A Hollow America

by George Kennedy on September 25, 2011



I am one of millions of Americans concerned about the future direction of this country. The question on everyone’s mind these days is, “which candidate is best qualified to lead us?” We are well beyond the Clinton idea of America: “that no matter who you are, or where you’re from, if you work hard and play by the rules, you’ll have the freedom and opportunity to pursue your own dreams and leave your kids a country where they can choose theirs.” Clinton’s idea represented the richness, the vitality, the promise of an America that lives in the hearts of all Americans, many of whom are increasingly frustrated and angry by the reality of a cherished idea that is now hollow at its core.

Americans are being pressured by a new breed of conservative to abrogate a social contract sacrosanct to generations of Americans: shared obligation and shared sacrifice. This simple, but time-honored, principle extends into most important facets of our lives. We want it that way – with reasonable limits. The new idea is a two-class society: the rich and the rest. Your niche in this new paradigm is largely a function of your willingness to: deny that government can be a force to achieve common goals; support policies at all levels that remove restraints on market or business imperatives; and, to advocate for a government that has as a mandate to ensure the prosperity of your class. Failing to do so would ensure a descent into an enlarging economic and financial abyss. This is the new world for the middle class. Amidst general despair, there is hope: pockets of resistance in places like Wisconsin and Ohio that remind us that we are not powerless to influence events. We are not sheep.

The contours of this hollow America reveal frightening, even dangerous terrain. Unless reconfigured toward reasonableness, New York Mayor Blumberg may be right when he suggests there could be “riots in the streets.” Conservatives insisting on extreme positions can only lead to extreme reactions.

How we treat the least among us and our children represent a face of America, a face we were once proud to project. Times have changed. “The child poverty rate jumped in 38 states during the last ten years” reported the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Patrick McCarthy, President and CEO of the Casey Foundation noted to the Huffington Post last month that “elevated rates of child poverty could also have dire consequences for the country down the line.” Further, that “child poverty is a leading indicator of the country’s future.” We are looking at the new face of this country.

We have a storied social history, our imperfections notwithstanding. The world’s most prosperous middle-class built and sustained an American economy that has been a model for the world for over five decades. Students of economic development know that internationally-accepted indices of a society’s development and acceptance into international organizations were modeled after a standard we established in this country. The American economic foundation with its rules, socially-accepted structures, norms of behavior – all elements of stability – offered a platform upon which entrepreneurs could flourish. No one begrudged them their wealth as conservatives claim. Until 30 years ago, they, too, accepted a social contract as part of the price of citizenship. Today, a new breed of greedy, ideological zealots insist upon laws that guarantee privileged status for the wealthy, the right to a disproportionate share of this nation’s wealth, and tax-payer-funded protections to inoculate themselves from discordant voices approaching their gates e.g., demonstrators on Wall Street. I marvel at the insistence of a group to arrogate for themselves a status distinct from society while resting on a foundation constructed, financed, and secured from harm by others.

Earlier, I called for a new breed of leadership in this country and suggested the “people’s candidate” was Elizabeth Warren. Of course I meant some people, not all. Conservatives dared the President to nominate Warren to his cabinet – which he would not – and now, she returns to haunt them with her Senate bid. The conservatives threw down the gauntlet which she boldly picked up. Her response to their whining about class warfare was simple truth: “there is nobody in this country who got rich on his own..pointing out that the rich can only get rich thanks to the ‘social contract’ that provides a decent, functioning society in which they can prosper.” This was heresy, a dagger thrust into the breasts of the mandarins on Wall Street and the financial sector.

An America hollow at its core devalued the importance of manufacturing, affordable healthcare, a skilled labor force with living wages and benefits, a stable middle class; a world-class, affordable education system, a safe environment, and basic personal freedoms (the Patriot Act). Abolish the Department of Education! They shrieked. Science is bogus and global warming is a naturally occurring phenomenon. These new stewards of our economy would allow the nation’s infrastructure to crumble through official neglect while constructing numerous military bases in Iraq. The one area of opportunity they will support is the all-volunteer force to fight the wars that sustain their fantasies of a world presided over by the American military colossus. Conservatives accept an American fighting force comprised of whites at the lower end of the economic scale, blacks, Latinos, and the illegal immigrant seeking a path to formal recognition. An observation on this last point. A national draft would be politically unpalatable even to conservatives, but maybe they are sending a signal to some of the unemployed. Yeah, I know this is a stretch. But, what exactly is a stretch in the world of the precedent-establishing demands of the Tea Partyers? It is now the case that no demand from them is unreasonable.

Conservatives and their Republican allies in the House insist the unemployed are lazy and prefer to survive on unemployment insurance. Welcome to that vision as a desirable standard of living. Bankers and lenders demand that we remain accountable for mortgages on devalued properties as a direct consequence of reckless behavior of fund managers and investment bankers on Wall Street where they “don’t design, build, or sell a single tangible thing” says John Cassidy in his Annals of Economics article of Nov. 29, 2010, “What Good is Wall Street?” Bonuses are sacrosanct, lower taxes are a panacea, and the national debt is the responsibility of the poor, the unemployed, and remnants of the middle class.

What are the values of this hollowed-out America? Values undergird society and serve as guideposts for future generations. Values are at the center of the aspirations of those in suppressed societies willing to sacrifice their very lives. Conservatives would have us worship at the altar of heartlessness, avarice, demagoguery, class warfare, power without responsibility, a “two-tier” wage structure, and oblivion for those incapable of survival in conservatives’ America. We would no longer be our brother’s keeper even during a national catastrophe. Is this new America a bridge too far? And, who decides?

George Kennedy

George Kennedy is a retired senior Foreign Service officer with extensive international experience. He holds a B.A. from the University of Oregon and two graduate degrees from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. Mr. Kennedy was a political advisor to state and federal officials and has authored strategy pieces for Members of Congress and presidential candidates. He serves on the Advisory Board for the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Arizona.

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