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, social disorder, belligerent partisan antipathies, extremist violence, failing infrastructure, environmental degradation, and growing threats from cybercrime and microbial diseases, among others. Such a confluence of emerging crises portends an oncoming period of complex challenges.
To be quite clear, the United States is faced with circumstances that have been forming for many decades. They bear little relation to the rampant political conflict and hostilities current at this writing. The problems addressed on these pages are the consequences of advanced industrial culture, and the assumptions, thinking, and misperceptions of the past. They are grounded in a dynamic historical context. While genuine differences of view persist, the constitutional crisis taking place early in the 21st century is influenced by anxieties, tensions, and concerns generated by deteriorating social and economic conditions that have developed over an extended period of time. It should not come as a surprise.
The fear of social disorder and violent extremism is troubling to everyone, but at this writing it is economic and financial instability that threatens the most immediate, personal and profound impact upon citizens. And, it is this that will trigger or exacerbate all others.
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 gradual 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 brought into question. To many the future of the nation as a unified and coherent people appears uncertain. Unexpected crises and growing hardship have brought uncertainty about our identity as a nation. We suddenly find ourselves feeling defensive. A growing antipathy is felt toward Americans who we perceive as differing from ourselves. And so national unity and coherence are weakened at exactly the time we most need the strength of unity. 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 increasingly 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. Why does the United States stand apart as something special in the world? What spirit and principles have we demonstrated?
Perhaps most concerning is the manner in which we do politics. Political community in the United States is, at present, 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 this 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 and agencies welcome and foster corruption. They have long provided humankind with ready means for the expression of our worst characteristics.
There is nothing that requires this to be so. The manner in which we behave politically is a choice based on personal ethics and our 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 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 need to stop thinking?
Without passing judgement, I believe it essential that we consider our present challenges with an awareness of where our perspective and ways of thinking came from. This is our historical birthright and it poses inevitable questions. Among the significant questions, in my view, is the determined “Enlightenment” denial of metaphysical order and the rejection of religion. The foundational religiosity of political order in the Middle Ages was secularized by the Enlightenment. Yet we would be in denial if we fail to recognize the profound manner in which it has survived to embed itself unconsciously in the social and political models of the modern age.
How has the human need for meaning and moral order faltered as it attempts to reconfigure itself in a society bereft of religious grounding? What happens when spiritual awareness and religious ways of thinking are subverted and manipulated by extremist ideologues?
Responding to such questions is beyond the scope of this book. However, we should remain keenly aware of the questions posed by Enlightenment thinking as we face the future – whether we have answers or not. It is important that we have an understanding of how things came to be the way they are.
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 perspectives 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, time-tested dialog.
The objectives of this book are not grand. 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 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, the goal of which is the survival of the United States as a constitutional republic.
The concept of constructive action is presented as the guiding principle in a strategy grounded in dependable, well-organized local communities. This pragmatic strategy is, I believe, the only effective means for bringing America through a long crisis and out the other side – and to build a future we can all respect and believe in.
I will examine the unique capacity of local community to serve as the focal point 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. 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 ensuring effective problem-solving.
To engage meaningfully as self-possessed and trustworthy citizens is to take responsibility for the freedom and order of our place in the world. Those with whom we work closely are those with whom it is possible to build mutual trust and dependability.
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 may be the only viable path to the restoration of justice and stability that we can depend on.
It is clear 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 social and economic viability in a diverse, pluralistic society. A secure community depends 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 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.