As Americans wait, hopefully or apprehensively as the case may be, to see what happens next to the Obama legislative agenda, a question unavoidably suggests itself: how on earth did we get into this mess? A mess that evidently transcends the question of health care, unemployment or any other particular issue and reflects the fact that Americans collectively are angry, confused, and fed up.
‘Anger’ has of course become every pundit’s favorite explanation for what happened in Massachusetts, where voters handed a Senate seat occupied during most of the half-century past by John and Edward Kennedy to a Republican, Scott Brown. But anger about what?
President Obama says it was residual anger at George W. Bush. Others, noting that Obama has been president for a year, say it’s anger at him. There’s probably truth in both explanations.
Obama was elected in 2008 because he promised change. So far he’s failed to deliver-at least, to many people’s satisfaction. Whether that reflects a failure of policy, of procedure, or of personal temperament, or the machinations of a vast right-wing conspiracy directed by Rush Limbaugh, is an interesting question but one that needn’t detain us here. What matters is that although Obama promised change, to many people things look much as they did before-and they don’t like it. Taking matters into their own hands, it seems, Massachusetts voters produced a change named Scott Brown.
So what is going on here? What’s really bugging Americans in large numbers these days?
A great deal of the answer is found in the history of the last two decades.
After the fall of communism and the end of the cold war, Americans were promised the “end of history,” a happy ending to end all happy endings. The country still had a few little problems of course, but none of them too serious. After half a century of international anxiety and nuclear threat, Americans could finally put their feet up and relax.
One predictable result of this was the onset of an era of national self-indulgence and self-deception. Its most visible symptom was an economic boom in which greed and risk-taking became the norm.
Complacency was shattered on September 11, 2001. Suddenly the nation was on virtual wartime footing. Americans accepted it at the time. But now, going on nine years later, the strain is starting to show. Iraq was excruciating. Afghanistan looks the same. A man fingered to U.S. intelligence as a threat nevertheless got a shot at blowing up a U.S. airliner last Christmas Day. Add to that the economic crisis of the last two years. Now do you wonder why people want change?
But the roots of the national mood go deeper. It’s been clear for years that the consensus on moral values holding the country together is badly frayed. The rights and wrongs of fundamental issues are bitterly disputed. That’s what the culture war is about. And the efforts of courts to impose solutions are deeply resented.
The United States today unquestionably does need change. And on a fundamental level-the level of values and beliefs. When and if a leader emerges who can satisfy that desire and bring Americans together again on things like abortion and gay rights, as well as less sharply defined issues like illegal immigration, environmental policy, and health care reform, he or she will be welcomed. But given the ideological polarization of the values debate, that won’t happen any time soon, and the nation’s current angry and unsettled mood seems likely to persist into the indefinite future.