Hoping Crisis Spawns America 2.0

11/13/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

American governance got stuck somewhere mid-20th century. It ambled along, hit a bog and kept on marching, lifting one leg high in a plucky arm-swinging gate and planting the next. We felt the heart's determined thump, saw the mud splashing madly and never realized that, collectively, most of us weren't getting anywhere.

I live in red-state California. This is the semi-rural northern part of the State, north of Sacramento, east of the coast range. Far right Republican Wally Herger has represented my overwhelmingly (around 90%) white congressional district since 1986. It's a "God, guns and guts" kinda place. You can't spit without hitting a church. It's a microcosm of the twisted rapture in which the press and right wing politicians claim to hold "the heartland" and "regular folks." It's the kind of place into which the David Brooks' of the world parachute for a weekend, talk to a few folks at a local diner, and then dictate unctuous odes to "the real America" and its "old-fashioned values." These are the "regular folks," as Chris Matthews calls them. White. High school educated. Blue collar. Working class. They're folks being left behind.

Significant numbers act as if they're living on the vast frontier instead of on .25 acre suburban lots. "Why can't I shoot guns in my own backyard?" "Why can't I cut down all the tall pine trees on my own land?" "What do you mean I have to get a license for this or for that?" Their refusal to acknowledge the changing world around them is akin to America's. Maybe that's why they are held in such loud, faux esteem by right-leaning media and government elite.

Similarly, more than half of America has been looking backwards for 30 years, desperately clinging to a self-image that's receding in the rear view mirror: We're hearty white folks on the plains instead of increasingly brown ones in the cities; we venerate a vast middle class instead of crushing it to enrich the few; our governance is the envy of the world.

It is tragically apparent why the religious right merged with the Republican right. To the fundamentalist Christian, the past is the Age of Miracles, a Shangri-la to which they seek to return. To the politically pious conservative, the American past is similar--an age of American miracles in which an uncontested, homogeneous ruling class of white men held sway and projected all things wise and good. It's no wonder that Ronald Reagan remains the spectral torchbearer for the American Past Perfect. He played cowboys in movies. He epitomized the political, social and cultural era the right venerates. The very idea of laissez-faire markets, of letting the markets police themselves, is a financial version of the great frontier, the all-American spirit soaring free in wide open spaces... only this time, the spaces were the world's financial stages. And today, we're reaping the bitter fruits of the backwards vision Reagan sowed. So bitter are they that even the great man's acolytes, George Bush and Henry Paulson, embrace the idea of partially nationalizing banks. They embrace what they once derided as socialism.

Yes. Things are so bad, that they might actually get better. Americans make great leaps during times of shared pain and sacrifice. Such times are rare. As rugged individualists obsessed with a romantic, nationalistic vision of our own past, we don't care much for each other. Different tribes and different cultures, we'd just as soon let the other fellow sink or swim. We'll give generously to charities that promote our worldview and pet causes, but the idea of shared national responsibility for one another's welfare--that's not indigenous to us.

When Reagan attacked government, he attacked the idea of America as a modern nation. He attacked the idea of individuals with a shared national vision, a group of people who rise or fall together. He attacked the means by which we seek to speak with a single voice. He attacked us all. Why? Because too many of us were no longer like him to be trusted. The first rule of anti-government conservatism is: Sentiment against any governmental program is inversely proportional to the number of minorities that program is perceived to assist.

Now, the global financial crisis that Reaganesque anti-government philosophies spawned might usher a black man into the White House. Irony itself is laughing. And this financial fever has not yet broken. This, too, might be one of those rare times of shared pain and sacrifice. It might be a time when we can't help but see our fellow American's boat as our own, regardless of accent, head covering or skin color.

During the depression, we got the New Deal legislation. After World War II, we got the GI bill and desegregation of the U.S. military. This time, we might get a financial system that, in return for the government policies and largesse on which it thrives, kicks significant cash back into the public coffers. We might get health care that does not condemn the non-wealthy to delays, increased pain and suffering, and sometimes, unnecessary deaths. We might be willing to see our national infrastructure as a shared treasure and commit public funds to rebuild it. We might accept the value of shared responsibility for the common and equitable education of the next generations.

We might actually move forward instead of pleadingly looking back. It's time. The rest of the world is already onto us. Having bought aspects of our free market propaganda much of the world followed us off an economic cliff. Now, seeing the bottom, they'll have no more of it "This is not a time for outdated thinking," British Prime Minister Gordon Brown chastised when announcing his plan to partially nationalize some British banks. "This is not the American plan," he stated proudly. Other wealthy nations are following his lead--not ours.

Our economic policies have been as delusional as our foreign policies. Perhaps a severe crisis that costs us all dearly will swipe from our eyes the romantic cobwebs of the imagined American past--at least enough so we can reach toward the global future without shuddering and thundering in jingoistic, Reaganesque fear.