Unhappy Birthday

Unhappy Birthday

By Robert Samuelson - July 4, 2011

WASHINGTON -- In this summer of our discontent, Americans arrive at the Fourth of July full of doubt and disappointment. The sickly economy is the main cause; if unemployment were 8 million (about 5.2 percent) instead of 14 million (9.1 percent), Americans would feel better. But we are also unhappy with our democracy -- though hardly anyone says so -- and this goes to the heart of how we see ourselves.

We are fiercely patriotic. The overlooked reality in the debate about American "exceptionalism" is that most Americans don't believe it's debatable. In a 2010 poll, 77 percent of us said that "whatever its faults," the United States "has the best system of government in the world." In the 2003-04 World Values Survey, 74 percent of Americans felt strongly they'd "rather be a citizen of my country than any other." This surpassed any other nationality. Comparable responses were 58 percent for Canadians, 37 percent for South Koreans and 18 percent for Germans.

Our huge national pride -- which often strikes others as arrogance -- rests on economic accomplishments and even more on what scholars call the American Creed: the faith in freedom; the rule of law; equal opportunity; and democratic ideas and political institutions. What defines us (and this differs from most societies) is not ethnicity, race or religion but our bedrock beliefs. Unfortunately, widely shared values do not settle most specific conflicts.

We are now engaged in a messy debate over big budget deficits and the size of government. The struggle nominally pits liberals against conservatives, but this is misleading. The real debate involves reactionaries versus radicals. Many liberals are reactionaries and many conservatives are radicals.

A reactionary is someone who, says Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, desires "a return to an earlier system or order." This defines many liberals. They "pine," writes Michael Barone in The Wall Street Journal, for "the golden years of the 1940s, '50s and early '60s (when) ... Americans had far more confidence in big government." Modern liberals want yet-bigger government to enhance social justice. They defend virtually all Social Security and Medicare benefits. Everything can be financed, they suggest, by cutting defense or increasing taxes on the rich.

Conservatives have become radical by seeking "drastic political, economic or social reform." Their obsession with tax cuts when even today's taxes don't cover today's spending implies radically shrinking government programs that are woven into America's social fabric. All this ignores a basic conservative tenet: to respect existing institutions and traditions that anchor the social order. Change -- especially radical change -- is a last resort, not because today's world is perfect but because efforts to improve it might make it worse.

1 | 2 | Next Page››

Copyright 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

Robert Samuelson

Author Archive

Follow Real Clear Politics

Latest On Twitter