Accelerating change has been apparent in the United States for most of our lives. Today the consequences are profound. The coronavirus pandemic has masked this preexisting reality. Can we take the long view and try to understand the big picture? Surely, we should not allow the pandemic, or anything else, to distract or confuse us. But the truth is complex. The reality is not simple.
We are living in a context steeped in history and participating in a significant chapter of the American story. It is a story set in a dangerous world. During the 20th century the world experienced unprecedented turbulence. Global population grew from 1.55 billion in 1900 to 6.5 billion in 2000, and it is rapidly approaching 8 billion at this writing.[i] The same century saw more than 100 million human beings slaughtered by human hands. Unfortunately, these numbers cannot be wished away.
At first largely insulated by two major oceans, Americans have been increasingly influenced by the world around us. Through digital connectivity, a seamless global monetary system dominated by the US dollar, and ease of travel, our lives are now intimately related in some way to almost everything happening to the human race.
A great many American lives have been lost in foreign wars, and our readiness for war has developed in lockstep with the appalling destructiveness of modern weaponry. But until recently most Americans have watched the bloodshed from the sidelines. The generations born in the decades following the Second World War and the Korean War experienced relative prosperity. However, national polling reported a steady waning of trust in government throughout this time. Middle class confidence in the “American dream” persisted, but as the 21st century approached it had become apparent that something was different. Working Americans suffered material blows one after another in the final years of the last century. The economy was faltering.
As manufacturing fled overseas, relatively comfortable and predictable lives evaporated with unexpected suddenness. The financial crisis in 2008 struck with a finality that devastated much of the American middle class, and with it the strength of the consumer economy. Massive public, corporate, and private indebtedness, and the vulnerabilities of a credit-based monetary system, have made an economic recovery unlikely without a heart-breaking transition.
As if this were not enough, a multitude of additional social crises and economic headwinds have appeared clearly on the horizon. The economic and human cost of irreversible climate change now looms large. Drought, massive wildfires, intense storms, and severely disrupted global weather patterns have come to define a new normal. Natural disasters and collapsing economies around the world have presented us with humanitarian crises on our doorstep. And our own deteriorating public infrastructure may imply the same here at home.
Is there a bottom line? During a period of several decades, vast numbers of Americans have lost confidence in the future and their most cherished expectations. Confronted by challenges, millions of Americans have found their material lives slipping from their hands. The social and political consequences have been as profound as the economic losses that precipitated them. And nothing has been so damaging as the loss of trust.
Such a confluence of challenges is unprecedented. It should be no surprise that mounting anxiety should lead to increasing divisiveness and the belligerence of partisan antipathies. A factionalism steeped in suspicion and distrust now resists political collaboration.
What is to be done?
Faced with hardships, uncertainties, and accumulating material losses, our lives are thrown into question. It is in just such challenging circumstances that we must turn to what matters most to us—the values and principles and personal virtues that will keep our minds and souls and communities intact. These are the bases of personal identity and inner moral strength, easily corrupted and befouled by an outwardly combative attitude.
The courage to respond to opposition, enmity or distrust with dignity and grace will not compromise ones’ principles. Rather, it can move us gradually toward constructive engagement and practical problem-solving. Where material devastation and emotional pain abound, only a calm integrity can support clear thinking and substantive purpose. Never has this been so important, whether it be for safety or sanity or the groundwork for negotiating the future.
The objectives of this book are not grand. I will propose a strategically coherent path forward, and suggest qualities of character, attitude, and practical responsibility that can prepare Americans to meet converging crises with our dignity and morale intact.
The book comes to you in two parts. The first will review aspects of the history and ideas that have contributed either to our strength as a nation or to our difficulties. I offer them objectively, as a context, without partisan judgment. The second half of the book offers a strategic proposal intended to support clear thinking and an independent, self-sufficient order for local communities. Without this, I am convinced that the future will remain mired in helplessness.
Some will be disappointed that I do not present political arguments or explicit criticism. This is not my purpose. There is no shortage of hard-wired politicians and adamant moralists ready to assert themselves. Tensions are high, misinformation rampant, and none of us are in a position to impose our beliefs on others. What we do have need of is the practical means for honest communication and pragmatic problem-solving. Basic necessities such as food security, clean water, and essential utilities, may force us to learn how to do what needs to be done. Learning how to create functional communities will soon become a critical felt-need.
We are all concerned about problems and issues that are fundamental and significant. But, resorting to manipulative governance or violent coercion will tear down and destroy any hope for the security. We must find a way to manage our affairs and plan for the future in a manner that can actually get us where we want to go—without endangering the safety of our families and communities or destroying the integrity of the United States as a constitutional republic.
Anxiety gnaws at self-confidence. We all wish for a time when we can find safety and address needs in an orderly manner. There is only one place in which this will be possible amidst deepening disorder: The local neighborhood and community in which we live.
I will argue here that constructive efforts in this direction may well determine the viability of survival itself, given extreme circumstances. And, if we wish to survive with our national heritage intact, it would be wise to consider our historical context. I suggest this because I believe it will provide a foundation for thinking realistically. I will outline issues and popular thinking that have played a role in bringing America to where we now find ourselves. My observations might seem overly simplistic to some. However, my purpose is to draw attention to significant issues for your consideration rather than to resolve them.
