Monday, April 16, 2007

Are Wedge Issues a Result of Our Prosperity?

There’s a new Census Bureau report out that measures everything from television ownership to how safe we Americans feel in our homes. The news? Exceedingly good.

The vast number of Americans not only have numerous conveniences (98.8% have a television, 84.7% have a washing machine, 84.6% have air conditioning, 63.1% have a computer) but a great number of us feel pretty safe (92.8% of us feel safe in our homes). Across regions and income levels and ethnicities, Americans have a greater sense of wellbeing now than they did when the study was last conducted in 1992.

Is this why so-called wedge issues play so well these days? Think about it. If most of us are living a pretty good life, what do we want our government to change? We’re not focused on getting food on the table or even getting a television set in our living room. So we focus on more abstract pursuits—matters of morality and culture and what kind of nation we wish to be.

As divisive as abortion or gay marriage may be, they are matters only a well-fed nation would take up passionately. Even the protests over the Iraq war, as deadly serious as that conflict is, are only possible because most of us don’t have to worry about issues closer to home. After all, without a draft or even so much as a wartime tax increase, the Iraq war does not affect many of us on a personal level. Protest of that war is primarily a matter of morality. The anti-war crowd, just like the anti-abortion crowd, wants America to adopt a different ethical course.

This isn’t to say there aren’t closer-to-home issues that need addressing. Our dysfunctional healthcare system weighs heavily on us all. Our convoluted tax code is a national nightmare. Our educational system is not adequately geared for the challenges of the future. But those are deeply complex matters that ignite more headaches than they do anger. There is no simplicity there. No “marriage is between a man and a woman” or “no blood for oil” rhetoric that’s available.

The fact that we as a people are so well off is something to be celebrated. And the fact that we are using our free time to pursue issues of national character and morality is not a bad thing. But eventually we need marshal our collective energies to do more than bicker in blacks and whites. We need some time spent tackling those deeply grey problems.

A nation this well off is certainly capable of anything.

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