As Americans celebrate E Pluribus Unum, national sacrifice and “liberty and justice for all,” it becomes increasingly clear that those noble sentiments don’t come close to the reality that is America 2017.
Most notably, what we witness in the era of Trump is the wholesale privileging of the private over the public – the common good – in almost all areas of American life. We find examples everywhere, but just for starters, consider the current Republican health care bill that gives large tax cuts to the wealthy but proposes massive cuts in Medicaid funding to the poor, essentially depriving an additional 22 million Americans of health care within the next decade; or consider Trump’s nomination for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, who had never attended, taught in, administered or sent her children to a public school. And that’s just for starters.
This shift from the public to the private, of course, began well before the age of Trump. You might say it began, in its modern phase, with Ronald Reagan and his famous proclamation that “government isn’t the solution, it’s the problem” – a complete reversal of the credo at the heart of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal that government could do a great deal of good for the needy and the suffering. In many ways the 1980s saw the beginning of a neo-Gilded Age, almost exactly a century after the advent of the original American Gilded Age with its emphasis on the accumulation of great private wealth, a tax structure highly advantageous to the very rich and an abhorrence of government regulations of any sort – its own privileging of the private over the public good. The difference in our own “Gilded Age” is that, unlike the original, we had no Theodore Roosevelt to come along just after the turn of the century to check the excesses of the private, the abuses of malefactors of great wealth, as Roosevelt called them.
In any case, the private in almost all areas of American life came to be preferred to the public, and so it has remained. The administration of Bill Clinton did little to check it. Over the past few decades we have privatized war (with Blackwater and private security contractors), privatized prisons and attempted under George W. Bush to privatize Social Security. We have stripped funds and resources from our national parks and forests, public transportation, public libraries, public recreation facilities, public access to the arts and much more.
Perhaps most damaging, we have stripped state funds from public education, with public funds going, either through vouchers or direct aid, to private or parochial secondary schools. Similar forces are at work in higher education, although operating in a different manner: The percentage of state funding for many of the nation’s leading public universities has dropped dramatically, with some of those universities now receiving the majority of their funding not from the state at all but from private sources.
We have seen a growing perception over the past few decades that private colleges and universities, by their very nature, are more desirable – especially for parents who can afford them – than public universities. And the national media have seemed to buy into that assumption. In the 1970s national surveys would commonly rate four or five public universities, including UNC-Chapel Hill, in the nation’s top 20 schools. Now there are often no public universities in the top 20, with the possible exception of California-Berkeley, which creeps in at number 19 or 20.
There are a number of reasons for that. Many of today’s private colleges have more amenities; some create what amounts to a country club atmosphere, and they are also reputed to show students more “personal attention.” There are indeed many great private colleges and universities (in our own neighborhood, Duke), but even private institutions of inferior academic quality hold great appeal for any number of students and parents: if it costs more, it must be better. To a number of parents, the public is messy, untidy, scary; the private is safer, protected. But in many cases, it also lacks the variety, the intellectual excitement and ferment of the public.
Not only in education but in many areas of American life we have isolated ourselves – if not in literal gated communities at least in metaphorical ones. The idea of commonwealth, the common good, can be trotted out for occasions such as the Fourth of July, but it’s not for everyday use. What we have lost is the old notion that we’re all in it together. And we don’t seem likely to reverse that direction any time soon.
Fred Hobson is Lineberger Professor Emeritus of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.