Welcome to the archives for NewsTalk, an IBJ blog published from November 2007 through December 2010.

A historian muses on the American character and the debt crisis

November 15, 2010

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?

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