Daniel T. Rodgers, Princeton historian and author of a new book, Age of Fracture, predicts that within less than a week after the death of Osama bin Laden, “the partisan debates over the budget will be going full blast again, without a trace of the event.”
The battles over the federal budget and the debt ceiling, he says, represent a dramatic outgrowth of the political, economic and intellectual transformations of the last quarter of the 20th century. His book chronicles the unraveling of ideas of community and social responsibility that were common in the United States in the middle of the last century; replacing them, says Rodgers, is a far more atomistic, everyone-for-themselves mentality that stresses the rights of the individual over the interdependence of citizens and their role in society.
The rise of libertarian thought within the Republican party, says Rodgers, has polarized public debate and forged a political weapon out of the threat of national insolvency through a refusal to lift the debt ceiling. The issue, says Rodgers, is the proper role of government in American society. He calls the notion of government that lies at the heart of GOP Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget proposal “reductive, simplistic, and not very helpful.”
At stake is the country’s very vision of itself, says Rodgers.
The Fiscal Times (TFT): How would you compare the bitterly contested budget proposals that Republican Congressman Paul Ryan and President Obama have put forward?
Daniel T. Rodgers (DTR): There is a very interesting contrast in rhetoric. [In the Obama proposal], there is the sense of interdependent responsibilities of those in America, a sense of social contract, of obligations that are part of who we are as a nation, as well as rights and liberties. I think the Ryan understanding of what the nation is about is dominated by a sense that the government and the people are very, very different from one another and the problem is to release government from its oppressive relationships with the people. That’s an understanding of the relationship between society, government and the economy that’s reductive, simplistic and not very helpful in terms of trying to move forward.
TFT: Are you saying that this understanding would end the era of entitlement that began with Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal?
DTR: That’s what is up for grabs. The Ryan proposal is a return to the  debate over Medicare, which was that moment when Democrats in Congress and elsewhere, with great public support, expanded the scope of the New Deal legislation in important ways. This is what is now up for grabs in the current Congress, particularly in the way that Medicare and so-called Obamacare have been injected into the center of the debate. This is really a debate over the proper functions of government. If it were a matter of trimming the budget, we could do that very quickly.
TFT: So you see peril for the vision of government as an important part of the social contract?
DTR: Yes. The most striking thing for an historian is to watch the flirtation with using the debt limit as a political weapon in Congress. This has never happened this way before. It’s understandable how the new congressmen in the House, who came in fired up to do what they thought was the will of the people, want to use any technique possible. But to flirt with something like insolvency—or if that’s too strong a word, any injury to those who have invested in the reputation of the U.S. debt—is really quite remarkable.
TFT: What would you say to Rep. Ryan right now if he were your student?
DTR: The question we ought to be debating, but we’re not, is what do we want our government to do? I would want Paul Ryan to really think more historically about the economy, government and society—to talk about the ways that an increasingly complicated economy has depended on government. The question is not whether government is exceeding its tasks or not, but what tasks we, as a people, want the government to do.
TFT: What common ground do the two budget proposals share?
DTR: Underneath the heated rhetoric, there’s much more consensus than might actually appear. The Ryan budget does not advocate privatization of Social Security. The Obama budget recognizes the need for retrenchment on the deficit side. Both sides recognize these things for practical purposes. But I don’t think we have seen in a long while a budget debate this ideologically heated.
TFT: What accounts for this polarization?
DTR: Most of the shift in this sense has happened in the Republican Party. It’s very interesting to see the ways in which libertarian economic ideas, and also libertarian social ideas, have transformed the modern Republican Party. The party has had a complicated relationship between notions of the public good and notions of the private, atomized individual. What we see now is the working out of the stronger power of that second thread inside the Republican Party.
TFT: How and why has this happened?
DTR: Several things account for it. I think the most important is that the shock of the  election was a result of the shock of the financial crisis. Those who voted the current House of Representatives into power had a deep sense of anxiety about the current economic circumstances. They feared for their own well being. They found themselves frightened by what looked like government action that was incomprehensible in scope. So they voted out of their anxieties. You had the mixture of this frightened, anxious electorate and a new set of more libertarian congressmen, This is what’s fueling the present moment.
TFT: You say in your book that the tragedy of 9/11 briefly reconstituted the sense of public purpose, and that the framework for a vision of America is being put together in a new way. What will this look like?
DTR: It’s clear that the new way has to create a kind of commitment to public life that neither right nor left at the moment has very effectively been able to achieve. I’m talking about a kind of civic responsibility, a sense of caring about the whole, a sense of empathetic relationship with others in the community—a large sense of America as it is now.
TFT: And in this view, what happens?
DTR: People actually participate in all kinds of interesting and effective constructions of social policy. They go to PTA meetings. They serve on boards that help to administer social welfare. They help to make homeless shelters through their churches and other places. These are the nodes of a kind of civic life that we’ve let fall out of our imaginations. So I hope we might find better ways to bring into visibility, into the core of our understanding of who we are as Americans, those actions which Americans do all the time—actions of neighborliness, actions of civic responsibility—and find a way to think about ourselves more strongly.