On Monday, President Joe Biden signed the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, known as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, into law. It is the type of investment that America made in itself from the 1930s through the 1970s, putting in place some of the world’s most impressive infrastructure, extending public education to everyone, and building the country’s first real middle class.
From WPA-era post offices to the bridges connecting rural communities separated by rivers and lakes; from dams that generate hydro-electric power across the South and West to the interstate highway system; from free public education that was finally available for everyone to the building of the internet we now take for granted, Americans experimented and built with an eye toward the future. In the process, we also built the world’s greatest representative democracy.
In The American Spirit, David McCullough speaks of the sense of building and experimentation that’s at the core of the American story.
“Once, in the last century, in the Cambria Iron Works at Johnstown, Pennsylvania, after working for months to build an unorthodox new machine for steel production, the engineer in charge, John Fritz, said at last, ‘All right boys, let’s start it up and see why it doesn’t work.’ It is with that very American approach to problems that I think we will find our course.”
In this land where the whole idea of our country is an ongoing experiment, what could be more American than building, experimenting, and improving on what we have? This edition of the Weekly Reader features links to writings by Heather Cox Richardson and other historians that focus on the idea of building up our country.
Several recent posts in Richardson’s Letters from an American series suggest that only one party is currently putting in the effort to build America. That’s what makes the new infrastructure bill such an anomaly in what passes for politics today, and points to a new investment in real people, not just Wall Street.
“This bill is more than a needed investment in our roads and bridges. In 1981, in his first Inaugural Address, President Ronald Reagan called for the scaling back of government investment in the country, famously saying: ‘In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.’ After 40 years of cutting government along the lines of that philosophy, this measure signals that the Democrats intend to use the government to invest in ordinary Americans, in the belief that such investment will help the country prosper. …
“It is a historic bill, not least because it recalled times when the government just…functioned, with members of both parties backing the passage of a popular bill that reflected a lot of hard work to hammer out a compromise.
The new law makes the most significant investment in roads and bridges in the past 70 years, the most significant investment in passenger rail in the past 50 years, and the most significant investment in public transit in our nation’s history. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) noted, “This is what can happen when Republicans and Democrats decide we’re going to work together to get something done.”
And yet, Trump loyalists have attacked the bill as ‘Joe Biden’s Communist takeover of America’ and have attacked any Republican who supported it as ‘a traitor to our party, a traitor to their voters and a traitor to our donors.’ Some of the Republicans voting for it have gotten death threats.“
Another recent post in Letters from an American, finds Richardson writing about Donald Trump’s failed attempt to create his own media corporation and suggesting this highlights that “since 1980, the project of the Republican faction that is now in control of the party has been to take things apart rather than to build them.”
Focused on dismantling the government and stopping legislation, they have been engaged in a “negative project, rather than a positive one.” It takes hard work and creativity to build things up…
“When those accustomed to breaking things try to build them, they seem to have little idea of how much work it actually takes. They seem to think that actual accomplishments are there for the taking, and that splashy announcements and dramatic actions can solve intricate problems.”
Building is slow, hard work.
Richardson makes this point again in another post about how corporate America is waking up to the dangers of undermining democracy and what that will do to our economy.
“Still, while there is increasing focus on the attempt to overturn the 2020 election and keep former president Trump in power, there has been little discussion of what the destabilization of our democracy means for the economy. This is no small thing, because since the late nineteenth century, it has been the stability of our nation that has attracted investment. That investment, in turn, has built our economy.
An October 27 article by Courtney Fingar, Ben van der Merwe, and Sebastian Shehadi in Investment Monitor warns that ‘efforts to undermine the integrity of US elections carry a heavy cost for businesses and could weaken investment in the country.’”
Unfortunately, not enough businesses have grasped this fact. As Judd Legum and Rebecca Crosby write at Popular Information, Republican operatives are increasing their push on corporations to break their pledge not to donate funds to the 147 members of Congress who objected to the certification of President Joe Biden’s electoral victory.
“At least 38 major corporations pledged not to donate to any of the 147 Republican objectors and have kept their word. This group has not donated to the Republican objectors directly or indirectly through multi-candidate PACs. …
Another group of 48 companies announced that they had suspended all donations after January 6 and subsequently have not donated to any Republican objectors or multi-candidate committees that support Republican objectors.“
Republican lobbyists are confident the spigot is about to be turned back on. Breaking things — like a pledge — is easy. Building a stable economy, on the other hand, is slow, hard work.
In her blog, lawyer and author Teri Kanefield writes why it is important that Democrats not fight as Republicans do. Among other things, it speaks to the work of building up a democracy.
She is writing in response to those who suggest Democrats fight fire with fire, and she calls on the work of historians of authoritarianism to help provide an answer.
People who want to save the rule of law shouldn’t use the same tactics as those who want to destroy it. According to Professor Steven Levitsky, “The greatest danger to democracy is escalation.” He says: “Escalation rarely ends well” …
“We’ve got to acknowledge the existence of misinformation,” Abrams notes. “And instead of being critical of those who believe in it, we’ve got to be thoughtful about how we dispel it. And right now, the response is more of a “Oh, God, how can you believe that?” as opposed to, ‘OK, do you believe this? Talk to me about why and let me help you think about a different way to frame it.”’
The full interview is well worth the read.
Building is slow, hard work. So let’s get to work.
More to come…