By GENE GOFFIN
Is this the country where I grew up? Lately there’s been painful soul-searching about America’s meaning and reality. To adapt a 1961 book title, are seniors “Strangers in a Strange Land”?
America’s second “Era of Good Feelings” following World War II was politically peaceful after successfully defeating the Great Depression and fascism. We led the world. The middle class grew quickly. We were the world’s foremost democracy. Everything was possible. But the Civil Rights era, a divisive war and a disgraced president fanned smoldering flames and cynicism.
For most seniors, our earliest memories are of a hopeful America. Today is understandably disconcerting. Our country always has been raucous, argumentative, litigious and crazy with energy. When that energy is focused on improving everyone’s lives, the country does well. We did big things, now we cannot fix existing roads and bridges. Like children, we want toys without paying for them. We are strangled by lack of imagination and hope.
Democracy and freedom are entwined in our consciousness. Most Constitutional amendments since the 1860s have increased democracy. Now many nations are more democratic than us. We rested on our laurels. Instead of expanding democracy, we now argue about it. The Supreme Court no longer protects democracy, but does protect wealthy corporations at the expense of employees and customers.
Congress never has been popular, but now the Senate is paralyzed, unable to solve simple problems except to reduce taxes on the most wealthy. Representatives and senators spend their time raising money, seeking publicity, and cementing individual power rather than legislating. The destructive art of gerrymandering has been perfected. Roughly 30% of the electorate can control the Senate. The poorly thought out Electoral College was slammed together at the Constitutional Convention’s close. It can mean minority presidents — we’ve had two in 21 years. They feel illegitimate. Most such presidents have had poor records.
People are rightfully angry. A secure future for families seems lost when Jeff Bezos is spending a half-billion for a yacht and a support yacht for his helicopter. Do you know anyone owning a helicopter? Back in the 1950s the rich were well off, but not crazy rich. The senior safety net — Social Security and Medicare need fixes. Nothing is done. There’s the prospect of severely reduced Social Security payments and Medicare coverage within a decade. Climate change is an existential threat. Delayed fixes make solutions much harder and expensive. Seniors are also at risk from extreme heat and forest fire smoke.
Americans have always argued, but now we insult. We neither listen nor respect. Once we tried to settle an argument with the Civil War. But, in little more than a decade we caved. Reconstruction ended, Jim Crow began. Slavery and its results are national wounds unhealed. When national problems go unsolved, some people seek brute force arming themselves for another civil war. Angry people make bad decisions.
Civil wars only have pyrrhic victories. They are death sentences for the vulnerable. Dreams of honor and conquest fade in the reality of death and destruction. Democracies die and revolutions happen when the courts favor the powerful, distrust of all media is promoted, minorities are made scapegoats, a significant group like blue-collar workers loses something like economic security, and the government cannot govern.
The powerful divide and conquer. More than a century ago during the Gilded Age, wealth was flaunted. A reaction set in, though it took a major depression and a world war to bring more equality — thus I was born into a quiet era. New challenges are inevitable. Revolutions and civil wars aren’t — most countries eventually solve problems. However, we are, so far, on a destructive path.
Will we meet the challenge? For vulnerable seniors, strangled government is disastrous. I don’t think many seniors would be effective civil warriors. We do have voting numbers and remember better times. We can define “freedom” differently balancing it with a democratic community. In no functioning community can everyone do anything they want.
Stagnation feels overwhelming. There was once national consensus on a safety net, on expanding democracy, controlling monopolies, equality of opportunity and universal fairness. With hope we can succeed. About every 30 to 40 years the country reforms. The last time was 50 years ago. We are overdue. We may “retire,” but we cannot retire from mentoring the nation. Not a call to arms, but a call for pens and speaking out.
Gene is a retired lawyer, former history professor, occasional journalist. Contact him at email@example.com