A historian muses on the American character and the debt crisis

November 15, 2010
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In a democracy, it is said, the people get pretty much what they want. If true, that doesn’t speak so well for Americans in a day when the United States is hurtling toward a debt crisis that eventually could approach the gravity of the toughest challenges faced in the nation’s history—the Civil War, the Great Depression and World War II.

James Madison, one of the state’s foremost historians, is optimistic, but only mildly so, that Americans still have the character to speak with each other and make hard decisions, this time about national priorities on revenue and spending.

Madison won’t defend “American exceptionalism,” the notion that the United States is different than any other nation, because he’s seen too much exceptionalism in other places. But he argues vigorously that we have the best values, beliefs like “life, liberty and justice for all,” “the pursuit of happiness,” "government of the people, by the people, for the people" and the acceptance of civic responsibility.

If Americans rise up to attack the debt, it will be these values that drive the response, he says.

“We need to move the core to a better understanding of where we are,” he says. “What Americans have and what we need to be more cognizant of and more thoughtful of, is our values. They’re second to none.”

Madison’s outlook on Americans increased a tick through a new documentary he helped film. (“Saving Places: Preserving Indiana’s Heritage” looks at four communities where people stepped up to transition historical sites to 21st Century uses. It premiers Nov. 29 on WTIU-TV Channel 30 in Bloomington and likely will appear on WFYI-TV Channel 20 in Indianapolis at a future date.)

The Hoosiers were truly impressive, he says. They were smart, nice and thoughtful. If the rest of the country is anything like them, he came away thinking, the nation stands a good chance of ginning up the will to deal with the fiscal problems.

Madison allows that decisions were easier to make in the Civil War and World War II; Fort Sumter and Pearl Harbor were attacked. The debt crisis by contrast has been building for decades and has produced no significant event useful for rallying the public, and it’s complex and hard to understand.

Madison also cautions that it’s easy to romanticize Americans’ response to the big crisis. During World War II, for instance, there was a thriving black market for meat, shoes and other rationed goods. Not everyone had the good of the republic foremost in their mind. Correspondingly, not everyone will help fix the debt crisis if and when the country gets serious about addressing it.

He nevertheless says it’s easy to be pessimistic. Americans seem to have slumped into a period of being “lazy, stupid and inattentive” and unwilling to demand that politicians solve the debt crisis.

Leaders, from local to national levels, are not taking the high road on the debt crisis. Leaders from both major political parties, and from both the right and the left, have hammered the recommendations of President Obama’s deficit-reduction commission. The report, issued last week, drew heated criticism but remarkably little in the way of alternate ideas.

As things stand, Madison is “marginally optimistic” that Americans will pull it together, stand upon the great pillars of our culture and overcome the crisis. Ultimately, he notes, it’s not about leaders despite benefiting from in-the-nick-of-time people like Lincoln and Roosevelt, and in Indiana, governors Oliver Morton in the 1860s and Paul McNutt in the late 1930s and early ’40s.,

“In a democracy, you have to ask about the people.”

What are your thoughts? Are you optimistic or pessimistic, and why?

    As constrasted with periods in our history often called, "Great Awakenings" I think the popular culture in this country has created an atmosphere conducive to "A Big Sleep". School teachers are predominantly marxist, and most professionals are liberals. Thus as my recently Noblesville high school graduated nephew said to me, "There is no such thing as right or wrong. What I think is right or wrong is all that matters." The impact is a generation of selfish people that are similar to what seeded fascism in Europe. At Nuremburg the verdict was what made them guilty--and evil, was their lack of empathy. That defines U.S. in large part today. The U.S. diaspera, the great falling away, in other words, is here.
    • marginal
      I would like to believe that we as a state and a nation will overcome our current "slump" in the economy. I do not believe however that we can do it locally, we cannot compete with a company that can manufacture a product, ship it from the other side of the planet and still sell it cheaper then what i can buy the raw products.
      It is a noble venture that we are so environmentally conciouse, and our labor department is progressive in the treatment of our workforce. So what widget do we create to help us overcome, what service do we provide to help us overcome.
      The world has changed so it will not be a manufacturing solution, and if we can outsource the service to a "virtual" office on the other side of the world, then we will have to figure out the next thing.
      Whatever the solution is we cannot give up, we have to keep trying.
    • We have what the GOP tells us is American- Selfish self center, what's in it for me
      "The impact is a generation of selfish people that are similar to what seeded fascism in Europe. At Nuremburg the verdict was what made them guilty--and evil, was their lack of empathy. That defines U.S. in large part today."

