Conservatives have two opposing stereotypes when it comes to wealth vs. poverty, employment vs. unemployment, success vs. failure. The successful person is all action and ambition and competence and gumption, always driving forward and making good things happen. The unsuccessful person is a pathetic, lazy screwup who makes excuses instead of trying to improve their life.
Of course, both stereotypes are mostly bullshit – there are plenty of smart, driven people who just never get a break, and there is a metric shit-ton of incompetent jackasses who have failed upwards thanks to the safety net of their family and social (or political) circle. Not to mention a bunch of successes and failures who are just ordinary average people whose circumstances and opportunities were very different.
What’s ironic to me is that thanks to those very same conservatives, this entire country now resembles nothing so much as their stereotype of a loser writ large. As Bob Herbert points out, we don’t really build or do anything ambitious anymore, unlike China, which tackles four impossible things before breakfast. Building a new tunnel from New York to New Jersey is too expensive, even though it would create thousands of jobs. Even fixing our existing infrastructure is too expensive.
And it’s not just infrastructure. China is beating us on green manufacturing, most of the developed world is eating our lunch on education and health care, and the rule of law has been supplanted by political expedience and corporate moral hazard terrorism. And why is that? Because Republicans and conservadems attack progressive ideas as irresponsible profligacy or job-killing socialist overreach, be they single-payer or even the public option, curbs on carbon emissions, investment in education or infrastructure, or holding corporate and government wrongdoers accountable.
As a result of all this conservative fiscal responsibility, America is now like nothing so much as that archetypal layabout who sits on the couch all day watching TV and eating junk food while living off the memory of the days when he was the star quarterback who won the Heisman and the national title game.
To embellish a little bit further, he still has the smarts and the skills that made him a star, he just doesn’t use them anymore. He has enough money left over from a brief NFL career that he could go back to school and get an engineering degree, but he spends most of it on his gun collection, and expensive presents for his wealthy friends. He refuses to clean or fix anything, so his house is a filthy deathtrap where everything keeps breaking down. He drinks and chain-smokes constantly so the air is almost unbreathable and there are burns and stains everywhere. He has lots of pets, but they keep dying because he doesn’t take care of them. He can see bullies and muggers preying on the weak outside his window and even though he could kick their asses, he just watches and sometimes even roots them on… or joins them.
I know America has never been perfect, that it’s always had the cancerous rot of injustice and corruption eating at its heart. But it has still been capable of great things, of dreaming and daring and doing on a grand scale, of moral and social advances like the end of slavery, universal suffrage, Social Security, Medicare, and the Civil Rights Act. Yet now it feels like America has stalled, interested in nothing but neverending war and financial masturbation, devoid of empathy or compassion for those who need it most.
The potential for greatness still resides within the American people, but the cancer has spread so deeply into our government and media that I’m not sure we could even get out of the house if it was on fire. And it very well might be.