John Edwards almost got it right in 2004 when he claimed there were “two Americas.”
Where Edwards went wrong was describing the two as the wealthy and poor. In truth, it’s not our income or the size of our bank accounts which separates Americans. Nor is it our race or gender. What divides America is a fundamental disagreement between the rights we are entitled to by virtue of being human, and privileges which must be earned. And, based on the president’s recent State of the Union (SOTU) speech, there can be no doubt as to where Trump stands:
If you are a nation that wants financial aid from the United States. Earn it.
If you are an immigrant who wants to enter the U.S. Earn it.
If you are illegally in the country and want legal status. Earn it.
If you have business off-shore and want a tax break. Earn it.
If you are a State that wants federal infrastructure funds. Earn it.
If you want opportunity — if you want respect and success. Earn it.
It’s a compelling message, one deeply rooted in U.S. history, Christianity, and capitalism. And the president delivered his message with all the authority that comes from first-hand experience.
On the other hand, the Democratic Party’s rebuttal, delivered by Joe Kennedy, stands in sharp contrast to the claim that aid, immigration, and respect must be earned.
According to Kennedy, aid is given because it is the right and humane thing to do. Immigration remains open because America has always stood as a haven for those seeking safety and freedom. And temporary tax windfalls do not remedy an income inequality gap which has enslaved millions of Americans to debt. Some things are not a matter of working harder or better.
This is the ideological difference which divides America in 2018. Aside from the rights specified in the Constitution, we cannot agree on what is an earned benefit and what is a right that every human is entitled to.
If you agree with Trump that everything outside of those things protected by law are earned benefits, then the government’s mission is clear: to open more pathways for people to succeed. The trick is to be specific about how advantages are earned. You wouldn’t accept a job without understanding what was expected of you. Along those lines, what exactly does Pakistan need to do to continue receiving aid from the United States? What do illegal immigrants have to do to remain in the country? What do States need to do to get infrastructure funding? Earning means spelling out terms, time tables and consequences — the kind of details which have been sorely lacking during the first year of the new administration. By Donald Trump’s own admission, he likes to keep people guessing. And while that works when it comes to negotiations, it’s not what’s needed to change behavior. That requires a road map.
On the other hand, if Democrats can’t distinguish between a right and an earned privilege they’re in danger of becoming the party of Millennials — where every kid gets a trophy just for showing up. Entitlement is the antithesis of earning — and frequently the bane of motivation. This is precisely why a productive society is one which is both moral and motivating. We must not be gamed into choosing one over the other.
And one more thing. It’s interesting to note that the debate between the responsibility of governments and those allocated to individuals is nothing new. It dates back more than 2,400 years to ancient Greek philosophers, continues through the Enlightenment period and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 1762 "The Social Contract," and culminates in Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence, wherein he courageously penned the words “the pursuit of happiness.” Not the “guarantee” of happiness. Only the “pursuit.”
To this end, Donald Trump’s philosophy of earning advantages is entirely consistent with the convictions of the founding fathers, just as Joe Kennedy’s response is in lockstep with the morality and compassion they held dear. It is true. There are two Americas. And we need them both.
Rebecca D. Costa is an American sociobiologist and futurist. She is a world-renowned expert in the field of “fast adaptation” in complex environments. Costa’s work has been featured in The New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, SF Chronicle, The Guardian, etc. Her first book, "The Watchman’s Rattle A Radical New Theory of Collapse," was an international bestseller. Her follow-on book, titled "On the Verge," was released in 2017. For more information visit www.rebeccacosta.com. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.
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