One of the more striking characteristics of the "new" Republican agenda (or the agenda of the conservative movement, or Tea Party movement, or whatever they prefer to call themselves) is how unrelentingly negative it is. Depressingly, ploddingly negative; America is simultaneously the best and greatest country in the world, as blanket assertion, and a nation on a slow death march towards insolvency and irrelevance. America must make sacrifices, goes the refrain, but every one of the sacrifices seems to involve retracting a past long-term success; America must not (something), is the defining chant, where (something) is any number of things that other countries can successfully do and have done, but America cannot, or an even larger list of somethings that America used to do, and quite competently, but America can do no longer.
Other industrialized nations can provide their citizens with better access to healthcare; we simply cannot, and you are a fool for even bringing it up. Other nations can, say, establish warning systems for tsunamis, or volcanos, or hurricanes; America must tighten its belt, and that meager, economically trivial ounce of prevention is considered fat that should obviously be trimmed, so that America-the-entity can get back to its fighting weight. Past-America could provide at least some modest layer of security to prevent its citizens from descending into destitution in old age; we in this day cannot. Past-America could pursue scientific discoveries as a matter of national pride, even land mankind on an entirely other world; we cannot. Past-America was a haven of invention and technology that shook the world and changed the course of history countless times: whatever attributes made it such a place we cannot quite determine now, much less replicate. Public art is decadent. Public education is an infringement. Public works are for other times, never now.
America of the past could build highways and railroads and a robust electrical grid. We cannot even keep them running. Of course we cannot keep them running: that was past-America. That past America had a magic that we modern Americans cannot match. Perhaps it was beholden to Satan, or to socialism, or merely to some grandiose vision of a better future, one with flying cars or diseases that could actually be cured, with proper application of effort. Whatever the case, past-America was wrong and stupid, and we know better.
It is not even that these things are debatable, mind you: they are certainties. It is a certainty that (1) none of these past tasks of government can be competently done, (2) none of these things should be competently done, and (3) any past success at actually doing them and paying for them is nothing but a random fluke of history. That was past-America; future-America is a profoundly less capable place. And, again, you are a fool or a communist for not recognizing it yourself.
We are at a time of record unemployment, of unemployment that was considered an apocalyptic worst-case only a few short years ago, but we no longer even talk about doing anything about it. Instead we continue to look for more goals to be stripped, more jobs to be removed, and more tasks to be abandoned. And it is all perfectly obvious, yes?
It is a staggeringly bleak vision. The notion that other free countries can do hosts of things that America, as blanket presumption, can no longer do should be the stuff of nightmares for any believer in American exceptionalism. Today believers in American exceptionalism seem to believe America is exceptional in the inverse way: America is the only country that cannot succeed at what other nations might be able to do. Healthcare, again, seems the most pressing example, though it seems Social Security is the next front on the war on past-America.
So what, then, is the national purpose? Is there such a thing? Should there be such a thing? If government cannot devote itself to bettering the life of its citizens, or rebuilding its own infrastructure, or accomplishing great and historic things, what is left? We can still wage war with aplomb, but even that is a product of our past technological prowess, and likely to be short-lived as the technological infrastructures of other nations continue to surpass our own. We are spectacular at the process of moving money around balance sheets, so long as nobody ever actually asks for it back; while such prowess has certainly built glittering edifices of private success, it is unclear what advantages it as given to our larger population.
We are good at watching television. We are experts at moral certainty. And we remain at the peak of our national capabilities when it comes to projecting a smug sense of superiority. But in the end all of that seems a bit vacuous... hardly the same as eradicating smallpox or polio. Nobody ever talks about a government project to cure cancer, these days. Nobody ever utters such claptrap as ask not what.
The conservative agenda, the one proposed by Ryan (and met with pronouncements of his courage!) or various state governors (they are praised for their leadership and innovation!) seems to lead, in the end, to nothing but a rather banal, milquetoast dystopianism. America as an entity is not supposed to do anything; it is supposed to merely be the flesh upon which our various native organisms can feed. We shall extract our resources, and we shall provide a market for products. We will provide a government that is as pliable as possible towards the encouragement of those two things, and all else is communism.
We say we still want to educate our future generations, but the path to that is to defund education and let "the market" do it. We say we still want to pursue progress towards a better future; the sole fashion in which to do it is to provide a Good Business Climate for "the market" to do it. We assert that we will have American energy independence, and the way to do it will be to extract our own energy supplies faster.
What else is there? Not a rhetorical question: what does the America of a hundred years in the future look like, according to Paul Ryan? According to Michele Bachmann? According to any of the crabby, shambling mounds of negativity grumping and plodding and tsk-tsking their way towards the presidency of the nation? Will America still have railroads? Airports? Roads? An electrical grid? Electricity to put in it? Will we cure the sick? Will we care for the old? How will we make our money? What will we make? What will we sell? Who will be considered American, in 100 years?
What a dismal future. Truly, what a gray, flat, boggy place it seems to be. Perhaps it is the final death of the frontier vision; there is no more land, no unknown horizon exists (and if it does it is too difficult to get to), and there is too little profit to be had. Perhaps America has just entered the grumpy old man phase of its life, in which we keep to ourselves, think back to our better past, and occasionally venture out to tell other, younger countries to get off our damn lawn.
We are told all the things America cannot do. We have yet to be told any vision of what we might still be able to do, or what hopes we should still retain, or why our children will be better off than we were, or why we ourselves will be better off than we were a scant few decades ago. Perhaps the very climate of the world will have changed, and the sky will be hotter, or the storms will be bigger, but none of those are things we can do anything about. Perhaps there will be nuclear disasters, or oil spills, or epidemics, or perhaps a city here or a city there will be leveled by some unforeseen catastrophe; we can be assured of it, in fact, but none of those things are things we can expect to respond to better next time than this time. Those are not, we are told, the tasks of a nation.
Our discourse, in short, reeks of depression and failure. We are told that our nation is to become a bleaker and less competent place. And we are told it in stump speeches, and the more we are told we cannot do, the more "serious" or "courageous" we consider the messenger.
Who knows. Perhaps we are rotten after all, if that is what we consider courage.