I had breakfast this morning with one of South Carolina’s leading liberals. Over coffee, oatmeal and pancakes at the Original Pancake House, we laughed in the way that people do at a wake, sadness tinging our jokes blue. She’s not religious, not even spiritual, and believes that whatever bootstraps that our nation might have to collectively pull ourselves up by do not come with divine shoehorns. We buy our tickets and we take our chances. Yet, somehow, by the end of our breakfast, we had found our mutual hope in the basic decency of the American people. We left, determined to keep up the struggle for justice, even in the face of a new regime for whom justice means only punishment, and not the righting of wrongs, the bringing of mercy, the humble advancing of the common good. Because, we believe, the People of these United States of America really do long for City on the Hill, whose bright, shining light is a beacon for the whole world.
If one is realistic, which is say, honest, about our chances to yank the American dream out of the fires of Empire, then things don’t look too good. Our fiscal house is a mess and all the rhetoric about balanced budget amendments and ending earmarks and shrinking government do not mask the very real pain that faces us. Child poverty rates are rising at the fastest level in a generation; the federal Emergency Food and Shelter Program, a $200 million a year lifeline to families sitting on the verge of homelessness is on the chopping block; even the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (aka “food stamps”) is facing cuts from those who think that enhancing children’s nutrition at school means cutting it at home. That’s not to mention the impending cuts in TANF, Medicaid and other programs for the poor.
In South Carolina, our elected leaders have created a catastrophe in waiting, spending down every trust fund, cutting taxes willy-nilly, without thought for the future, a future that came ever so quickly. Now, there is the very real possibility that what must be sacrificed is health care for the poor, and even that won’t balance the budget.
In the face of all that, and with a new regime taking the reins of a government it despises, what hope can there be?
Quite simply this: the American people built this imperfect social democracy because of the suffering of the aged, the poor, the sick, the homeless, the helpless. It was not constructed in some alien place and imposed on us by a vast foreign conspiracy. The American people demanded it, they voted for it, and they made sure it got funded. It hasn’t always worked the way it was intended to work, and sometimes had perverse effects on the people it was supposed to help. The American notion of the common good is not working so well right now, and people are demanding change. The rage of the new regime is focused on a system that’s broken, not on the dreams that created that system.
Counterintuitively, it is the Left which can move the nation back towards a more perfect Union by demanding that social programs be accountable, by being willing to end programs that don’t work, by being willing to try new approaches and by insuring that we pay for the things we want. The common good cannot be achieved through endless multi-trillion-dollar deficits that will only mean the end of that good eventually. Liberals must tell the truth that across the board spending cuts will not solve the problems facing us, any more than across the board spending increases financed by China could. We must push, prod and protest to protect the most vulnerable, and we must work to be sure that the coming pain is equally shared by us all.
Once upon a time, our forebears pledged their lives, their fortunes and their mutual honor to found this nation. They understood that we are all in this together, and that only together can we find a way out.