Sacrifice is out of style in politics

We are the generation from whom less is expected

First in a series.

IN HIS FIRST INAUGURAL, Ronald Reagan observed “we’re too great a nation to limit ourselves to small dreams . . . We have every right to dream heroic dreams.”  Twenty years earlier, the great 1960 contest between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon was centered not on limits but on possibilities.  Kennedy’s New Frontier metaphor neatly captured his message: that the nation needed to move forward to grow and remain competitive, that it needed to act boldly and fearlessly and take risks, the kind of risks commonly taken by pioneers. This message resonated with a nation that was excited about exploring “the far side of space and the inside of men’s minds,” as Kennedy said so eloquently in his nomination acceptance speech. The nation he sought to lead could see no limits on its march toward progress, and was willing to make sacrifices to reach its goals. Few Americans forcefully questioned the expenditure of substantial sums on initiatives such as building an interstate highway system, or safely sending a man on a round trip visit to the moon.

It was a time when the United States was able to entertain a more candid discussion of what it meant to be a leader. Both candidates in 1960 focused on the need to look beyond self-interest and both spoke to the nation’s voters in ways that challenged their comfort and appealed to their better angels. Richard Nixon, in his acceptance speech before that year’s GOP convention, observed that his task was to “tell the people not what they want to hear but what they need to hear. Why, for example, it may be just as essential to the national interest to build a dam in India as in California.”   Kennedy, in a similar vein, spoke of “not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them,” appealing “to their pride, not their pocketbook,” and holding out “the promise of more sacrifice instead of more security.”

Later in the campaign, Kennedy responded to a reporter’s question during his second debate with Nixon, that he “would not want anyone to elect me president of the United States – or vote for me – under the expectation that life would be easier if I were elected. Now, many of the programs that I’m talking about – economic growth, care for the aged, development of our natural resources – build the strength of the United States [but] I would not want people to elect me because I promised them the easy, soft life.

Kennedy Nixon 4

Both candidates agreed that taxes were very much on the table if circumstances warranted raising revenue to achieve worthwhile objectives.  At that same debate, Kennedy said that he would “have no hesitancy in suggesting a tax increase or any other policy which would defend the United States.”  Nixon, following Kennedy, said “I think it may be necessary that we have more taxes. I hope not. I hope we can economize elsewhere so that we don’t have to. But I would have no hesitation to ask the American people to pay the taxes even in 1961 – if necessary – to maintain a sound economy and also to maintain a sound dollar. Because when you do not tax, and tax enough to pay for your outgo, you pay it many times over in higher prices and inflation; and I simply will not do that.”

If a candidate in 2016 dared to express the views Nixon and Kennedy candidly outlined in their 1960 battle for power, how would the American people react?  We live in a time when it’s rare to hear a political leader calling explicitly for sacrifice or taxes of any kind.  Walter Mondale’s candid statement of his intent to raise taxes in 1984, followed by Reagan’s 49-state electoral wipeout, helped make the topic of taxes about as toxic as any in the political realm.

We are the generation from whom less is expected.  We have waged nearly constant war in the Middle East since 2001 without asking anyone to sacrifice a nickel, content with placing the burden of those wars disproportionately on the men and women who volunteer to serve in the military.  And that means, in most instances, that the sacrifices are being borne by the children of poor and lower and middle-class families, because we have no draft policy that ensures an egalitarian approach to providing military service.

Building a culture and society that embraces the necessity of sacrifice, sharing, and collaboration is easier said than done. Kennedy’s famous line – “Ask what you can do for your country” – sounds almost dissonant in an American culture where raising the gas tax is deemed a political third rail, where our essential infrastructure declines because we have no will to raise the funds necessary to invest, where our elected representatives are unwilling to pay for a federal program to respond to the Zika virus, where a major national health insurer can pull out of the Affordable Care Act and leave millions without affordable coverage, where a drug company can raise the price of a life-saving drug by 671 percent while simultaneously giving its CEO a 500 percent pay hike, where the super-rich who renounce their citizenship to avoid tax exposure can buy $34 million dollar condominiums in cities like Boston.

In 2016 Hillary Clinton asks that the super-rich support necessary programs by paying more taxes. But that isn’t calling for sacrifice, it’s calling for simple equity.  Donald Trump asks no one to sacrifice anything, with a fiscal plan that tilts heavily toward the wealthy and privileged.  His message to those who approach his candidacy with skepticism is: “What do you have to lose?”

That primal question of self-interest may become the rhetorical symbol of our times.  Are we content with a culture that pushes politicians to pander?  Do we have the moral core that would respond positively to leaders who call on us to share our good fortune, to volunteer, to take risks?

Franklin Roosevelt, swept into office by the economic storm of the Great Depression, called on the American people in his first inaugural address to acknowledge at that crisis moment: “We cannot merely take but we must give as well; that if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline.”  Roosevelt was not dismissing well-ingrained American notions of self-reliance, but pointing out (almost in anticipation of Clinton’s “Stronger Together” message) that we can achieve more as a nation when we are pulling on the rope of recovery in the same direction.

The address given to the nation by President Jimmy Carter in July of 1979 is often unfairly mocked as the “malaise” speech, but if you read Carter’s speech it resonates as a candid appraisal of the changed American spirit.  He worried about the inability of Congress to pass any legislation that that included “a balanced and a fair approach that demands sacrifice, a little sacrifice from everyone” as such bills were “quickly abandoned like an orphan without support and without friends.”  Carter lost re-election the following year in a landslide, and to this day many people believe that the so-called “malaise” speech was the real beginning of his end.  People did not like to be called out as lacking confidence, or being unwilling to sacrifice for a larger national cause.

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There was a time when a noble spirit once moved Americans to support federal programs that built and re-built the nation, and many parts of the world.  That spirit has not proved enduring. In 2016, the discussion often degenerates to name calling, and there is heated talk about building walls, deporting people, and banning others.  The conversation is mostly about what we will do to others, not what we will do for others.

James Aloisi is a former Massachusetts secretary of transportation and a principal at the Pemberton Square Group.

Presidential politics then and now