The U.S. is like a dysfunctional, blended family that manages to more or less pull it together, as do most families, for big events such as the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, the Inaugural, and the Super Bowl (or so I hear). Otherwise, as of late it feels like just so many factions, fighting amongst each other, squabbling over their share. “He got a bigger piece than I did!” “Mom likes you better!” “Why am I the one who always has to compromise?!” “I hate this family!”
After Sept 11, 2001, there was a sense we put all that aside for a moment, and this was one country that had been terribly wronged and wounded. The enemy was once again “out there”, not next door or across the aisle in the Senate or that rich 1%, and so on, but the sentiment soon devolved. Even if it had all the earmarkings of a honeymoon, there was a brief period of national optimism around Obama’s first election, but it too passed. National mood comes and goes quickly. In recent times, dissatisfaction and resentment never seem too far from the surface.
In 2016 bad blood between North and South lingers though the fights have moved from the fields to the courts. By citizens and politicians alike, immigrants are viewed with suspicion. Muslims as a group are painted with one brush. American businesses take jobs overseas causing anger stateside. Corporations swallow up smaller businesses and most new businesses fail. A lot of people are afraid of losing what they have, be it health, financial security, their jobs, or their homes. The middle of the Country and the two coasts are at odds. Old and young citizens are pitted against each other, each resenting the other – never have so many Americans existed in such large numbers with such age gaps separating them. The differences in our political parties, never gone, are so pointed during an election year. We are nowhere near a society that does not see race. The majority of law-abiding Americans fear a disenfranchised homegrown minority, armed with weapons and explosives, that randomly prey on their fellow citizens, be it in acts of crime or terrorism.
That rhetoric about how America used to be a great country and no longer is, often wielded self-righteously, sticks in my craw. I have a theory that nobody is more unhappy than the person who has power and loses it. I think that’s what’s happening here. The average Joe and Jane senses something has been lost; even the lowest guy on the totem pole used to be able to boast about being an American. People took pride in this country’s accomplishments even if they didn’t personally have a hand in them. There was a feeling that we ALL were part of whatever this country achieved. A person could coast along, doing their workaday job, watching TV at night, grilling hotdogs with pals on weekends, and still feel like he or she was part of the bigger picture. I don’t think people feel that as much now. There is both a belief other countries are “getting ahead” and that this one’s agenda can’t entirely be trusted.
Rather than look to what binds us as a country and get people to focus on how they contribute to the “common good”, there are those who want to dig deeper divides among Americans. It’s been very effective. If you are unhappy or things aren’t turning out as hoped, somebody is to blame, goes the theory. Being a United States citizen was supposed to be the equivalent of holding a Golden Ticket, and a whole lot of people are bummed to discover it’s not entirely true.
As a nation, we lack one common goal and that weakens us. If I go back to the family metaphor, that’s what brings down a family too: the lack of a common goal, even it’s something as general as “We are family and we stick together” or “The family takes care of its own.” I can’t really think of one thing that binds all Americans or that we could get the majority to agree upon. That troubles me.
I am not about to agree with the blanket sentiment that we need to “go back to when America was great.” Go back? To when exactly? When we had lots of social problems but didn’t air them as freely as we do now? Is the issue that we – the dysfunctional family – are just louder about what’s wrong? People have always spoken up in this country but not without a price and I’d venture the majority kept their heads down, unwilling to risk whatever they did have. Doesn’t seem as true today, which comes with pluses and minuses.
How do you define great? Is it as simple as people having enough food to eat, health care when they need it, education for their children, freedom to practice or not practice religion, productive work in decent environments, a chance to move ahead socially and financially, and a safe, comfortable place to live? Is it knowing the government and military will protect its people from threats, both external and homegrown? Is that great? Or is more about being viewed as the richest, most productive, most powerful country in the world? Some of both?
Part of my issue with what’s happening now is that I can’t entirely tease out the rhetoric that is tossed around so wildly with the reality of most people’s lives. I see numbers and statistics just like you do. The unemployment rates. The mental health issues. The crime rates. The scary talk about poverty and retirement. About sickness and mortality. The drugs and alcohol. The disproportionate number of minorities in prison. The white collar crime. The abuse of children and battered women. The guns. The weird viruses and bacteria that turn up stateside. The chemicals in our food, air, rain, drinking water. The unrest in other parts of the world that threatens not only our interests but at times, our lives.
So I know all this stuff. Nobody will let you NOT know it. Does that laundry list of bad news effectively cross out my first definition of “great?” Can they coexist? I can’t even answer that for myself. Nor can I say a country is great if most people have those benefits most of the time. As is true of a family, is a country only as strong as its weakest or least happy member? And — for as intertwined as the world now is across the board, maybe it just isn’t possible to think of the U.S. as an entity unto itself. Maybe that’s the larger issue, or at least an underlying one.