A Letter to My Children: The Debt Ceiling, Politicians, and My Failure as a Father

Dear Ella and Jon -

Both of your great-grandfathers served in World War II in the European theater. Pop Emmette, your Nonna’s father, was assigned to a postmasters’ outfit in France just before the final collapse of Berlin. Pop Harold, your Poppy’s dad, was a quartermaster with the Army who helped with the final supply lines for the troops who ended the European front of the war.

I’m telling you this because last night, as the current president Barack Obama, took to the airwaves to speak about a deadlock in debt ceiling negotiations (which is a fancy way of saying that the USA is about to run out of money) I realized the death of the America in which I came of age. Both of your great-grandfathers were contributors to that America, one that held certain ideals about the nation itself and what it took to make it great. Their generation, by no means perfect, was at the very least rooted in a system of shared belief that the good of the many outweighed the wants of the few. They fought for this belief and applied it in their lives, and expected those around them, including the politicians sent to represent them in Washington D.C., to do the same.

I’m no historian, but I would argue that the same belief your great-grandfathers harbored has been a dominant piece of the American ethos since the inception of this nation. It was the ignition for the American Revolution, it was the self-destructive impulse behind the Civil War, and it was the rallying cry that rescued the nation from the Great Depression and ushered us to victory in the Second World War. Our historical documents are loaded with language about the “good of the people” and our rhetoric for 235 years has been that we are a nation of many who stand as one.

It’s even our national motto: E Pluribus Unum. From the many, one.

But that America is dead now. It no longer exists, and I spent the better part of last night trying to figure out who should bear the responsibility for the death blow.

I was tempted to blame the politicians who are currently in office, the egotistical buttheads who stand in front of their media pulpits and proclaim that they are working for the will of the American people when in reality they are working for a select group of individuals who share the same political ideology. The list of these demagogues is long and undistinguished, and all are guilty: President Obama, Rep. John Boehner, Rep. Eric Cantor, Sen. Harry Reid, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, and so on. Almost anyone that your father can currently see on TV or read about in the papers is someone who has shunted the good of the American people to the side in order to doggedly pursue their own personal vision of what America should be. Party affiliation, long a lament of the voting populace, has replaced the needs of the country, so that a relatively simple matter of raising our debt ceiling in order to preserve the economy for the short term while simultaneously working on a long term solution for our reckless spending has turned into a game of political chicken. The two parties are staring at each other, neither willing to concede anything because they can’t bring themselves to let the other party “win.”

And at this point, “win” is a loose term.

Instead, these people who are supposed to do what’s good for the nation both in the near and long terms are about to cause a systemic default on our financial obligations that could very well kill the economy in ways we’ve never even considered.

At a time when the economy is already barely breathing.

This would be like your dad arguing with your mom over what type of medicine you should be treated with while you were dying because you needed medicine.

What makes it even worse is the smug self-righteousness with which these politicians address the nation, telling us that what they are doing is what we want them to do. You will be old enough to understand this one day, so I’m going to go ahead and tell you: the people who have your best interests at heart actually shut up and listen to what you have to say. Even when they make decisions that go against your wishes, they at least cared enough to listen. You’ve grown up with this – you haven’t always liked the decisions your mother and I made, but as soon as you were old enough to share your thoughts and preferences with us, we allowed you to have your say and weighed it against the larger picture. When it made sense to do what you wanted, we capitulated and gave you the gift of empowerment (which is no small thing, let me tell you…). When it didn’t make sense, we did what was best for you and gave you the courtesy of an explanation.

The people currently in office don’t do either of those things, and as a grown-up adult with a voice and plenty of thoughts on the matter, it pisses me off to no end. It makes me mad. It actually makes me think fondly of the American Revolution and wonder if we might revisit such a drastic recourse.

I’m spit-balling, mind you – I make no bones about the fact that I wouldn’t even attempt to pick up a rifle at Walmart and challenge the US Government to a fight. But the dream is nice, and that’s sad; when your only outlet for your frustrations would seem to be dreaming of violent revolution, that says something about the system under which you’re living.

Which brings me to the point of my letter: the politicians are not to blame for the mess you will inherit.

I am.

And so is everyone else who has voted these types of politicians into power for the past thirty years.

You see, in a democratic system, the people choose who represent them. We get to shuffle into a soulless little box every few years and punch a button to decide the players who will decide our collective national fate. Once upon a time, this system worked, mainly because the people who voted wouldn’t stand for jack-legged egotists in office. Sure, they voted in a few windbags from time to time, but for the most part the men (and for a while, it was only men) elected to office held the idea and ideals of this nation to be their guiding principles. They believed, as your great-grandfathers did, that the many outweighed the few. They argued over the best approach to this goal, as any group of distinct individuals will, but more often than not they came to great compromises that propelled this nation forward as a vanguard. You can see the relics of this across the nation because we used to build monuments to our political leaders – the Washington monument, the Lincoln memorial, the Jefferson memorial; heck, we even sandblasted the living crap out of a South Dakota mountain so we could put the faces of four great American statesmen on its slope. We spent countless dollars erected these edifices to remind ourselves not only of the men and women who shaped our heritage, but of that heritage itself.

Nowadays, we wouldn’t waste money on a politician’s statue. We’ve discovered the subversive joys of naming waste-water reclamation facilities after them, which tells you how far things have fallen.

And yet they’ve fallen this far because we’ve let them. We’ve become something I can’t quite define, something that is frightening to consider. It’s hard to pinpoint why we’ve become a nation of cynics and skeptics, though one would suggest it’s the repeated exposure to leaders who suck, which only brings us back to the question of why the hell did we elect them then? When did we quit caring about who went to Washington? When did we collectively decide to roll over and let a narrow group of people on both sides of the aisle speak for the vast majority of us?

It would require a great deal of collective brainpower from sociologists, historians, political scientists, psychologists and Dionne Warwick to come up with a decent answer.

But I’d sure love to read it. For me, I just fall back on the old standard of blaming it all on Watergate. Or Dan Quayle.

Maybe one of you, or someone from your generation, will be the first to undertake such a massive study – the examination of the death of the American people’s collective idealism – and if so, I hope you find something substantial. Because to be honest, it seems from my vantage point to be nothing more than our own selfishness coming back to haunt us. We take what we get because we don’t care to fully participate. We tell ourselves that our vote doesn’t count because the weasels will still get elected, thereby ensuring that the weasels still get elected. If we do vote, we don’t do any research, or we simply wait until some paper or website or magazine produces a “how to vote” list, which, if you think about the history of this nation and all we fought against, is antithetical to what it means to be an American.

Mostly though, we just whine and gripe and moan. Kind of like this blog post – it serves no real purpose towards change. It’s just a way for me to get my two-cents out there and feel all justified at my anger.

If I really cared, I’d get my but down to whatever civic office is responsible for this sort of thing and register myself as a candidate for the next election. Or I’d begin a new political party, something like the Common Sense Party, or Bull Winkle Party, or Whigs, and petition some of the best and brightest people I know, people who would actually go to Washington and guide themselves by the old American ethos to do what is best for the country without being concerned about re-election.

Unfortunately, it seems I really am at fault for the mess we’re in. For that, I am truly sorry. My only hope is that I can raise you to be better than I am, and that you will be a generation that actually believes and cares enough to set things right.

I have failed you. But I believe you will not fail yourselves.

With my apologies, love and hope,

Dad

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