Americans today face a critical moment in time, arguably as profound as any in our history. A growing concentration of threatening concerns are presenting themselves. These include economic instability, generalized social disorder, belligerent partisan antipathies, failing infrastructure, environmental degradation, and growing threats from cybercrime and microbial diseases, among others. Such a confluence of emerging crises foreshadows an unprecedented oncoming complex of challenges.
Present circumstances have, however, been developing for a long time. We are confronted with fundamental questions that bear little relation to the partisan conflict current at this writing. Among the concerns addressed on these pages are the prolonged degradation of social order, the eclipse of civil society by mass society, and a number of unexamined assumptions we have inherited from the past. It is especially important that we think about the meaning and interdependence of freedom and responsibility.
While valid differences of political perspective and philosophy are inevitable, threats to constitutional governance should be a concern for everyone. Our discontents are complicated and intensified by radically deteriorating social and economic conditions, as well as the widespread abdication of ethical values and moral responsibility.
That our challenges have developed over an extended period of time and should come as no surprise. The fear of social disorder and violent extremism is troubling to everyone, but at this writing it is economic instability and a long history of fiscal myopia and mismanagement that threaten the most immediate and profound social impact. And, it is this that will ultimately trigger or exacerbate every approaching crisis.
It is not an exaggeration to say that working people, those who put the rubber to the road in the real world, have been experiencing economic degradation for a long time. For Americans of all persuasions, expectations for the future have steadily eroded. Freedom of opportunity, social justice, a comfortable retirement, and our ability to seek personal goals have all been thrown into question.
To many the future of the nation as a unified and coherent people appears uncertain. Unexpected crises, social instability, and growing hardship have created uncertainty about our identity as a nation. We find ourselves suddenly feeling defensive. A growing antipathy is felt toward those other Americans who we perceive as differing from ourselves. And so national cohesion is weakened at exactly the time we most need supportive partners and collaborators. Anxiety gnaws at self-confidence.
We are experiencing the present adversity as an American crisis, and it is. But it is taking place in the context of a great turning point in the human story, a transitional period when an unprecedented number of monumental crises are converging across the globe. Our own crisis is inextricably intertwined with the affairs of the world.
Never has there been a greater need for the stability of the American vision.
Pivotal questions concerning the meaning of civilizational progress are confronting the world with disruptive effect. If the United States is to serve in a constructive leadership role, it will clearly require that we have a coherent sense of who we are. An awareness of historical context is necessary. In what way does the United States stand apart as something special in the world? What spirit and principles have we demonstrated? We will think about this in the first half of the book.
Perhaps most concerning is the manner in which we do politics. Political community in the United States is severely challenged. Politics has long been understood as inevitably unseemly, dishonest, and lacking nobility in character, quality or purpose. This is hardly new. Our unquestioning acceptance of such decadence comes with the distorted consciousness of modernity. There are good people in public service, well-meaning, moral and deeply committed. However, as we all know, political institutions welcome and foster corruption. They have long provided humankind with ready means for the expression of our worst inclinations.
There is nothing that requires this to be so. The manner in which we behave politically is a choice based on personal ethics and sense of integrity. This book will challenge the way you think about political order. Like Athenian democracy in ancient Greece, America is an example of the way a new consciousness and a new society can erupt into history suddenly, distinguishing itself conceptually from the past with new ideas and a new narrative. The United States came into being late in the 18th century at the culmination of the Age of Enlightenment in Europe. Our history and national consciousness have been influenced profoundly by the radical transition in social, political, and scientific perspective brought about by Enlightenment thinking. For some 200 years, American society has been an evolving expression of this way of thinking. We take this for granted, but do we understand it?
I am a ninth generation white American with a deep love for this country. While I will neither reveal nor emphasize my religious faith, most readers will recognize that I am a religious person. Many of you, however, are not religiously inclined, and it is my intention to present ideas, propositions and principles that every American might find practical and compelling. Explicitly religious or metaphysical observations are offered in only a few places. Neither will I support politically partisan views here. The United States was conceived as a diverse pluralistic society, and it will remain so. Shared values and national goals can only be determined through open interpersonal and time-tested dialog.
Without passing judgement, I believe it is useful to consider our present challenges with an awareness of where our perspective and ways of thinking came from. As Americans our heritage is grounded in history, and it poses inevitable questions. Among the most significant, in my view, are assumptions regarding the domination of nature, and the denial of metaphysical order and the rejection of religion, both of which were firmly established in Enlightenment thinking. The civil society and social order of the high Middle Ages was deconstructed and secularized by the Enlightenment. Yet we would be in denial if we fail to recognize the profound manner in which the moral foundations of Judeo-Christian consciousness survived to influence the intellectual mindset of the present age.
