A Nation at a Crossroads: How the United States Can Begin to Establish a Moral Compass Worthy of a FutureJeff Monson I Politics & Government I Commentary I February 15th, 2016
For a long time, most Americans have been quick to defend their country from outside criticism, whether it's come from adversaries or allies.
That's because, despite the United States' shortcomings, most Americans believe it's still the best country in the world.
But I have a strong sense that more Americans have become disillusioned with their country in the past few years than at any time since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
The issue is whether the United States has lost its moral compass.
Many are questioning an aggressive American foreign policy that has kept the nation at war for most of the 70 years since the end of World War II.
Many are also questioning the growing inequality in a country that has long prided itself as a place where the poor can propel themselves into the middle or upper class.
Similarly, many are questioning government policies and court interpretations that have been skewed toward the few rather than the many.
One good thing that has come of these doubts is that many Americans have begun thinking that the United States needs to change its approach to foreign relations, equality and power-brokering by the privileged. A lot of them view Bernie Sanders as the politician who can make these changes.
I'm not going to deal with political personalities in this piece, however. My focus is on the United States losing its way, and steps that could be taken to get it on the right track.
When countries around the world decried the U.S. interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, many Americans were bewildered.
"How could you oppose the ouster of nasty dictators?" they wondered. And they retorted that: "Look where a lot of the criticism is coming from - countries with their own dictators who fear a revolution that will bring democracy."
Yet far from ushering in democracy, U.S. interventions have brought chaos to the Middle East and North Africa.
Not just chaos, but disaster - the rise of ISIS and the flight of hundreds of thousands fleeing Iraq and Syria for Europe. The flood of refugees has overwhelmed the European Union, stoking racial hatred and increasing the appeal of ultra-right-wing political parties.
These interventions have also cost the United States trillions of dollars.
Although the country is still the world's largest economy, its financial resources are finite, too.
More and more Americans are contending that instead of spending their tax dollars on military interventions abroad, the United States should allocate these funds toward improving education, health care and equality, rebuilding infrastructure and other pursuits at home.
As for inequality, Americans are seeing a skewing of income the likes of which haven't been seen since the Depression.
The very rich are getting richer, and the rest of the country - poor and middle class alike - are losing ground.
In 2012 news organizations reported the startling fact that America's 400 richest families had more total wealth than the combined assets of half the population.
A key reason for this is government initiatives to lower the tax rates of the wealthy since the Reagan administration of the 1980s.
Rabid followers of Reagan asserted that lowering rates on the rich would benefit the middle class and poor. Their argument was that the wealthy would use their additional income to start companies that would hire middle-class and poor Americans and that would buy goods from small businesses.
This logic flew in the face of history. The rich were taxed at a 70 percent rate during the 1950s and 1960s, a time when U.S. economic equality was at its best ever. The middle class and poor didn't need a tax cut on the rich to obtain a trickle-down increase in earnings.
Four decades later, the notion of Trickle-Down Economics has been discredited. Increasing the wealthy's net worth by cutting their taxes has not benefited the middle class and poor. In fact, those groups are less well off than in the 1970s, before Reagan took office. The only thing the cuts have done is made the rich richer at the expense of the American people and the U.S. economy at large.
Not only is there increasing income inequality between the very rich and everyone else in the United States, but there is growing power-and-influence inequality as well.
Here the finger should be pointed partly at the courts. A number of court decisions have declared that campaign-contribution limits violate the First Amendment because they "limit" free speech - that is, they curtail the voices of those who want to contribute whopping amounts to political campaigns to influence elections.
These decisions have led to the wealthy essentially being able to buy elections.
And the rich have done so, not so much with presidential elections but with congressional, governor and state elections.
Americans have also watched with disgust and cynicism as big corporations have used their overseas presence, and wealthy individuals have used overseas tax havens, to cut their tax bills to zero.
These tax-reducing strategies are beyond the scope of even the most educated people, of course.
Although U.S. politicians have publicly railed against the strategies, they have done nothing to prohibit them and allowed deregulation at an unprecedented rate, increasing cynicism among the rank and file.
The result is that many Americans are now convinced that there is one set of rules for the very rich and another for everyone else.
What should U.S. leaders do to get the country back on track?
A popular sentiment is that the United States should only wage war when an enemy poses an imminent threat or when an important national interest is at stake.
Many also believe America should rethink its brand of capitalism, since the system has led to increasing economic inequality the past four decades. A possible alternative is a capitalism-socialism hybrid - as in Scandinavia - that would improve the lives of everyone, not just the 1 percent.
This would include an overhaul of tax law to impose higher rates on the rich and the closing of loopholes that allow them to shelter much of their income overseas. Another benefit is that it would increase funds for education and health care and provide a safety net for the unemployed and underemployed.
Finally, many Americans believe the United States should change its campaign-finance law once and for all to prevent the wealthy from buying elections.
I believe these changes are coming because more and more Americans are fed up with the status quo.
The question is when they are coming.
It is up to us make our voices heard so these changes occur sooner than later.
Jeff Monson is a political activist and MMA fighter. A regular commentator in the media, he advocates for greater social justice and responsibility.