Exactly 218 years ago in February 1790, a group of Quaker representatives submitted petitions to the House of Representatives to end the slave trade immediately, an action that sent Representative James Jackson from Georgia into a sputtering rage. A colleague from Georgia concurred, agreeing that these self-righteous paper-pushers long ago relinquished their standing to object to anything weightier than the placement of coat racks in church. Their pacifist moral snit during the war for independence conveniently kept them out of harm’s way, and now they presumed to tell the new government how best to purify its constitutional soul? Jeremy Bentham once dismissed French metaphysics as “nonsense on stilts;” this was nonsense draped with cloaks of condescension, even though its chief petitioner, Ben Franklin, lent his signature to the delegation like a bespectacled Moses charting the path toward a holier land of ethical purity. America’s ambassador to the world died shortly afterward, as did these petitions, which underscored the chasm that separated Declaration ideals from the most morally despicable institution in the new Republic. Slavery was the deal-breaker at the Constitutional Convention, the “third rail” of Franklin’s famous experiments with electricity: touch it, the Republic dies.
The Pennsylvanian’s spectacles saw through the politics of the day, and he likely recoiled from the vision of horror that greeted him. The issue of slavery launched a half-dozen attempts to accommodate this peculiar institution over the next 70 years, and none of them worked. Why not? Because it was a Deep Issue; not just a “big issue,” or “important issue,” or whatever other creampuff phrases that politicians regularly flip out of their PR ovens, especially during an election year. This was an issue that defined the meaning of the country, dealing with a problem that transcended generations, that brought into question the future of what Abraham Lincoln once referred to as the “last best hope of earth.” This meant that citizens and their leaders had to face it sooner or later.
The real question of this election year 2008 centers on the presence or absence of such Deep Issues; and, fortunately, experience has taught us a few rules of thumb about how best to detect them. First, campaigners know about such issues but are usually too frightened to deal with them. Second, the issue in question emerges from fervently held beliefs or practices with roots in the obligations and practices of preceding generations. Third, elections are won or lost if such Deep Issues are emphasized during an election year.
Currently, no Deep Issue approaching the magnitude of slavery lurks beneath public discourse. But there are at least two issues that deserve attention.
The first is the huge policy architecture that comprises America’s social security and medical insurance edifice. In less than a generation, these programs will literally break the budget, absorbing nearly 70 percent of all federal spending by 2030 or forcing the reduction of benefits by 40 percent. Here’s a mischievous thought: imagine in a few years a booming market in walkers, wheelchairs, and Cadillac Escalades, as aging boomers cough, wheeze, and honk their way down Pennsylvania Avenue demanding their “fair share.” Who says French rioters will have taught us nothing? But the AAAG—American Association of Aggressive Geezers—won’t go to Main Street; they’ll go to K Street. And they will win, somehow.
Which means others will lose, but not just on this policy. The second Deep Issue deals with attitudes toward America—in short, patriotism. A significant proportion of America’s elites—in Hollywood, academia, and governing institutions—simply do not believe in their country anymore. Worse than that, many despise America, and temperatures in the fever swamp of Anti-Americanism rise steadily every year. Evidence of this continues to sprout up, in lunatic resolutions from such bastions of deep thought as the Berkeley City Council to the Ward Churchill One-Flew-Over-The-Cuckoo’s-Nest feudal enclaves in the American professoriate. Though anti-American films flop at the box office, they thrive in Hollywood. In the memorable words of the late Jeane Kirkpatrick, a substantial and vocal minority in this country continues to “always blame the United States.”
Social security has been smoldering in Al Gore’s famous lock-box since 2000, and questions about patriotism these days—not the Iraq war, per se—usually result in someone being whacked by a pink placard. Fair enough. But deep issues don’t go away; eventually they have to be faced. Expect sometime within the next decade a great deal of national turmoil, rivaling the most serious crises in our history, that centers on Americans’ deepest convictions about obligations to our seniors, to our children, to ordinary citizens, and most important, to our country.