John Lennon’s catchy 1971 lyrics notwithstanding, America’s dream state began and ended with a single memorable phrase almost exactly ten years earlier. “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” This communal notion of a government and its people in collaboration inaugurated John F. Kennedy’s foreshortened presidency and was almost immediately set aside. The government would do a lot for people in the ensuing years. The imperatives of the Johnson Great Society programs, Nixon’s government expansion, and the huge Reagan-era enlargement of the Pentagon would deliver help to the poor and elderly, deregulation and prosperity to politically savvy interests, and a sense of military supremacy and security for all.
In 2012 this is all breaking down. In an unsustainable spiral of inflated commitments and deflated political will, that eloquent bit of JFK oratory has become a strident and uninspiring argument over entitlements versus taxes. We are a binary nation divided according to rich and poor. Our civic engagement is either as donors or recipients of tax revenues. For more than a generation we have been voting on the basis of impulses that come from the familiar question, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” or statements like: “Government doesn’t solve problems; government is the problem.” The quality of national life relates to little more than individual prosperity and individual security with government at the specific service of groups who can mobilize to get it to enhance their individual interests. All questions of civic engagement relate to quantity rather than quality in our time. The magnitude of political contributions, rates of taxation, and voter turnout tell us nothing about the quality of life in America or how we might define a mission to seek a brighter future.
Did JFK understand back in 1961 that we would eventually get to this?
“Ask not if you are better off than you were four years ago, ask if you are more engaged in creating the conditions for you and those around you to survive and thrive.”
This is no political sound bite. It is at best a lyric resisting a melody. It is a thoughtful upgrade of the JFK sentiments that is also a lament born out of the anxious gray uncertainties of the twenty-first century. As political systems and traditional institutions lose their language and bearings and find themselves unable to reassure or mobilize their constituents we need fundamentally new ways of calling people to action. Changing circumstances and a suddenly unwelcome national narcissism has hopelessly outdated the American Dream. We must dream beyond this malaise with something tangible. The great irony is that we have mechanisms to dream of a more meaningful future with many pathways to get there and we have learned to overlook them all in our degraded politics.