Debt-Ceiling Drama a Good Excuse for Americans to Figure Out What They Really Want

When something good happens to Americans, they often say, “Is this a great country, or what?” As the federal government approaches the possibility of failing to pay its bills, come next week or so, Americans may be wondering if the U.S. is still great.

It might be a good time to ask ourselves, "How did we get into this mess in the first place?" Some will accuse President Obama of not beginning negotiations with congressional party leaders sooner. Others will blame the Tea Party for insisting on unreasonable spending cuts, or for not taking the debt ceiling seriously.

It’s the Republicans; it’s the Democrats; it’s the greedy corporations; it’s the special interests. There seems like plenty of blame to go around, and in the partisan atmosphere of Washington, D.C., the talking heads are working overtime.

But the problem might be more fundamental and more distant than the current haggling and finger pointing may suggest. The problem seems to lie within us, the people of the United States, and with leaders from both parties who, for decades, failed to tell us the truth.

It seems like Americans have not come to grips with what we want from our government; we want two very different things at the same time.

The American commitment to individual liberty tells us that taxes should be kept low and people should be rewarded for hard work and taking risks. The Republican Party carries this banner for us and most Americans agree with the basic philosophy. Even Democrats indulge us to a point. Opinion polls show that the public is fine with increasing taxes on the “wealthy,” but not on the middle or lower classes.

Our leaders tell us the middle class has given enough, yet, nearly 50% of income earners pay no net income taxes. Is this a great country, or what?

Meanwhile, the compassionate voices in our heads say we need to take care of the poor, the sick and the elderly. The Democratic Party is there to ensure those priorities are protected, and most Americans accept the basic philosophy of that party as well. Even Republicans are wary of reforming Social Security and Medicare. Although these are the most expensive government programs, neither party really wants to cut spending or change benefits.

Our leaders promise to keep the benefits coming, even though the population is aging and they know that there is nowhere near enough money to pay for them. Is this a great country, or what?

We are in this mess because we don’t want to pay for the programs we profess to need and both parties know it. We say we want less government, but we don’t want to spare the programs that make government too big. We say we want our leaders to compromise, or we want a “balanced approach,” but we don’t really want to pay more taxes from our pockets, or accept lower benefits from the programs we depend on. Let someone else sacrifice.

The debate over the soaring debt and the debt limit has made it clear that we have reached a point where it is impossible to have both lower taxes and higher spending.

If we are truly a great country, we will accept this reality and our leaders will show us the way of dealing with it. Let’s hope this happens soon. If not, the answer to our question will surely be “or what.”

Palazzolo is a professor of political science at the University of Richmond.