I believe currently conflicted views and perceptions are too emotionally charged for discussion of social or political philosophy to be constructive. What is essential, in my view, is that we find a way forward that supports an honest and practical dialogue that can secure safety, security, and effective problem-solving. Among my primary concerns are a number of unexamined and perhaps unconscious assumptions we have inherited from the past. Let’s try to look at them dispassionately. The divisive antipathies we face today are influenced by philosophical inconsistencies, ethical dilemmas, and a complicated history we would do well to consider. I have attempted to acknowledge conflicts and complexities while refraining from political bias. Whatever your views, if I can simply be helpful in enlarging your field of vision, I will have done my job.
A Way Forward
The strategy presented in the second half of the book is not a quick fix. We have a long hard road ahead. I have attempted to be realistic and to confront necessity with clear-eyed honesty. Some readers will think me hopelessly idealistic, and I understand this. Unfortunately, I believe we have no choice. I am offering a way forward which respects American character and ideals, and challenges the durability of our loyalty, commitment and discipline. It is presented here with reasoned argument and practical guidance.
I am quite aware of the difficulties this course of action will entail and the personal stamina and determination it will require. Some readers will doubt its practicality. Those who feel hopeless will, never-the-less, always have a choice: You can wait and watch as disaster unfolds, or you can embrace the course of action initiated here. Yes, it will be a long fight, and you can make the choice at any time. Your personal commitment as a citizen might not seem significant in the face of historic extremes, but it will provide a basis for seeking meaningful purpose—and the opportunity to contribute to a future you can honor and believe in.
Those who are especially concerned about physical safety or survival may find the concept most attractive. However, my intention is to carry us forward well beyond our current challenges. Ultimately, in my view, an authentic American future, which is unalterably pluralistic, can be reached in no other way.
The proposal is offered to loyal Americans of every viewpoint who wish for well-being in the soul of America. It is inspired by the vision and values embodied in the United States Constitution, which provides a rational moral and philosophical standard for navigating through any storm. Whatever our views and concerns at this time of great physical and emotional turmoil, it is the Constitution which provides the foundation for stability and the framework for initiating a genuinely American future.
Safe and orderly outcomes will depend on our ability to engage with one another honestly and without defensiveness. While political differences are natural and inevitable, threats and disruptions to constitutional governance, as set clearly in place by the Founders, will only subvert a genuinely American course forward. Our discontents are complicated. They are intensified by radically deteriorating social and economic conditions, as well as the ongoing abdication of ethical values and moral responsibility. This should be a concern for everyone, regardless of our political orientation.
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 unseemly, dishonest, and lacking nobility in character, quality or purpose. Our unquestioning acceptance of such decadence comes with the distorted consciousness of modernity. There are good people in public service, well-meaning, ethical and 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 societal acquiescence.
This book will challenge the way you think about political order. Like 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 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 initiated by the European Enlightenment. Since that time the United States has been an evolving expression of this way of thinking. We take this for granted, but do we understand it?
The future of the nation as a unified and coherent people appears uncertain to many of us. Unexpected crises, civil instability, and growing hardship have created uncertainty about our identity as a nation. We find ourselves suddenly feeling defensive. Mistrust has dominated American society and our politics. It has curbed constructive endeavor for a long time. Let’s ask ourselves, please, to consider how distrust weakens our ability to seek objective accuracy—to see and understand ‘the big picture’. I make a personal request to readers here! Distrust might be reasonable, but we don’t need it to disrupt clear thinking.
As aware as I am of the high level of distrust among my fellow citizens, I can only do my best to illuminate the path ahead. Interpretation and judgment must remain with you, the American people. An American future that is true to our ideals can only emerge through genuinely inquisitive dialogue. The future will remain crippled until we take on the hard work of developing the genuine relational dialogue required of a pluralistic society. A secure society will necessarily depend on our learning how to listen effectively, to encourage and influence and to forge a degree of functional unity amidst our differences—to the extent possible.
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.
This writer is 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 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, as I will make repeatedly clear. The United States was conceived as a pluralistic society, and it will ever remain so. Our values are many and complicated and often conflicting. Human beings have never agreed on values. Like all differences, values can only be identified and negotiated through open interpersonal and time-tested dialogue.
Values are not casual ideas or choices; many are deeply rooted in our interests, needs, and culture. Values are learned and lived in context, and often unconsciously. If we are to live and work together, certain essential values must be shared; others will challenge our patience but not our personal integrity. No community, nation, or culture will find consensus regarding values. Human beings have never agreed about values. But mature adults can learn to live with differences without compromising ourselves—and without losing sight of the humanity of our fellows. We will think about how to manage this later in the book.
Nowhere on these pages will the reader find any suggestion that we compromise our values, views, or opinions. Rather than alter our views, we should discipline the manner in which we utilize them. It is important that we maintain the integrity of our personal identity while further developing the skills of living and working together. 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.
If we respect the concept of freedom we must learn how to work within its’ constraints, to influence one another when possible and otherwise to live together with grace and dignity. A future that respects our views as independent thinkers and responsible citizens will allow constructive ideas to flourish, stimulate productivity, and expand our knowledge and creativity.
[i] Max Roser, et al., Our World in Data, see: ourworldindata.org/world-population-growth