Patrick Garry
An election about America
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By Patrick Garry
October 20, 2010

This may end up being a very special election. Not just a momentous or dramatic one. But an election about how special America is.

A momentous election would be one that sends a significantly different message to our government institutions. A dramatic election would be one that produces big political changes. And indeed, perhaps this election will be both momentous and dramatic. But perhaps it will also be a special one.

So many recent elections have been about what voters can get from America. Call it the Walmart style of politics. Voters step into the political superstore and start shopping for the best deal. And our politicians feed that shopping mentality. They become the voices over the loudspeaker system in the superstore, directing shoppers to the best bargains. Just listen to the campaign ads: politicians promising each middle-class family two thousand dollars in tax relief. Or take the most blatant case of treating the citizen like a consumer: an announcement just weeks before the election promising seniors $250 as a social security "bonus." The federal government is broke, facing record deficits, and yet on the eve of an election is promising a $250 pay-off to seniors.

But this election just might be a rebellion against the Walmart-ization of American politics. It might just be an election in which the voters want to act like, and be treated as, citizens...and not consumers. It might be an election about America, and not about just a collection of people who have bank accounts in a place called America. Maybe that's what the Tea Party movement, at its very basic, is really all about — wanting our political system to be about America, about what's right and special about America, not just about what's best for the private interests of a majority of voters.

Maybe the Tea Party isn't just a bunch of crazy, selfish, bigoted individuals, as the left often portrays it. Maybe, in fact, the Tea Party is just the opposite. Maybe it's a collection of the most unselfish Americans who somehow want to fulfill John F. Kennedy's patriotic call to service. Maybe the Tea Party reflects a deep-seated desire stretching wide across America to...well, to do what's right for America. To follow JFK's call to "ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."

In the best of worlds, elections are not about what individuals can get out of America, but what America means — what America can be and what its mission is. That's what the election of 1860 was about. And the election of 1980.

There's a lot of prognostication about what's wrong with the political system. Too many negative ads. Too much money. Too much partisanship. But partisanship isn't what's wrong with America. What's wrong is that the partisanship is about all the wrong things, all the narrow-minded and selfish things. There should be more arguing about what's truly worth arguing about — and what's worth arguing about is the biggest issue of all. Why is America special? And how can we keep it special?

There are those on the left who dismiss the notion of American exceptionalism. But this attitude flies in the face of centuries of historical experience. America was special enough to draw settlers thousands of miles across a treacherous ocean. It was special enough to inspire hundreds of thousands of soldiers to fight and die for her during a long civil war. And it is still special enough to be the one place on earth that attracts the most immigrants.

Maybe those of us who have lived all our lives in America don't always think of America as special, but the rest of the world does. All the immigrants do. They value America so much that just living in America is an achievement and a point of pride in itself.

Two years ago, Barack Obama campaigned on the message: "change you can believe in." But now we've seen the emptiness of that message. It's not change we strive to believe in — it's America we want to believe in. An America whose mission and identity spans the generations and doesn't change with each election cycle.

The Tea Party may indeed reflect this desire to believe in America. They don't want to be bought off with spending programs and special benefits and tax breaks. They want to do what's right for America, not what's temporarily beneficial for them.

I'm a conservative, which means I don't want government to become this oppressive behemoth, dominating all of society. I want government to function as the Founders envisioned, as a limited government. But I also want to do what's right for America, even if it means a higher cost to myself. Because being an American is priceless to me. If we are asking our young men and women of the military to risk their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, we should bear some of the cost. What President Bush should have done, when he sent troops into Iraq and Afghanistan, is to ask all Americans to share the burden. A military 'tax surcharge' of, say, one percent across the board should be imposed for as long as American troops are in combat, with one hundred percent of that amount dedicated to the military.

I think my generation, the "Me Generation," should follow the lead of Tom Brokaw's "Greatest Generation." Someone has to take the forefront in digging the country out of the entitlement stranglehold that threatens to suffocate future generations. I think our generation should come forward and ask that the retirement age for social security benefits be lengthened two or three years. What a dramatic contrast that would be to European attitudes, where a proposed extension of retirement benefits is met with massive protests in the streets.

That's what this election should be about. Not some undefined change. But about America. And about what America's specialness is worth to all Americans.

© Patrick Garry

 

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Patrick Garry

Patrick Garry is a professor of law at the University of South Dakota, and Director of the Hagemann Center for Legal & Public Policy Research... (more)

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