Communitarian Soul: The New Frontier and the Reagan RevolutionWritten by Eric McGlade | | email@example.com
It has been fifty years since the New Frontier. It has been thirty since the Reagan Revolution. Both are often seen as defining moments in our history as a people.
Many of us who came of age in the sixties have much of the language of the New Frontier embedded in our souls. “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” was a call to something greater than our baser instincts. “Let every nation know… that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty” instilled in many a passion to address the hard and intractable problems of an increasingly complex and divided world. Out of these words came the Peace Corp, the end of Jim Crow, the Alliance for Progress, the first nuclear test ban treaty, the space program, the foundation to begin a “war” on poverty and the creation of Medicare. These were big things with ennobling purposes that inspired a generation of social workers, teachers, volunteers, church workers, scientists and social visionaries to invest time and energy in Kennedy’s “new frontier.”
Twenty years later the “Reagan revolution was launched. It too had its language. We were reminded that “Government was not the solution, it was the problem and that it had “grown beyond the consent of the governed.” What shook out of all of this was interesting…tax cuts and historically huge deficits, a significant growth in military spending, the retraction of the social safety net, the revocation of the work of three previous presidents on the development of a cohesive energy policy and the deification of the so called free-market. The President’s language and mystique captured the hearts and imaginations of a generation of young and hearty capitalists, entrepreneurs and “Masters of the Universe” to invest their time and energy into the quest of growing wealth.
I have pondered the twenty years between Kennedy and Reagan. I lived them. Assassinations, Viet Nam, Watergate, long lines at gas stations, inflation, racial unrest, and a succession of failed presidencies was our nation’s perfect storm. It is no wonder the American people had grown weary of activist government and liberalism. it is no wonder that so many were ready to turn inward, batten down the hatches and turn to a kindly grandfather figure who kept telling us what we wanted to hear, that it was morning in America. I am willing to concede that we needed time to stop and catch our collective breath. But I wonder if we have become like one of those lopsided football games where a team racks up the score in the first half and then loses the game in the second half because they became very conservative in their offense, hoping to sit on their lead.
President Obama’s state of the union aside, we seem incapable of doing big things any more. We can’t do high speed rail because our Governor doesn’t want it. We can’t find our ways to a unified energy policy because the free marketers want no government intrusion. We can’t fix health care because it will offend people who want the right to not be a part of the solution. We can’t fix our schools because there is no money and the culture seems inflexible. We can’t address the problem of global warming because to do so will interfere with the free market’s right to do what it wants to do. We can’t do anything that might cause our taxes to go up, and so when we fight expensive wars, we borrow the money from China. And so the litany goes. This is the legacy of the Reagan revolution. Its orthodoxies have left us mired in a quagmire that makes sensible problem solving all but impossible.
I know that liberals have their orthodoxies too. Government can’t fix everything and there is a measure of naiveté when it comes to human nature. But there is something hopeful about believing in the possibility that communities of people can come together to address difficult problems. There is something ennobling about seeking a fairer and more just society. There is something empowering around the idea that a people can seek a better way of life, not just for themselves, but for all. That is why after a half of a century John Kennedy’s communitarian vision of a “new frontier” still resonates with so many of us.
Eric McGlade is a United Methodist pastor in Bowling Green, Ohio.