President George W. Bush often spoke of “the soft tyranny of low expectations”. He was referring to a problem endemic, in his view, among schools with a high percentage of students from poor families.
This problem seems to have spread. In some important respects, very little is expected of most of our citizens and residents. The United States has been fighting two wars that began shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks, but the government prosecuting them neither requires residents to pay higher taxes nor subjects them to compulsory military service. We are not at war as a nation. The military and military families bear the pain and loss of war, not the people at large, of whom no such sacrifice is expected.
Even taking into account the efforts to combat “voter fraud” through heightened ID requirements and shortened early voting windows, voting has gotten much easier in recent years. In many jurisdictions it’s no longer necessary to carve out time from a busy Tuesday to get to the local polling place. Of the electorate, no such sacrifice is expected.
I’m not advocating either for or against higher taxes, the re-imposition of the draft, or provisions for early and by-mail voting. I am wondering, though, if we’re slowly and almost imperceptibly falling under the yoke of a soft tyranny of low expectations. Self-government is indissolubly linked to the willingness of its constituents to make sacrifices, small and large. If little is expected the link grows attenuated, and democracy itself is at risk.
The Episcopal Church embraces our nation’s heritage of self-government. During stewardship season, beginning this month, the church asks its people, entrusted with its governance, to consider and formally commit to sacrifices of treasure, and also time and talent, for the church’s benefit. It’s not only the church’s financial well-being, but the broader health of individual and community alike, that depends on a widespread willingness to do so.