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What happened to 'We're all in this together'?

By Nicolaus Mills, Special to CNN
  • Nicolaus Mills: Americans have lost their sense of shared purpose
  • Partisan divisions preventing Washington from reaching unity on goals, he says
  • In mid-20th century America, there was broad agreement on economic priorities
  • Mills: End of draft, loss of manufacturing jobs reduced consensus on values in U.S.

Editor's note: Nicolaus Mills is a professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of "Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America's Coming of Age as a Superpower."

New York (CNN) -- In the debate over raising the debt ceiling, Democrats and Republicans now agree that failure to act will be a disaster for the country. President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner made their anxiety clear in their dueling speeches to the nation Monday night.

The problem is that beyond this shared fear, there is no consensus among the two parties on the future, no vibrant belief in the idea that we're all in this together.

It has not been possible to get both Democrats and Republicans to look carefully at what happened to the healthy financial surpluses that existed at the end of the Clinton presidency or to agree that fiscal stimulus is a historically proven remedy for jump-starting a lagging economy.

Such sharp divisions are not new to American history. In the 1830s Andrew Jackson encountered bitter opposition to his war on the Second Bank of the United States, and Theodore Roosevelt made enemies with his attacks on turn-of-the-century trusts. But equally relevant for us today is how successful America has been in overcoming the challenges it faced when there was agreement on key issues.

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Monday night President Obama tried to remind Americans of this side of American history when he cited Ronald Reagan on the need for "raising revenue from those who are not now paying their fair share" and then, by way of emphasizing his belief in compromise, quoted Thomas Jefferson's 1801 observation, "Every man cannot have his way in all things."

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The president was not being a Pollyanna in the historical examples he chose. From the 1930s to the 1950s, the leaders of the country wholeheartedly believed we're all in this together, and as a result, they addressed the problem that haunts us today: finding jobs for the unemployed.

In his 1933 Inaugural Address, President Franklin Roosevelt emphasized the "warm courage of national unity" as essential for combating the Great Depression. "We now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other; that we cannot merely take but we must give as well," Roosevelt declared.

Twenty years later, during his confirmation hearings to become secretary of defense in the Eisenhower administration, "Engine Charlie" Wilson, the president of General Motors, expressed the same sentiment in business terms. "For years I thought that what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa," Wilson told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The erosion of an ideal that could make a liberal Democratic president and a conservative Republican businessman sound alike has its modern roots in the 1970s, when America abandoned its requirement of military service and its commitment to manufacturing.

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In 1973, in response to growing protests over the Vietnam War, America shifted to an all-volunteer force. It was a move by the Nixon administration that took the air out of protests by college students opposed to the draft, but it also meant that in the future a large proportion of enlistees would be drawn from families that could not afford college.

America's willingness to let manufacturing go overseas (without a meaningful attempt by the government to pursue trade and tax policies to help American workers) had a similar divisive effect.

The loss of an estimated 30 million to 50 million jobs through plant closings, relocations and outsourcing began a downward spiral that we have still not recovered from. In 1971 the United States imported more than it exported for the first time in the 20th century, and since that time our imports have only grown while all too many of our factories remain unused.

Since the 1970s these two seismic breaks in American society have become normalized in ways that continue to work against the middle class and the poor.

In the 1980s Jack Welch, the head of General Electric, set the pattern for CEOs across the country when he won honors for himself by dropping 130,000 of GE's 400,000 workers, and in the 1990s Bill Clinton assured his re-election and changed the Democratic Party by getting tough with welfare recipients, cutting food stamps for unemployed adults without children and imposing a five-year time limit on how long a family can receive payments from the government.

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The terrorist attacks of 2001 offered the country a chance to put a halt to divisions that targeted the most vulnerable members of American society. But instead of re-introducing the draft during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the Bush administration continued relying on an all-volunteer military, making longer, more frequent combat tours the rule.

On the home front the Bush administration followed a similar line, taking the country in the opposite direction Franklin Roosevelt chose in 1942 when early in World War II he declared, "War makes sacrifice a privilege." Rather than raise taxes during the Iraq war, President Bush lowered them.

When just days after 9/11 he was asked by a reporter how much sacrifice ordinary Americans should be expected to make in the future, Bush replied, "Our hope, of course, is that they make no sacrifice whatsoever. We would like to see life return to normal in America."

Small wonder then that the current debt-ceiling negotiations have reached such an impasse. The last 40 years have not only undermined the idea that we're all in this together, they have made it easier for voters to be cynical about Washington politics.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Nicolaus Mills.

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