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Mark Shields: In 2012, Are Americans Citizens or Consumers?

We have lost our sense of country, devaluing individual sacrifice for the common good

In 2007, my friend and colleague on PBS NewsHour, Jim Lehrer, interviewed President George W. Bush and asked the following question about the U.S. wars then being waged in Iraq and Afghanistan: “Why have you not, as president of the United States, asked more Americans and more American interests to sacrifice something? The people who are now sacrificing are, you know, the Army and the U.S. Marines and their families. They’re the only ones who are actually sacrificing anything at this point.”

Bush’s answer — “Well, you know, I think a lot of people are in this fight. I mean, they sacrifice peace of mind when they see the terrible images of violence on TV every night. I mean, we’ve got a fantastic economy here in the United States, but yet, when you think about the psychology of the country, it is somewhat down because of the war” — lacks the inspiring eloquence of Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill, but let’s be blunt, he is not the only president of this decade to fail to summon his countrymen to selfless patriotism.

Unless I missed it, President Barack Obama has been mute on the matter of asking us to make individual and collective sacrifice in behalf of the nation’s common good.

Make no mistake, our values have changed. In the words of one of the first group of Peace Corps volunteers, some half-century ago: “I’d never done anything political, patriotic or unselfish because nobody ever asked me to. President (John F.) Kennedy asked us that day (51 years ago), and we are still saying ‘yes.’”

Contrast that with the argument of the House majority whip, a Republican, to a Washington, D.C., bankers meeting on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, just days before 2nd Lt. Therrel Shane Childers of Harrison County, Miss., would become the first of 4,486, and counting, Americans to die in that conflict: “Nothing is more important in the face of war than cutting taxes.”

Let’s be blunt. America today, despite all the lip service we pay to the men and women in the military, devalues individual sacrifice for the common good. We no longer treat each other — or insist upon being treated ourselves — as citizens with reciprocal obligations to each other and to our country, but instead as consumers who insist upon getting the best deal for ourselves.

As somebody smarter than I observed about our contemporary politics: “Americans vote to send Democrats to Washington to make sure they get for themselves all the federal goodies and entitlements the Treasury can provide. Then these same voters send Republicans to Washington to make sure that they, the voters, will not have to pay for those federal goodies.”

Got a federal debt that is out-of-control and threatening the nation’s future? The Democrats, led by Obama, promise that your taxes will never rise if you belong to the 98 percent of U.S. households that earn less than $250,000 a year. The only Americans asked to pay some price or to bear some burden in order to rehabilitate the nation’s solvency would be the richest 2 percent.

The front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, is a tax-cut-and-spend Republican who tells us “consumers” that his policies will enable the country to “grow” its way out of the debt mess. Sort of a “what’s good for the country club is good for the country” approach.

Isn’t it time that we demanded that those who seek to lead the nation treat us not like consumers on the prowl for something for nothing, but as citizens who recognize that we have, in addition to rights and privileges, real obligations and responsibilities?

We know that in America war requires equality of sacrifice. But so, too, does American citizenship.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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