Americans like to think of themselves as bold. It was boldness that gave birth to the country, built it, protected it from external threat and rescued it in times of domestic turbulence. Americans are proud of dreaming big and taking big chances, and as far as individual feats go, it may be true.
But the larger truth is that, foreign military adventurism aside, the American government hasn't really acted boldly since the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. Americans talk a lot about change during elections, but they recoil from action once the election is over. An economic stimulus? Make sure it is a small one. Healthcare reform? Half measures. Climate change legislation? No action at all. We blame politics, deficits and bad leadership, when perhaps we should be blaming our national genes.
When the United States was founded, its leadership class was more or less equally divided between Federalists who believed in a vigorous national government and Republicans who emphasized decentralization. The former looked toward shaping an expanding nation in a changing world. The latter looked toward conserving a pastoral way of life that the changing world threatened. Thus action and inaction, change and conservation were posited as two sides of the American enterprise.
Throughout the 19th century, during America's adolescence, the country vacillated between these poles. The Whigs and their successors, the Republicans, were the proponents of boldness — forming a national bank, a national university, a national rail system, a homestead act — chiefly as a way to facilitate mercantile interests. The Democrats, descended from Thomas Jefferson's old Republicans, remained wary.
By the early 20th century, the roles had been largely reversed, at least at the national level. It was the Democrats, infused with energy from populism, progressivism and a general mistrust of big business, who proposed new initiatives. The Republicans — with the exception that proves the rule, Teddy Roosevelt — advocated maintaining the status quo. Eventually there emerged a governing pattern — forward, stand pat, forward, stand pat — with Democrats generally doing the moving forward and Republicans immobile.
But even this overstates the case for governmental boldness.
Republicans became America's default party as early as the 1890s. Since then, Democrats have only been elected to the presidency when Republicans screwed up: Taft by dividing his party, Hoover with his Depression, Eisenhower with his recession, Nixon with Watergate, George H.W. Bush with his recession and George W. Bush with practically everything. Democrats are tapped to ride to the rescue, but this has largely been more a matter of throwing out the rascals than of empowering action.
The two 20th century exceptions have been FDR and LBJ. The New Deal and the Great Society were bold, progressive movements, but they were achieved only as a result of disaster — in the first case, a convulsive Depression; in the second, the assassination of JFK.
Americans wanted action. They'd ask questions later.
So why hasn't the Great Recession, another deep convulsion, created an equal cry for government activism? The need for the Democratic cavalry to clean up the Republican mess could hardly seem clearer. And that was precisely why Barack Obama was elected: to act boldly. But no sooner did he enter office than the old chants of fearfulness reverberated across the country: An economic rescue would only ratchet up the deficit; regulation of Wall Street would destroy Wall Street; healthcare reform would result in socialism.
What happened to our resolve? Nothing really. Americans just reverted to form.
It's easy to blame Republicans and their long, relentless campaign asserting that any action besides cutting taxes is dangerous, and one wouldn't be entirely wrong to do so. Rank-and-file Democrats, after all, still tell pollsters they would opt for a bolder stimulus package and more extensive healthcare reform. One could also blame demographic changes that have further empowered Republicans in parts of the country that had always resisted change.
But the Republicans' — and the "tea partyers'" — successes only underscore how much of the nation is terrified by any action whatsoever. For better or worse, Americans are a timorous bunch who only press their government to act when they think national security is at stake. That's how Eisenhower sold the interstate highway system, how LBJ sold Vietnam and how George W. Bush sold the Iraq War. When we aren't defending ourselves, government just can't seem to muster a consensus to do much of anything.
In the end, our history tells us that the New Deal and the Great Society were essentially aberrations in the larger American saga of governmental timidity. The fear of not doing something has occasionally outweighed the national inclination not to act. But only rarely, and, it has become obvious, not now.