In the middle of a crazy week signaling another long American winter of discontent, former Montana Gov. Steve Bullock — that rare Democrat who could win an election in a blood-red rural state — published an op-ed in the New York Times. Bullock urged his party, which has seen its rural support plummet toward zero, to get out more and tell voters how Obamacare can save rural hospitals, or about the wonders of universal pre-K — because at the end of the day, "we generally all want the same things."
Do we, though? As I read Bullock's essay — which struck me as both nostalgic and Pollyanna-ish — I couldn't help but wonder how his message would play in the rural Kentucky district of U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie, who just sent out his 2021 Christmas card showing his entire family, including his wife and four children, posing with assault-style weapons (the Republican congressman is holding what appears to be an M60 machine gun). It includes his cheerful holiday message: "Merry Christmas! ps. Santa, please bring ammo."
The Massie family Christmas (remarkably, not an original concept) would have been creepy under the best of circumstances, but as most Americans with a semblance of a soul are well aware, these have not been the best of circumstances. Just four days before the right-wing Kentucky congressman posted the grotesque image, a different gun-worshipping family from the Heartland — the Crumbleys, of Oxford, Mich. — imploded as their 15-year-old son Ethan took the 9 mm semi-automatic handgun his daddy bought him for Black Friday to his high school, killing four classmates and wounding six other people. The parents allowed their clearly disturbed son to stay in school even after he'd been caught googling "ammunition" — not willing to wait for Santa like the Massies.
It's hard to think about all this sordidness around guns — the so-called "rugged individualism" that the Massies put forth to mark a holiday meant to celebrate a communal season of hope, or how Jennifer and James Crumbley cared more about keeping their own kid in school with a clean record than the welfare of other students — and not see that a lot of folks care a lot more about the tribalism of America's culture war than, say, keeping a rural hospital open. That we don't "want the same things" — just what's ours.
A lot of pundits — I guess that includes me — have spent a lot of time in recent weeks wondering why the national mood nearly a year into the Biden presidency is so sour, even with the buffoonery of Donald Trump banished from the White House (at least for now), the economy surging back by most measures (especially jobs), and a Congress that, for all its flaws, has passed COVID-19 relief, an infrastructure bill and may do more. I think the trauma of the last five or so years has exposed something deeply damaged in the national soul — a common thread that's buried in almost every story, even when we fail to see it.
Consider a couple of news items that seemingly have nothing to do with each other, and yet — along with the gun insanity in Middle America — share some deep roots:
• Last week during a segment on CNN, an independent voter expressed his qualms with President Joe Biden, noting that after nearly 11 months the new POTUS has failed to keep a campaign promise to eliminate at least $10,000 of each individual's outstanding college loan — even as Democrats on Capitol Hill call for forgiveness of at least $50,000 or more. America's higher ed model that since 1980 has increasingly placed an onus on individuals has meant a $1.7 trillion tsunami of student debt. (Any student debt in most other developed nations is small and mostly caused by living expenses, not tuition.)
• At the same time, with COVID-19 infections rising yet again in a nation where individual refusal to get the vaccine is rampant, Biden announced a series of small-bore measures to fight the next wave, including a promise that insurance companies will cover the cost of home testing. "Save your receipts," warned an article on Marketwatch, noting that people still face the nuisance of filling out insurance forms and waiting for reimbursement for tests that cost $7 to $38 a pop — subsidized in other nations, where citizens get them in a drug store for free or at minimal cost. "Like everything we do in health care in America," said a medical school professor from Emory University, "we make it complicated."
Seriously, what the hell is wrong with America? What all these stories share is what the nation has been missing, in accelerated fashion, since the government-is-the-problem "Reagan revolution" of the 1980s, which is any notion of three words that have disappeared from the national conversation: "The public good."
I'd been thinking more and more about this over the last year or so, as I researched and wrote a book about America's college problems, including that outrageous debt, and their role in causing our political divides. The rise of Ronald Reagan — fueled by his opposition to student protests at California universities that offered liberal education with no tuition — coincided with a steep drop in taxpayer support for higher education as a "public good," placing the burden instead on individuals. In Pennsylvania, taxpayers who once supported 75% of the cost of the state university system now pay for just 25%, as both campuses and their debt-ridden students struggle.
It's not just colleges, though. As recently as the 1970s, U.S. public spending — that's federal, state, and local — on education, infrastructure, and basic research was some 12% of our gross national product. But by the 2010s it had shrunk dramatically to under 3%, even as bridges collapsed and America lost its edge in science.
But these problems — the rapid loss of voter and politician support for the idea of shared public services, and the subsequent gutting of those services, which led to even less trust among citizens — play a role in issues such as the massive resistance to vaccines. Writing in the New York Times this weekend, physician Anita Sreedhar and journalist Anand Gopal try to explain the vaccine hesitancy they've encountered in poorer neighborhoods in the Bronx, despite the scientific evidence and government messaging. They wrote:
"Over the past four decades, governments have slashed budgets and privatized basic services. This has two important consequences for public health. First, people are unlikely to trust institutions that do little for them. And second, public health is no longer viewed as a collective endeavor, based on the principle of social solidarity and mutual obligation. People are conditioned to believe they're on their own and responsible only for themselves. That means an important source of vaccine hesitancy is the erosion of the idea of a common good."
But why did it happen here? Some historians point to the middle-class anti-tax rebellions of the late 1970s as a turning point, but as the late political strategist Lee Atwater frankly admitted, abstract issues like taxes became the socially acceptable version of racial appeals to white voters who became fearful as Black Americans and others made civil rights advances. Simply put, the "public good" of low tuition, interstate highways or public health departments looked a lot less appealing to some folks if the definition of "public" was now going to include Black people, Latinos, women, the LGBTQ community and others.
Deadly weapons like the machine gun brandished by Congressman Massie on his Christmas card or the 9 mm Sig Sauer that Ethan Crumbley hid in his backpack aren't some American cultural quirk but very much wrapped up in the post-1980, post-civil rights zeitgeist of every man and woman for themselves — a holiday spirit not of sharing but of clinging to what's mine with one finger already on the trigger. Is there a way out of this mess, short of a cataclysmic civil war?
I honestly don't know, but we have to try. I've advocated for one small step back in the right direction — an 18-year-old "gap year" of universal national service that would bring together young Americans from different silos with a sense of shared purpose (although I doubt Republicans like Massie could be dislodged from their machine guns to vote for this). And maybe Montana's Steve Bullock is partly right, that somehow doing good for the middle class on broadband access or the price of insulin could lower the temperature of the culture war.
But maybe getting back to where we once belonged starts with something even simpler. Maybe we can start every political conversation with the three simple words that America seems to have utterly forgotten these last 50 years or so: the public good.
Will Bunch is national columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.