Why government matters: “No single individual built America on their own”

I listened last night to President Obama laying out his jobs proposal. And as disappointed as I am in his apparent inability to stand his ground in the face of a relentlessly obstructionist Republican Congress, he did say some things about the nature of the American republic that I think desperately needed to be said:

[T]his larger notion that the only thing we can do to restore prosperity is just dismantle government, refund everybody’s money, and let everyone write their own rules, and tell everyone they’re on their own — that’s not who we are.  That’s not the story of America.

Yes, we are rugged individualists.  Yes, we are strong and self-reliant.  And it has been the drive and initiative of our workers and entrepreneurs that has made this economy the engine and the envy of the world.

But there’s always been another thread running throughout our history — a belief that we’re all connected, and that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation.

We all remember Abraham Lincoln as the leader who saved our Union. Founder of the Republican Party. But in the middle of a civil war, he was also a leader who looked to the future — a Republican President who mobilized government to build the Transcontinental Railroad, launch the National Academy of Sciences, set up the first land grant colleges. And leaders of both parties have followed the example he set. 

Ask yourselves — where would we be right now if the people who sat here before us decided not to build our highways, not to build our bridges, our dams, our airports? What would this country be like if we had chosen not to spend money on public high schools, or research universities, or community colleges? Millions of returning heroes, including my grandfather, had the opportunity to go to school because of the G.I. Bill. Where would we be if they hadn’t had that chance?  

How many jobs would it have cost us if past Congresses decided not to support the basic research that led to the Internet and the computer chip? What kind of country would this be if this chamber had voted down Social Security or Medicare just because it violated some rigid idea about what government could or could not do? How many Americans would have suffered as a result? 

No single individual built America on their own. We built it together.

It saddens and infuriates me that this even needs to be said; this is Civics 101. But the extreme anti-science, anti-community, anti-government rhetoric of the current Republican leadership is so appalling, so poisonous to the national discourse, that we need as many people as possible — including the president — to confront this idiocy in no uncertain terms.

The Republicans like to talk about liberty, about what we’re owed as individuals. I almost never seem to hear them talking about our obligations to others, about the social contract and the bonds of community. They’re obsessed with rights and refuse to acknowledge responsibilities. We need to have a balanced conversation about both.

And by the way, is it just my irony meter that explodes when I see the Republican presidential hopefuls campaigning so fiercely to be a part of the government that they say they want to dismantle? When they insist that the government should have no role in the economy, then turn around and claim that if they were in charge, they’d create several million jobs? When they rail against the “redistribution of wealth” and, in the same breath, go begging the Federal Government (funded by taxpayers nationwide, thank you very much) for assistance in coping with wildfires, floods, and other natural disasters?

Obama isn’t as forceful and determined a leader as I’d like him to be, and his ideas and initiatives have never been perfect. But it would be really nice if the opposition weren’t completely insane.

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