Americans have had more then their fill of unhappy news recently, but the good still outweighs the bad.
As the body count and destruction continue unabated in Iraq, newspapers headline congressmen pleading guilty to influence-peddling and resigning over suggestive e-mails to teenagers. If that's not enough, the nation's schoolchildren have apparently become acceptable targets for gun-toting misfits and poverty is on the rise. Americans can only take a deep breath and wonder what's gone wrong with "the land of the free and the home of the brave."
Yet, although the queue for immigration to most countries remains short, America still remains a dream destination for much of the world's population. While the Pentagon argues for better bombers and laser-guided missiles, America's most potent weapons remain the political
liberty and economic opportunity which its Constitution enshrines.
"We're good at a lot of things," says University of Michigan professor John R. Chamberlin. "Sometimes the reason we're good at them is because of how the government is structured."
Chamberlin believes that Americans should be proudest of how our Constitutional system of government remains an example throughout the world. "The world has lined up behind that idea. The United States has demonstrated that you can do this. The rule of law can rule," he says.
University of Virginia Professor Brian Balogh agrees. While it's easy to be critical of Americans for being over-litigious, Balogh says, most Americans should still believe that they will be treated fairly by the government. "Americans' rights and liberties are protected more than most people around the world," he says.
Prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Balogh says he witnessed a steady decline in his students' confidence in their elected officials. "Fewer and fewer had much faith in government," he says. Since then, he notes, students are beginning to feel that the public sector can deal with certain problems and calls the attacks a watershed event. In order for his students to appreciate how government has improved, the historian of American politics says he tells them to compare their last interaction with a government agency with one from the private sector. "If their last private sector interaction was with a cell phone company or with a Web site that timed out while they were trying to buy something, then it's not bad."
Nevertheless, Balogh says America needs to improve its image—not just at home, but abroad. "If you look back 100 years, essential government services and functions went from the local level to the national level. Today, so many crucial policies affecting Americans' day to day lives are decided in the inter-national community. For America's capacity to continue to enjoy trading with foreign countries and our global system of trade to be sustained, one needs to take international opinion quite seriously," says Balogh.
Spreading political power around
Congressman Henry A. Waxman points to the government's division of power as something to keep Americans optimistic. However, the California Democrat, who is in line to become chairman of the House Committee on Government Reform if the Democrats win control of the House of Representatives this year, says Congress has not held up its end of the checks-and-balance system in recent years.
"Our system of government is based on separation of power. Under the framework envisioned in the Constitution, Congress has an obligation to conduct oversight to check abuses by other branches of government," Waxman says. "Unfortunately, the Republican-controlled Congress has abdicated its duty to conduct meaningful oversight of the Bush Administration. The result has been a series of phenomenal misjudgments that have led our country into a quagmire in Iraq, imperiled our reputation throughout the world, and undermined our economic progress at home."
Waxman says this lack of responsibility has led to recent Democrat gains in a number of political contests. "The American people recognize that representative government cannot function without accountability. That is why there are so many calls for reform and change sweeping through the nation," he says.
Support for science and technology
Nobel Prizes were awarded to Americans this year in medicine, physics, chemistry, and economics, Chamberlin points out. In part, he says, the awards were a result of government funding of the sciences—an example of how America's political and economic systems can work together. "We're also very good at higher education. Just look at how many people from other countries come here," he says.
"On lots of fronts, the government has played a role in making things happen," Chamberlin says. Of course, he notes, there are also areas like health care coverage and the influence of money on politics where America is not exactly a world leader. Challenges may change and government may (or may not) do a good job at addressing these issues, but Americans are all in it together, Chamberlin says. "The democratic system requires us to believe that we're all equals."
The promise of change and the future
But it's not only the promise of change, it's also America's ability to change and to be a world leader in science, industry, and justice that keeps citizens optimistic, researchers and legislators say.
Change is also what drives Anton J. Gunn, who is running for a South Carolina State House seat near Columbia. "My firm belief is that anytime we've had positive change in this country, it's come from young people," says the 33 year-old Gunn. Whether it's been protesting the Vietnam War to the Civil Rights Movement, Gunn says that Americans need to get involved if they're unhappy with the status quo. "This is our government and this is our country," he says.
Political scandals like Rep. Mark Foley's emails to congressional pages or Watergate may lead some people to believe that government is not something to get involved in, but Gunn says Americans must realize that politics and public policy affect all aspects of their lives, from navigating the Internet to local traffic patterns. "Being mistrustful of the government is being distrustful of ourselves," he says.
Another young, idealist candidate for state legislature is 18-year-old Michael Skipakevich, who won the Republican nomination for California's 8th Senate District, which includes San Francisco and most of San Mateo County.
Although Skipakevich will face off on Election Day against the second-ranking member of the State Assembly in a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans two-to-one, the Ukrainian immigrant is trying to convince voters that besides being a teenager, he's a concerned citizen. "Most people my age don't understand how politics works or forces like lobbying groups, special interests, party loyalties and other factors," he says. "Most 18 year-olds are just about to graduate high school and are apathetic, but I believe it's a positive that I'm running for office because it shows that there's a concern. Why does an 18 year-old want to run for office? I meet all of the qualifications for office and I'm concerned about representation."
American idealism: "giving up is not an option"
Author and commentator Dr. Andrew Schmookler has a slightly more philosophical view on American idealism. The blogger and frequent talk radio guest says that Americans' belief in idealism has seriously eroded over the last couple of generations and points to popular culture as evidence of Americans caring less about trying to change things for the better. However, despite concerns over the Bush Administration and Republican-controlled Congress, he's still optimistic about America's system of government.
"By the dismal standards of human civilization, life under the American Constitution has been one of the brighter stories. Our Constitution is one of humankind's greatest accomplishments," he says. However, Schmookler says that Constitutional protections like habeas corpus and separation of government powers are being jeopardized. "At the moment, we have the President doing things that the Supreme Court says he shouldn't be doing and Congress trying to write legislation that is dismantling our Consti-tutional protections rather than protecting and defending them." he says. However, citing recent poll numbers, Schmookler says he much more optimistic now about America's future than he was a year ago.
But for there to be positive change, Schmookler says Americans need get involved and care about government policies. "The Founding Fathers understood that the system could not enforce itself. You needed a moral culture in the society at large. They realized that we needed to have republican virtue in order for us to be able to conserve our liberty and that it required moral discipline," says Schmookler. Although the deterioration of America's moral culture may have created the current political environment, Schmookler remains optimistic: "We have an ethical obligation to act as if the future has yet to be determined and that what we will do will make a difference. Giving up is not an option."
About Howard M. Unger
Howard M. Unger earned his Master's Degree from the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy. He is currently a freelance journalist in New York City.