America's New Era: Opportunity and Responsibility

David Blankenhorn, The City, 1/1/2008

Culturally, I hope that we who care about strengthening marriage and family life will seek out and engage whatever is best in this new era. There are some good things to choose from! For many Americans, there is today a new sense of hope and idealism. There is a sense that we are deepening the American dream by becoming a more understanding and inclusive society. There may even be an opportunity in the coming months – although it will take much more than a new president by himself to make it real – finally to put aside some of the ugliness and partisan rancor that has so coarsened us in recent years.

Read the Article >>

Subjects: Civil Society, Thrift

More by: David Blankenhorn

It appears that we are entering into a new era of our national life, both economically and, more broadly, politically and culturally. Economically, it seems clear that the debt culture is dead, and that the current contraction, painful though it is, marks the beginning of what I hope will be viewed as the era of thrift.

When you think of the old debt culture, think of maxing out your credit cards to pay for everyday consumption. A loan from a bank you never heard of to pay for a mortgage that you probably can't afford. Donald Trump. Setting aside a few dollars each week to buy lottery tickets. Payday lenders. Hotels with fancy décor. Buying that new flat-screen TV through a rent-to-own deal in which you put about five dollars down and pay about 20 dollars a week for the rest of your life. Politicians regularly urging you, every time something bad happens, to go to the mall and spend more money in order to keep the economy going. Asking the lady at the check-out to double-plastic-bag your purchases.

When you think of the emerging thrift culture, think of spending less than you earn in order to pay down credit card debt. A plain-vanilla mortgage from your local community bank. Warren Buffet. Setting aside a few dollars each week to put into savings. Credit unions. Hotels with free soap and shampoo that you can take home. Buying that new flat-screen TV through a layaway plan (remember those?). Politicians who want to help you save some of your money, on the grounds that not even a nation as great as ours can sustain prosperity that rests on a mountain of ever-growing debt. Taking a non-plastic bag with you to the store.

And what of our near future politically and culturally? On Election Night this year, I found myself thinking of 1932 and 1960.

Most of the 1920s in the U.S. were years of strong economic growth guided by Republican presidents and highly regarded business men. It was a time of unprecedented growth in consumer spending, much of it on the installment plan, and among the growing ranks of the rich, a great deal extravagant spending, fueled in part by the rise of debt-creating financial practices such as stock-market and real-estate speculation. It was also a time, despite the official adult stodginess, of growing sexual permissiveness and the steady loosening of limits and restraints – think "Jazz Age," teenagers driving cars, and the era of the flappers. But by November of 1932, that period of our national life had largely come to a close. Franklin D. Roosevelt, the first Democratic to occupy the White House since 1920, took office in early 1933 with the nation, and much of the world, frightened and anxious about the future and mired in a Great Depression. Does any of this remind you of today?

As a political-cultural era, the 1950s – also a time of robust economic expansion, officially proclaimed cultural conservatism, and Republican governance, seems to have ended perfectly on cue on Election Night 1960, when a 40-something, handsome, stylish, Harvard-trained, Democratic member of the U.S. Senate with a beautiful wife, two young children, and not much national political experience used his considerable rhetorical skills and an inspiring (to many) call for "change" to defeat an older and more experienced Republican rival to win the presidency of the United States. Does any of this sound familiar?

Whatever else the age of Obama in our national life portends, it almost certainly promises to be the first time in nearly five decades in which the U.S. presidency – and therefore to some degree our national life as well as how that life is perceived by others around the world – is firmly associated with stylishness, cosmopolitanism, a youth orientation, and intellectual vigor.

This new age is also likely to push to the sidelines, at least for the foreseeable future, the political philosophy that rose to dominance during the Reagan years of the 1980s and continued to dominate our politics ... until about three minutes ago. That philosophy centers on three core objectives. First, steadily cut taxes and steadily deregulate the economy. Second, build up and aggressively use military power to defeat the nation's enemies. And third, return to a more traditional sexual and family morality. In each of these three areas, the political dynamics in the age of Obama will almost certainly trend in a different direction – not necessarily, and certainly not always, in the opposite direction, but almost certainly, in most cases, in a different direction.

And so, as our intrepid editor Ben Domenech asked us, "Where do we go from here?" Part of the answer, of course, depends on who the "we" is! So in the interest of fair disclosure, let me say briefly who the "I" is, in this case. I want and try to be a Christian. I'm not an evangelical, though some of my best friends, as they say, are. Philosophically, I consider myself a liberal. I'm a Democrat. I voted for Obama. At the same time, I've also spent most of my professional life trying to put in a good word for marriage and fatherhood. Just a few weeks ago, for example, I wrote an article in the Los Angeles Times in favor of Prop Eight – a statewide ballot initiative which won, and which restores marriage in California to its customary man-woman form. I've also become deeply convinced over the past several years of the importance of thrift as an American value and practice. What (if anything) that adds up to, I'll let you decide!

That said, and on behalf of whatever "we" might have me as a member, here is my attitude toward the new period we are entering. Economically, I hope that we can help to create a broad change in our national values and practices, away from an unsustainable debt culture and toward a sustainable culture of thrift. (The word "thrift" comes from "thrive" and flows directly from Christian teaching on stewardship). I can see no reason why the age of Obama would be unfriendly to this goal, and a number of reasons why it might be friendly.

Culturally, I hope that we who care about strengthening marriage and family life will seek out and engage whatever is best in this new era. There are some good things to choose from! For many Americans, there is today a new sense of hope and idealism. There is a sense that we are deepening the American dream by becoming a more understanding and inclusive society. There may even be an opportunity in the coming months – although it will take much more than a new president by himself to make it real – finally to put aside some of the ugliness and partisan rancor that has so coarsened us in recent years.

As a card-carrying marriage nut, I wish Mr. Obama would say more – say something! – about the importance marriage for children and society. But I also remember the strong, good words about fatherhood that came from him earlier this year, on Father's Day, speaking in a church. And I reflect on his seemingly strong commitment to his own wife and children. And so I am determined to see this glass as half full.

Overall, I am resolved to avoid the temptations of grumpiness or rancor, and instead do my best to engage this new era with a spring in my step and with hope in my heart. And I hope that "we" all can.

This article originally appeared here.

Follow

Institute for American Values, 420 Lexington Avenue, Room 1706, New York, NY 10170

212.246.3942