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Preserving the America I Grew Up In

In an interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, House Minority Leader John Boehner said of the Democrats and President Obama:

“They’re snuffing out the America that I grew up in,” Boehner said. “Right now, we’ve got more Americans engaged in their government than at any time in our history. There’s a political rebellion brewing, and I don’t think we’ve seen anything like it since 1776.”

Boehner can be forgiven his hyperbole, given that the political rebellion of 1861 may have been slightly more astonishing than anything we are seeing today. But it is his musing about the Democrats “snuffing out the America I grew up in” that attracted the attention of several liberals, including Michael Tomasky, the Guardian’s editor-at-large:

In the America John Boehner grew up in [1950s], the top marginal tax rate on wealthy earners was 90%. It had gone up there during the war, and five, 10, 15 years after armistice, no sizable group, Democrat or Republican, felt any strong urge to lower it.

In the America John Boehner grew up in, private-sector union membership was around or above 30%. Today’s figure is 7%. The right to form a union was broadly accepted. Outside of a few small turbulent pockets, there was no such thing as today’s union-busting law firms hired by management to go into workplaces and intimidate workers.

Tomasky is either being cheeky or disingenuous. There was no urge to lower those rates because only the super rich paid them. He makes no mention of the inflation of the 1970s that pushed millions of people into those higher marginal tax brackets where few Americans had previously been taxed. Nor does he write about skyrocketing state taxes, social security taxes, and local taxes that brought millions of wage earners to their knees. In Boehner’s childhood, taxes were low for the vast majority of Americans.

And perhaps Tomasky would ask why union representation was so high. There may not have been union-busting lawyers “intimidating” workers to reject unions, but there sure were mobbed-up union thugs intimidating workers to join. Somehow, that part of the narrative of U.S. labor relations gets lost in the telling.

The broad point Tomasky is trying to make is that the America Boehner grew up in was actually a liberal-friendly place, complete with a president who said:

Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history.

Eisenhower was right about Social Security, unemployment insurance, and most labor laws. But if Ike had lived long enough to see what a titanic boondoggle farm price supports have become, he would have ordered up another D-Day for the American heartland. Yet Tomasky seems to be trying to say that Republicans want to get rid of all these things. It’s a wonderful set of straw men he sets up, including the notion that voting against a bill that would grant another extension to unemployed workers who have been collecting for 100 weeks or more after voting three other times to extend the program is tantamount to wanting to scrap unemployment insurance altogether. Or wanting to reform Social Security is the same as trying to kill it.

And yet, this isn’t really what Boehner was talking about when he wondered aloud about where the America of his youth had gone. For liberals like Tomasky, it is very difficult to grasp the inexpressible sadness in Boehner’s words. The congressman is not referring to the grand plans of statesmen and social engineers, or the yardsticks of social progress that so enamor the left. Boehner was referring to a state of mind about America that is disappearing.

What else is America except a place that has lived in the dreams of men since we organized ourselves into nation-states? Each of us alone defines our own America, imbuing it with our own hopes, animating it with our own definitions of liberty, consecrating it by our embrace of its traditions and values. It is this feeling about America that Boehner believes is threatened. But is he right? Is his implication that the growth of government under the current administration — the largest expansion in history — can destroy what we “grew up with” as a vision of America in our minds?

There are other things we grew up with in America — those of us of Boehner’s age and a little younger — and not all of them bring pleasant memories to the surface. In fact, a significant number of them we wanted “snuffed out.” Certainly, the casual kind of racism and intolerance that was not unfamiliar in the America of my own youth should have been snuffed out. The second-class citizenship accorded women (cemented in both tradition and the law) needed to be left behind, as did attitudes toward gays, the handicapped, the mentally ill, and others in society who lived on the margins, largely invisible to the majority of us, and who suffered in silence until their concerns were given voice a decade or two later.

I know what Boehner is saying about the kind of America he grew up in and there is certainly much of that America that needs to be protected and cared for. Boehner’s America of strong communities, strong families, an expansive view of personal liberty, and a government that had yet to flex its muscles in an effort to control us is worth preserving. It is worthwhile to save as much of that America as can be accomplished without rolling back the genuine progress we have made in other areas of our national social life.

But trying to hold back change in America is an exercise in futility. America was created as an engine of change, a grand experiment that was to alter the consciousness of ordinary people around the world and allow them to believe that their own lives mattered as much as those of any rich man, nobleman, aristocrat, or king. Ordinary people, by virtue of being born human, were endowed with certain rights that could never be taken away, only suppressed by government. There was revolution in that idea, and the crowned heads of old Europe trembled as they witnessed the virulence of the American idea sweep across the continent and the rest of the world, unsettling and upsetting entire societies in its wake.

But it is here at home that we continue to see how that simple idea of liberty affects changes in our society. The problem has not necessarily been with whether change was necessary. Many changes we have witnessed since Boehner’s childhood have expanded the idea of freedom and have been a welcome counterpoint to traditions that had outlived their usefulness and stood in the way of human progress.

The problem in recent decades — and it didn’t begin with President Obama and the current crop of far left liberal Democrats in Congress — is that we have thrown prudence to the winds and have been trying to steamroll change without thought of the consequences, or an acknowledgment that we have unmoored ourselves from the basic principles found in the Constitution that define our nationhood.

Certainly Obama and the Democrats have accelerated this process enormously. Boehner’s lament is for an America of which President Obama and many on the left are openly contemptuous. Their stated intent to “transform” America literally seeks to deny some of the fundamental tenets that are embedded in our DNA and codified as first principles in the Constitution. In return for some kind of nebulous security against the ravages of disease, Wall Street bankers, and global warming, our choices as free men and women are being squeezed by government resulting in a loss of liberty.

The irony is that each area of American life the Democrats are bending their efforts to “transform” needs reforming. There are many conservatives and Republicans who could have supported small, prudent, incremental changes in health care, on Wall Street, and in energy policy. But this has never been about fixing what’s broken for the Democrats. It has always been about gaining for government the ability to control. Whether for angelic purposes, or as a grubby political power play, the connecting thread in what the Democrats are trying to do has, as a practical effect, limited the choices of ordinary people to control their own lives. This interposition of government in what were previously private matters, by definition, is an attack on our liberties no matter how well intentioned.

Boehner’s complaint about the Democrats is a reminder of what is at stake in the elections of 2010. The majority of us don’t want an American transformation, which should be made quite plain in November. Whether it will be enough to preserve the America we grew up in will be a continuing concern in the years to come.

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