By John W. Whitehead - The Rutherford Institute - Aug. 27, 2008
"In daily life, it's a lack of understanding about government that prompts people to call Congress when they want the dog catcher, or to complain to a local council member about a federal tax change. Over time, it can add up to disenfranchised and apathetic citizens." — "Ignorance of History Is No Joke" (CBS News, July 3, 2003)
The problems Americans currently face seem insurmountable, and they only appear to worsen at every turn: the deepening moral and spiritual crisis, the erosion of civil liberties, militarism and perpetual war, our declining economy, joblessness, homelessness, the mortgage crisis, a disaffected youth, crime, violence and so on. But let's be honest: it's neither the Republicans' nor the Democrats' fault that we're in such a mess today.
We have no one but ourselves to blame.
We've gotten the government—and the society—we deserve. But what did we do to deserve this bloated, power-hungry, self-serving, war-mongering bureaucracy? How did our straight-laced Puritan nation of freedom-loving citizens give way to a self-absorbed, entertainment-obsessed society?
The answer is simple: we stopped caring, and we stopped paying attention. Consciously or unconsciously, we gave up on the American Dream and, in so doing, lost our way. The facts speak for themselves. Most Americans have virtually no idea what America stands for and little idea how their government should function. Seventy percent of American adults cannot name their senators or congressmen. Nearly a quarter can't name a single right guaranteed in the First Amendment. Two-thirds can't name the three branches of government.
A poll taken several years ago reveals that Americans are more familiar with the Seven Dwarfs, Three Stooges, Harry Potter, Homer Simpson and Superman than the news of the day, world leaders or classic literature. And although America spends in excess of $40 billion annually on public education, in comparing the literacy level of adults in seventeen industrialized countries, America is number ten on the list. If knowledge of self-government and freedom are the source of our democracy, then we are in serious danger as a country.
The American Dream was once encapsulated in the hope of freedom, the right to compete in a free market and the right to own a parcel of land that you could call your own. Now, that once noble dream has been reduced to a radical individualism that is best symbolized by cell phones and shopping in mega-malls.
In fact, Americans now spend more time in malls shopping than in churches or synagogues. By 1987, America had more malls than high schools. As sociologist Sharon Zukin writes, "In a society where we no longer have contact with nature or beauty in our daily lives, shopping is one of the few ways we are left to create a sense of ultimate value."
This "sense of ultimate value" used to be found in community life and in religion. But community life has collapsed so much that, as author Alex Marshall observes, Americans live "in one of the loneliest societies on the earth." Church groups, union memberships, dinners at home with friends, bridge clubs, etc., have been all but decimated, only to be replaced by social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace that keep users at arm's reach and interacting on their own terms. Corner groceries and drugstores, owned by people who actually work and live in the community, have generally disappeared and been replaced by the blandness of corporate chain stores.
Even religion offers scant comfort anymore. Indeed, there is little spiritual depth to the politically correct, all-inclusive theology that passes for civil religion today. And Christian fundamentalism (and its political offshoot, the Christian Right), with its emphasis on amassing power and establishing a theocracy, is certainly not an answer to the American spiritual crisis.
Little surprise, then, that many Americans have turned to politics with an almost religious zeal as the answer to what ails the nation. "Change" and "Believe" campaign slogans have been trotted out, only to be eagerly picked up and chanted like religious mantras. However, we'd do well to remember that governmental bureaucracy is fervently anti-change. As for trusting or believing in a politician, James Madison put it best when he pointed out that "if men were angels, no government would be necessary."
If there is to be any real hope for change, it rests, as it always has, in "we the people" because while we may be a large part of the problem, we are also the solution. And there is great power in this.
Each generation of Americans faces the responsibility of protecting and defending the Constitution. It may be comforting to think that the problems facing America could be fixed by the next presidential election. But that is not going to happen. Neither Obama nor McCain will save us.
Any real, lasting change will have to come from within you and me—not from a political savior. Thus, if we want change, it is going to take all of us pulling together, working in our communities, addressing our all-too-real human needs.
We need to recapture the spirit of that ragtag band of revolutionaries who beat back the British Empire and gave us the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. That will mean turning off the television, switching off the computer screen, learning more about our history and getting educated on the basics of our government and Constitution.
Then we need to act on what we know. It may start with voting, but that's the least we can do. Active, direct citizen participation at every level—local, state and federal—is the only real hope for change. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, "We need to be the change we wish to see in the world."
Read John Whitehead's other columns here.