How has the human need for meaning and moral order faltered as it attempts to reconfigure itself in a society bereft of spiritual grounding? What happens when we are unaware that our thinking has been manipulated by dishonest ideologues?
Responding to such questions is beyond the scope of this book. However, we would do well to remain alert to such dangers, and, in particular, to recognize the assumptions and illusions we have inherited from the past—whether we have answers or not. It is important that we have an understanding of how things came to be the way they are.
My purpose here is neither analytical or interpretive. The partisan reader may think the observations offered on the following pages, most of them in historical context, are simplistic—or infer judgments where none are intended. I come to you for the sole purpose of inspiring reflective thinking and greater objectivity. As aware as I am of the high level of distrust among my fellow citizens, I can only do my best to serve the truth. But interpretation and judgment must remain with you, the American people. An American future that is true to our ideals can only emerge with genuine dialog.
Why is this such a challenge in the 21st century? As human beings we naturally desire knowledge. Yet, our access to knowledge can only be gained through the filter of personal expectations and assumptions. We can only know what we are prepared to know. This makes us vulnerable to manipulative forces in the world around us. It is my intention to gently disrupt this limitation in a manner that encourages clear thinking about the unconscious belief structures that hold us back from honoring the genuine loyalty and commitment of our fellow citizens despite our differences.
The objectives of this book are not grand. As you can see, however, they are not easy. My intention is to suggest qualities of character, attitude, and responsibility that will allow Americans to overcome multiple crises with our vision and morale intact. The first several chapters address current and impending challenges. Chapters 3 through 6 focus on strengths and threats to our strength. The concepts of liberty and individualism are addressed in Chapters 7 through 9. I then propose a strategic course of action in the second half of the book, followed by some practical thinking about how to proceed.
The concept of constructive action is presented as a guiding principle in a pragmatic strategy based on the importance of dependable community as we look to the future. This strategy is, I believe, the only effective means for bringing America through a long crisis and out the other side. Local communities are the only effective place to engage in meaningful dialog, to think seek safety in an increasingly dangerous world, and to build a future we can respect and believe in.
I will examine the unique capacity of communities to serve as the foundation for security and problem-solving in the midst of social disorder and economic disarray. It is only in collaboration with our neighbors that we can create a safe environment. And it is for this reason that we will need to rise above our differences to the extent necessary for securing safety, meeting shared needs, and allowing effective problem-solving.
To engage with one another meaningfully as self-possessed and trustworthy citizens is to take responsibility for the freedom and order of our place in the world. This is an extremely challenging proposition, and the effort to bring it fully to fruition will require years of determined effort. However, I do not believe we have a choice.
It is apparent that our concept of community has to change. This is a plan of action that can go nowhere unless and until we agree on a realistic understanding of what is required. Too often “community” in America means a group of like-minded people intent on preaching, asserting, admonishing, or proclaiming. As a free and united democratic society this will get us nowhere. Neither will we find safety or ultimate prosperity by retreating in fear behind the walls of a self-imposed state of siege. Nothing will change if we insist on confrontation rather than understanding. The future will remain crippled until we take on the hard work of building genuine relational dialog required in a pluralistic society. A secure society will necessarily depend on our learning how to listen effectively, to encourage and attract, and, in short, to forge a degree of functional unity amidst diversity and the turmoil around us. So it is that the nation depends on true community.
Nowhere on these pages will the reader find any suggestion that we compromise our values or relinquish personal views. Rather than abandon our values and views, we should discipline the manner in which we utilize them. It is important that we maintain the integrity of our personal identity while learning the skills of living and working together effectively. Each of us carries a perspective that contributes to the character and wisdom of the whole – but which can only be made practical if we refrain from allowing ego or emotion to overwhelm the context in which we find ourselves.
Values are not casual ideas or choices; many are deeply rooted in our interests, needs, and culture. If we are to live together, certain essential values must be shared; others will challenge our patience, but not our personal integrity. We will never agree on all our values. This is a reality of the human condition. We must learn how to work with this, to influence one another when possible, and to live together with grace and charity.
A future that respects our views as independent thinkers and responsible citizens will allow constructive ideas to flourish and stimulate dialog. A future that instead suppresses inquisitive thinking and engaged dialog will obstruct democracy and cripple effective governance. The championing of responsible liberty begins in our own hearts—and in our readiness to engage.