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US History: Major Course Changes

February 28, 2015

It is said that Superman can change the course of mighty rivers (just see the old Superman newsreels), suggesting a herculean task.  In American History there have been several such course changes requiring mighty men. History is layered, of course, with an eco-environmental base often bookended by individual movers.

The USA began with a bang. Founded as a grand experiment that leveled the legal playing field by abolishing aristocracy and delineating God-given rights, the hypothesis was that such an environment would allow anyone to climb the ladder of success. Starting as an agrarian culture with a contentious slave trade that quickly bifurcated, the North, while still heavy in agriculture, added industrialization to the mix, whereas the South did to a much lesser extent, in effect creating two prevailing cultures in America. A third was added by the westward expansion.  African slavery (institutionalized) was predominant in the South, but Chinese slavery (ad hoc) extended to the west.  All of this created tension between states and territories; we were, in essence, three countries in one and growing more disparate as time went by.  Key figures in the North were alarmed by this and decided a stronger Federal government was required.

The Civil War commenced, the black slaves were freed (the Chinese were not) and Abraham Lincoln joined the Mighty Men of the Founders, bending the course of the American river to a new, or perhaps corrected, course, now imperfectly extended to our black brothers, but also, in a stroke, creating a strong federal government. It would take stronger, faster means of communication to truly realize it, and the country would still be woefully inequitable to people of color (notably the red and yellow skins of the spectrum.  The South suffered from lack of infrastructure and a resentful population.

To the rest of the world, America was an oddity. A backwater country with strange ideas and odder customs (like Australia is today), best ignored and tittered at behind gloved hands.

Technology progressed, unethical men flourished and built many incorrigible corporations (while good men built great companies), and war brewed in Europe.

With the outbreak of the War to End all Wars (which didn’t), America grew a tad more prominent, but not much. Meanwhile government spending tripled due to the war and taxes dropped. Political mismanagement created first a bubble, then the Great Depression.

Up to this point, the best laid plans of the Founders and Lincoln were undone by unscrupulous men in government and the private sector, but the American Experiment continued, faltering and unsteady, even in the midst of the Dustbowl.

At that point, people of integrity had to do some self-examination. Was the experiment flawed?  Could men equal under the law truly not succeed on their own merit and will?  More importantly, who was at fault for the moral failings of the populous, the greed and larceny of the human spirit? The Founding Fathers would say the Church, recognizing the Bible and morality were necessary for government to succeed.  Failing the internal check of religion and morality, the bayonet of law was, according to one founder, the only answer.

Here, our politicians again failed us, by being the men of immorality, accepting bribes and special favors; that and the unplowed field of policy due to America’s unique nature, and the complexity from size and volume, made political error unavoidable.

Another Mighty Man stepped forth in the person of FDR. The government programs of work-for-aid gave America a firm infrastructure of electricity and phones to every city. While it helped the populous, it was, unless temporary, disastrous to the American Experiment.

Some would say FDR is the source of our modern problems, and indeed, he presided over a drastic course change that flew in the face of the American Experiment, but he did so to make up for the errors of previous administrations. Simple, strategic temporary measures to nudge the Experiment back on track. It worked. We were a stronger nation who finally gained global prominence during WWII, and another who could have been a Mighty Man had he major issues to confront. Eisenhower was a great man and president, who more than others, recognized the dangers of commercializing the military providers. Rather than changing course, he guided the river in the right direction.

Then Kennedy and Johnson blew it… with the best of intentions. FDR’s New Deal, enacted in a time of overwhelming economic strife, gave way to Johnson’s Great Society, a continuation of Kennedy’s New Frontier.  The difference between these new programs and FDR’s is that the economy was booming. The Great Society was ambitious, and in many ways right on.  Where it took on moral issues, like Civil Rights and some aspects of poverty, it flourished, but when it took on complex system issues, it bombed.  Government spending wasn’t so much the problem as government giving.

The sad thing is that it was Hoover’s fault. Hoover had been an amazing advocate of volunteerism. His was the face of the People Helping the People. He was fantastic at it, giving the country a conscience. So much so that they elected him president, a task he was wholly unsuited for. He shifted to Government Helping People and it didn’t work (re: Hoovervilles). If Johnson had Hoover around to become Director of Volunteerism rather than developing his non-educational War on Poverty solutions, we wouldn’t be in the state we are.

America today has functionally lifted her hands and declared the Grand Experiment a failure. Too many believe the government is the solution (in essence, the government becomes the aristocracy who knows what’s best and must fix us poor, ignorant folk). Success is not for everyone; there are barriers hard work won’t overcome. Johnson’s War on Poverty didn’t work. There are more poor today than there were then.  Some of his ideas were great: education is the key to life improvement and is part of “giving a hand up, not a hand out.”

We need another Mighty Man (or Woman) to generate a course change back to volunteerism, neighborism, and people helping people.  The presidency should be as much about envisioning the people as about setting public policy. FDR’s greatest invention wasn’t the New Deal, it was Fireside Chats. Imagine a personable president addressing the American public in an informal/formal setting, calling us to better living. It seems as communication becomes faster, our politicians recede from it. Congresspeople should be addressing their constituency as well as listening better. Watchdog groups should be monitoring business and politicians, and the press should return to journalism. While regulation is appropriate in some business areas, watchdog groups are better in others.

Because let me tell you a hard and mean truth. If we give up on the Grand Experiment, we give up equal under the law. We give up one-citizen-one-vote.

Scaling back the government doesn’t mean less visible government, it means more responsible government.

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