      This is exactly the message being taught by the GOP and the TeaParty extremeists. What's in it for me. No tax cuts to the lower classes, no health care reform, no protection from the black market corporations in America today who exploit the rest of society, No responsibiilty for the sick, elderly and children (not my fault they were born and it is not my responsibility for them). Thus you have it. And don't forget to blame all the woes on the illegal immigrants (sounds like the Jews to me in 1932 Germany. Thus we have all the makings for the Decline and Fall of America led by the GOP and the TeaParty wackos
    • Lazy Americans
      Unfortunately, the sheer size of the government and all of the "welfare" programs to help take care of the sick, poor, elderly, and children has lulled us to sleep. Why work, or take care of mom and dad and the rest when the government will? That seems way more selfish. Expecting to throw money at the problem (higher taxes) and it will go away won't work, if anything it invites corruption. Americans need to take the fiscal and community responsibilities upon themselves.

      As far as the immigration issue, if it wasn't so darn easy to get government assistance (healthcare, ID's, etc...), then we wouldn't have so much of a "problem". Personally, I welcome the diversity other cultures bring to this country, but not at the cost of me being able to afford healthcare, food, and shelter for my family.

      I have worked hard for what I have, I choose which charities to give my hard-earned money, I give blood so that others may benefit, I don't need the government taking my taxes and giving it to someone who chooses not to work, and believes they are entitled to my hard-earned wages. This doesn't mean I believe taxes should go away, as an individual I cannot help everyone, but we must do a better job of determining who can help themselves, needs and wants help, and could genuinely use the assistance.
    • Debt Crisis
      I want to respond to 2 things. First, Jim's comments about how the GOP and Tea Party are to blame is too simplistic. And quite frankly his view does not lead to any resolutions. For if we close at opposing views from the public discourse then we tend to get away from being a democracy. So to blame any 1 party or group for the debt crisis and moral decay in today's society seems to be misguided. Second, I can't help to ponder if anyone else notices that the more our society slowly moves away from supporting Christian values that the more we drift into greed, violence and selfishness. A problem that has challenged man for many centuries so this is nothing new. The decay of the family in America contributes to many of the other poor choices people make. And we are so impacted then our society collectively feels the pain. A society that demands abortion be legal and demands that the elderly be given the ability to kill themselves is not a society that fully embraces the value of life. Money is more important than people it seems. And so a debt crisis from us folks is no surprise. I need to change. We all need to change. Only then will our elected leaders feel compelled to do so.

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    1. So as I read this the one question that continues to come to me to ask is. Didn't Indiana only have a couple of exchanges for people to opt into which were very high because we really didn't want to expect the plan. So was this study done during that time and if so then I can understand these numbers. I also understand that we have now opened up for more options for hoosiers to choose from. Please correct if I'm wrong and if I'm not why was this not part of the story so that true overview could be taken away and not just parts of it to continue this negative tone against the ACA. I look forward to the clarity.

    2. It's really very simple. All forms of transportation are subsidized. All of them. Your tax money already goes toward every single form of transportation in the state. It is not a bad thing to put tax money toward mass transit. The state spends over 1,000,000,000 (yes billion) on roadway expansions and maintenance every single year. If you want to cry foul over anything cry foul over the overbuilding of highways which only serve people who can afford their own automobile.

    3. So instead of subsidizing a project with a market-driven scope, you suggest we subsidize a project that is way out of line with anything that can be economically sustainable just so we can have a better-looking skyline?

    4. Downtowner, if Cummins isn't getting expedited permitting and tax breaks to "do what they do", then I'd be happy with letting the market decide. But that isn't the case, is it?

    5. Patty, this commuter line provides a way for workers (willing to work lower wages) to get from Marion county to Hamilton county. These people are running your restaurants, hotels, hospitals, and retail stores. I don't see a lot of residents of Carmel working these jobs.