Americans talk a lot about change during elections, but they recoil from action once the election is over. An economic stimulus? Make sure it is a small one. Health care reform? Half measures. Climate change legislation? No action at all.
We blame politics, deficits and bad leadership, when perhaps we should be blaming our national genes.
When America was founded, its leadership class was more or less equally divided between Federalists who believed in a vigorous national government and Republicans who emphasized decentralization. The former looked toward shaping an expanding nation in a changing world. The latter looked toward conserving a pastoral way of life that the changing world threatened. Thus action and inaction, change and conservation took root as two sides of the American enterprise.
Throughout the 19th century, the country vacillated between these poles. The Whigs and their successors, the Republicans, favored boldness -- forming a national bank, a national university, a national rail system, a homestead act. The Democrats, descended from Thomas Jefferson's old Republicans, remained wary.
By the early 20th century, the roles had been largely reversed, at least at the national level. It was the Democrats, infused with energy from populism, progressivism and a general mistrust of big business, who proposed new initiatives. The Republicans -- with the exception that proves the rule, Teddy Roosevelt -- advocated maintaining the status quo. Eventually there emerged a governing pattern -- forward, stand pat, forward, stand pat -- with Democrats generally doing the moving forward and Republicans immobile.
But even this overstates the case for governmental boldness.
Republicans became America's default party as early as the 1890s. Since then, Democrats have been elected to the presidency only when Republicans screwed up: Hoover with his Depression, Nixon with Watergate, George W. Bush with practically everything. Democrats are tapped to ride to the rescue, but mainly as a matter of throwing out the rascals rather than empowering action.
The two 20th century exceptions were FDR and LBJ. The New Deal and the Great Society were bold, progressive movements, but they were achieved only as a result of disaster -- in the first case, a convulsive Depression; in the second, the assassination of JFK. Americans wanted action. They'd ask questions later.
So why hasn't the Great Recession, another deep convulsion, created an equal cry for government activism? The need for the Democratic cavalry to clean up the Republican mess could hardly seem clearer. And that was precisely why Barack Obama was elected: to act boldly. But no sooner did he enter office than the old fearfulness reverberated across the country: An economic rescue would only ratchet up the deficit; regulation would destroy Wall Street; health care reform would mean socialism.
What happened to our resolve? Nothing, really. Americans just reverted to form.
It's easy to blame Republicans and their long, relentless campaign asserting that any action besides cutting taxes is dangerous. But the Republicans' -- and the Tea Partiers' -- successes only underscore how much of the nation is terrified by any action whatsoever. For better or worse, Americans are a timorous bunch who press their government to act only when they think national security is at stake. That's how Eisenhower sold the interstate highway system, how LBJ sold Vietnam and how George W. Bush sold the Iraq war. When we aren't defending ourselves, government just can't seem to muster a consensus to do much of anything.
In the end, our history tells us that the New Deal and the Great Society were essentially aberrations in the larger American saga of governmental timidity. The fear of not doing something has occasionally outweighed the national inclination not to act. But only rarely, and, it has become obvious, not now.
That fact is what the Tea Partiers have going for them -- not, as they claim, adherence to self-defined and bizarre constitutional principles or a groundswell of anger at an intrusive government, but rather an appeal to the basic American fear of government action at all. Though they purport to be a bold new populist force in the American polity, they are actually a timid old force.
And that's a problem. Because Americans don't have the political will to encourage their government to act boldly, we aren't likely to get the car out of the ditch we're in anytime soon. While Americans cling to their self-image of intrepidness, here in the land of the free and the home of the brave, we are on target to demonstrate at the polls that we are anything but.
Neal Gabler is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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