back if we are to avoid truly disastrous consequences. The global environmental emergency that grips our planet is the most obvious example of a place in which sacrifice — or, at the very least, an acceptance of rapid change and adaptation — is necessary, but there are many others.
Whether it’s mass migration, inevitable future pandemics, our crumbling and under-funded national infrastructure, rapid technological change and the evolving nature of work, or the demographic shift to a majority-minority nation and the long overdue racial reckoning to which it is helping to give rise, at some point soon, the U.S. simply must experience a revival of the kind of public-spirited commitment to shared sacrifice and the common good that once prevailed.
And when that happens, perhaps American politicians will again muster the courage to speak some hard, but undeniable truths.
Rob Schofield, director of NC Policy Watch, has three decades of experience as a lawyer, lobbyist, writer and commentator. Republished from NCPolicyWatch.org.