What has gone wrong with our country since its peak, which, one might argue, was the 50-year period following the Second World War? After putting men on the moon, we felt as though the government, comprised of our neighbors and friends with “the right stuff,” could do anything. It’s hard not to feel that a relatively few years ago, we would have stared this miserable virus down with civic discipline and the willingness to act on the advice of medical experts. With an unselfish eye toward the common good, the public/private partnership that sent men to the moon, also invented penicillin, cured polio, and gave us microwave ovens and color TV. We were strong. We were united. We believed we were all in this together. Our decline leaves me wondering how we went from the world’s can-do country to its can’t-do country.
Inequality of both income and opportunity has been heightened: Fifty years ago, we were more or less financially equal. The mail-carrier could live in the typical middle-class neighborhood, as could the butcher and the waitress. It was before billionaires, and before multinational corporations lost their fealty to America in favor of tax-havens and cheap labor.
Success spoiled us: Short term profits became the only goal of business. The days of the corporate executive being a deacon in his church, or flipping pancakes at an Optimist Club breakfast are over. Remember when Sting sang, “I hope the Russians love their children too”? I find myself wondering if today’s executives and lobbyists love their children, or give a solitary thought to the world their policies will leave their grandchildren.
We have outsmarted ourselves: In the quest for never paying any taxes, corporations that remained here hired tax experts—floors of them in the poster-child case of GE in the Eighties—and the cat-and-mouse game between corporations, legislators, and regulators was on. Big Tobacco, Big Coal, Big Oil and Big Pharma lobbied up. Smaller industries followed.
Access equals power, and the revolving door between the houses of Congress and K Street, where the lobbyists dwell, is alive and rotating. Some legislators stay for decades; some leave for K Street and vast riches after a few terms—whatever amount of time is long enough to sell access to their former colleagues.
How did we become the country that prefers traumatizing our grade schoolers with active shooter drills over removing the threat of military-style assault rifles from our streets? The answer is simple: lobbyists, in the person of the NRA, and the object of their money, power, and intimidation, legislators, and to be crystal clear, regardless of the trope that “both sides do it,” Republican legislators, who, against the wishes of ninety-percent of the American public, refuse to enact common sense rules like limiting magazine capacity, codifying thorough background checks, and closing gun show loopholes. (Mark Twain was right: common sense really isn’t so common.)
The larger question isn’t even how the gun lobby became so fearsome that legislators are frozen in place, it is how we lock the revolving door. Term limits seem like a good place to start, even though many smart people think we would lose critical institutional-knowledge, I have come to believe that is a worthwhile sacrifice to make our system work better for everyone.
We are deeply divided in every imaginable way: The public is at war politically, geographically, socioeconomically, ethnically, and racially. Perhaps we always were, but the veneer of politeness that lubricated our social interactions has been worn away by a polarized punditry and social media.
In 2016, the body politic had a spasm. Though he lost the popular vote, the Electoral College handed the White House to a divisive narcissist who lifts himself up by diminishing others, breaking the mold of the unifying American President that the country–and indeed the world–had relied on for a century. Posing as a populist, he was really just a damaged guy who played one on TV.
Media fragmentation is the almost inseparable companion to societal divisions: The era of mass media was short lived. For a brief moment, we all consumed the same news, we could all Sing Along With Mitch, and we all Loved Lucy. Seemingly in an instant, we disappeared into our own partisan media silos.
From a civic perspective, there was a lot to be said for a time when society had agreed-upon facts.
The progressive policies of the Mass Media Era created, inevitably, a huge backlash, led initially by conservative talk radio, where hosts—almost exclusively privileged white men—from San Diego’s Roger Hedgecock to Birmingham’s Sean Hannity, aired their endless grievances against blacks, gays, women, and foreigners.
It all begs this question: will baseless conspiracy theories and unending grievances make it impossible for us to come together and address challenges like inequality and healthcare that COVID-19 has exposed?
Jon Sinton is a serial media entrepreneur, consultant and writer who has worked for NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, and the Wall Street Journal. He has owned and operated radio stations, radio networks, and digital media sites. Mr. Sinton, a Coronado resident, is the Immediate Past Chairman of the Georgia chapter of the nonpartisan, nonprofit government watchdog organization, Common Cause.