In 1983, a government commission issued a much-publicized report on our education system ominously titled "A Nation at Risk."
For those of us who made a living studying politics, there was an effort to contemplate what this meant for American self-government; more precisely, what a more ignorant and stupid electorate (the inevitable consequence of educational failure) would mean for our capacity to sustain our democracy. At what point would the degeneration of the polis begin to politically manifest itself and how?
Democracy is, after all, and as the founders recognized, little more than a reflection of the people, of their character and qualities. Indeed, implicit in the American founding, in democratic political theory more broadly, has always been the notion that democracy is a fragile achievement that has to be cherished and sustained by each generation, lest it perish.
Contrary to the cheap populist rhetoric of our age, if our system of government isn't working, the primary cause can be found in just one place: the mirror.
This is also why the survey results from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation a few weeks ago were so depressing. That barely a third of Americans can pass the easy-to-pass multiple-choice citizenship test suggests that we have haven't made much progress since 1983; if anything, that we have become even dumber when it comes to the kind of knowledge necessary to sustain our democratic institutions and practices.
President Trump's critics would, of course, identify him as a prime exhibit of how an infantile electorate has come to increasingly view politics as a form of reality TV, to the point of actually electing a reality TV star as president (more than a few also mischievously expressed doubts about how well Trump himself would fare on the Wilson test).
For my part, a more alarming manifestation of deterioration within the body politic, one with the additional virtue of being able to track with numerical precision, is that monument to generational profligacy known as the national debt. Worse still, the remarkable nonchalance with which it is increasingly greeted by our elected officials and people.
In paradoxical fashion likely to baffle future historians, the worse the deficit has gotten, the stronger the consensus appears to have become across the political spectrum to ignore it, to simply push it out of our national political discussion.
George W. Bush presided over a doubling of the debt; Barack Obama nearly doubled it again, and now, based on the latest Treasury Department reports, Trump has blithely set a course to outdo both of them. Using perhaps the best perspective with which to measure the thing, our debt as a percentage of GDP has grown from an already troubling 54.9 percent at the beginning of the century to 103.8 percent now.
Over time, what the Democrats routinely derided as the "green eyeshade" party (the GOP) learned that there is no constituency for serious budget-cutting, only electoral disadvantage (being accused of wanting to throw granny out into the snow when suggesting even a slight slowing of the rate of spending growth eventually takes a toll).
The Democrats, for their part, have never cared much about deficits and debt, contrary as such concerns would be to their long-term project of buying votes with government checks, often eliding over debt questions by redefining runaway spending as a form of governmental "investment" (as if I can make my future brighter and more financially solvent by running out this afternoon and "investing" in a new Mercedes).
But if the GOP in the age of Trump has thrown in the towel on the debt out of fatigue and belated recognition of electoral disincentive, the Democrats have moved all the way into crazy-for-Cocoa Puffs land, now proposing an array of new benefits (Medicare for all, free college, etc.) entirely untethered from any semblance of fiscal reality, even a "Green New Deal" that would almost certainly constitute the most expensive governmental program in history.
Perhaps the numbers have become so large as to become psychologically incomprehensible. After all, If Joseph Stalin is said to have once stated that "one death is a tragedy, a million deaths just a statistic" what does the statistic $22.3 trillion actually mean? Or maybe everyone just wants to get on the gravy train and get what they can before it crashes.
The young people I teach, our best and brightest, the future of our country as the commencement speakers like to say, tend to demonstrate little understanding of what a budget deficit is or what the national debt means and how it accumulates. When I present the stark numbers as part of our discussion of growing fiscal insolvency in post-industrial democracies, they seem stunned, as if having heard of this problem for the first time.
The eyes pop open even more when I imply that there will inevitably be a day of reckoning and that they will be paying for it all.
The founders talked a great deal about the need for virtue in the people.
There are many words that come to mind when thinking about the debt being passed down to future generations. "Virtuous" isn't one of them.
Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois.Editorial on 03/18/2019
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