The historian Richard Hofstadter said that the U.S. is the only country in history that believes it was born perfect and strives for improvement. The idea that we are a nation without flaws or that we can permanently eliminate our very human failings is, of course, delusional.
But America’s current political divide has produced equally ludicrous notions of outsized defects. The contemporary conservative idea that government is the source of all the country’s woes is reductionist and worse. The Tea Party crowd seems incapable of understanding that New Deal and Great Society programs humanized the U.S. industrial system and saved free enterprise from its worst excesses.
On the other side, the Occupiers have decried the greatest concentration of wealth since the 19th-century Gilded Age, but they have been too quick to strike out at symbols of the national malaise without advancing a coherent agenda for righting social and economic wrongs.
The country is unquestionably struggling with large economic problems that jeopardize its domestic tranquility and future prosperity. But anti-government rhetoric and anti-Wall Street complaints hardly provide credible answers. The opposing sides see nothing ahead but doom and gloom unless they win command of the nation’s power centers and enact their programs of change.
One great drawback of American democracy is the difficulty we have accepting that every country -- however blessed with great resources and a generally well-functioning government -- suffers some economic and social ills. Another is our inability to accept that national problems cannot be wished away by simplistic slogans and nostrums. Herman Cain’s 999 plan and Texas Governor Rick Perry’s promise to cure current ills by shutting two -- or is it three? -- federal agencies are just the most recent vintages of an old, familiar snake oil.
The affinity for quick fixes is as old as the country itself. The witchcraft trials of the 1690s were supposed to cure several Massachusetts communities of their sins. The Know Nothings of the 1840s and 1850s sought to bar Catholics from coming to the U.S. in order to save American freedom from papal directives. The Populists of the 1890s promoted the free and unlimited coinage of silver to rescue suffering farmers and laborers. The anti-Communists of the 1950s insisted on loyalty oaths to ferret out subversives. Republican Senator Barry Goldwater and his followers in the 1960s demanded the repeal of Social Security and the jettisoning of federal regulatory agencies to head off socialism. Now Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, and his ilk demand that members of Congress pledge not to raise taxes, the latest surefire solution to economic ills.
The attraction to easy answers is echoed in a 2010 Gallup poll that asked Americans to assess the last nine presidents from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush. Kennedy topped the list with an 85 percent approval rating. Only Ronald Reagan was in hailing distance of him, with 74 percent. Deciphering these results presents a challenge: Kennedy’s thousand days comprised one of the briefest presidencies in U.S. history. His slight record, devoid of major domestic legislative achievements, seems smothered by the country’s overwhelming regard.
Nor do Reagan’s White House accomplishments square with so robust a public endorsement. Yes, the Cold War sputtered toward its conclusion on his watch, but historians see Harry S. Truman’s containment policy as the principal cause of this national success -- not Reagan’s policies. Given current anxieties over economic uncertainties, including unprecedented sums of federal, state and local debt, Reagan’s eight-year presidency, which nearly tripled the nation’s debt, seems at odds with the public’s high esteem.
Few Americans know much about presidential accomplishments. How much could the average American say about the three greatest presidents in U.S. history -- George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt? Washington won the revolution and launched the federal government; Lincoln led us through the Civil War; FDR overcame the Depression and won World War II. That’s probably the sum of what most people know about these presidencies.
What gives Kennedy and Reagan such a strong hold on American imaginations is not what they did but what they said and still stand for. Both presidents are remembered as optimists promising better futures. Kennedy had the New Frontier; for Reagan, it was Morning in America. Both remain inspirational voices that in a time of doubt give people hope. And when you put either man alongside Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, they seem especially appealing.
The national embrace of Kennedy and Reagan is at one with the attraction to nostrums. All we need is the right man with the right formula and all will be well again. If only it were that easy.
(Robert Dallek’s latest book, “The Lost Peace: Leadership in a Time of Horror and Hope, 1945-1953,” has just been published in paperback.)
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