Politics & Policy

Go-Getters, Gone?

Emigrants Crossing the Plains, F.O.C. Darley, c. 1869 (Library of Congress)

On April 14, 1852, Lloyd and Lodisa Frizzell and their four sons, with “five yoke of cattle one pony & sidesaddle” in tow, departed their home, on the Little Wabash River in southeastern Illinois, for California. Seventy-two days into their voyage, Lodisa would write in her journal (later titled Across the Plains to California in 1852):

That this journey is tiresome, no one will doubt, that it is perilous, the deaths of many testify, and the heart has a thousand missgivings, & the mind is tortured with anxiety, & often as I passed the fresh made graves, I have glanced at the side boards of the waggon, not knowing how soon it might serve as a coffin for some one of us.

They were, at that point, barely halfway.

What inner fire fuels a person to undertake that sort of journey is a mystery. But there is no disputing that the United States only flourished because of it — a point Marco Rubio made Tuesday night, as he ended his campaign for the presidency. The soaring passage is worth quoting in full:

We are a hopeful people, and we have every right to be hopeful. For we in this nation are the descendants of go-getters. In our veins runs the blood of people who gave it all up so we would have the chances they never did. We are all the descendants of someone who made our future the purpose of their lives. We are the descendants of pilgrims. We are the descendants of settlers. We are the descendants of men and women that headed westward in the Great Plains not knowing what awaited them. We are the descendants of slaves who overcame that horrible institution to stake their claim in the American Dream. We are the descendants of immigrants and exiles who knew and believed that they were destined for more, and that there was only one place on earth where that was possible.

It seems, though, that Americans are content to be merely their descendants.

#share#One half of the American electorate long ago indentured itself to the dependable mediocrity of welfare-statism. They went in for the New Deal, the Great Society, now Obamacare — and, if they have their way, they’ll embrace whatever full range of programs enables Julia to move from cradle to grave insulated in a government-funded bubble.

Meanwhile, the other half of the electorate — “rugged individualists,” supposedly, who should have been receptive to aspirational, up-by-the-bootstraps rhetoric — are split between those who want small governments and free markets, and those who apparently don’t much care one way or the other as long as the governments and markets start working for them again, the way they did in the past. If that requires an illiberal executive or artificially manipulating markets (say, in the form of massive tariffs), so be it.

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The desperate-times-desperate-measures approach to politics flaring up on the right is rooted in an overwhelming feeling that things simply are no longer fair. As an Ohio small-businessman explained last week to Pittsburgh Tribune-Review columnist Salena Zito: “We have done absolutely everything that we were supposed to do all of our lives, and our values are looked at as backwards. Our homes are worth less than we paid for them, and there is no great replacement for the jobs we are skilled to perform.” They followed the rules, and the rules didn’t work.

Maybe that’s a legitimate grievance. But what do these voters, who seem to have resigned themselves to lamenting their circumstances, share with Lodisa Frizzell?

After all, there are no born pioneers, settlers, or immigrants. There are only people who decide that nothing is foreordained, that success — that bitch-goddess — resides, if anywhere, only at the far end of many hard choices, and that chasing that possibility is preferable to standing around in misery or penury. Hence the attitude of the pioneer and the immigrant toward the expansive Out There. They imagined things might be better somewhere else, and they had the courage to risk the journey and the discipline to persevere.

But today? In the time it took Lodisa Frizzell and her family to reach California, an unemployed Illinoisan with a beat-up Nissan could have circumnavigated the country multiple times looking for work.

It’s no mistake, in the end, that the symbol of Donald Trump’s appeal is a wall.

It’s no mistake, in the end, that the symbol of Donald Trump’s appeal is a wall. Trump’s supporters feel besieged — not just by illegal immigrants and terrorists, but by invisible economic forces and unfathomable technological systems and cultural rot. They were going diligently about their business when, suddenly, the world changed. But rather than negotiate those changes, they have decided to rally behind a candidate who promises to cordon that world off and set things aright. Little could be more out of keeping with the vigorous American past than the decision, by millions of wound-nursing workers, to outsource the shaping of their own future to the head of state. But most want the going and getting to have been done; they would much prefer to marinate in everything the go-getters got.

The character of a nation is not permanent. Just because we are the descendants of people who performed awesome feats of endurance and creation does not mean that we will manage the same. They chose to strike out. They chose to forge a path. We’re choosing to stay put — and hope that someone else comes along and makes the path smooth again.

Ian Tuttle is a National Review Institute Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism.

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