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 consequence of advanced industrial culture, and the assumptions, thinking, and misperceptions that come with this past. They are firmly 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 monetary 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 suffering from a continuing 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. New stresses, unexpected crises, and growing hardship have brought uncertainty about who we are as a people and our identity as a nation. We suddenly find ourselves feeling defensive. A growing antipathy is felt toward any 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. Leadership requires a firm basis from which to lead, and something coherent, practical and attractive to offer. 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 brought to the table?
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 understand it?
Without passing judgement, I do 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 need 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. However, 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 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 can bring us through a long crisis and a profound turning point in our national experience. The first several chapters address current and impending challenges. Chapters 3 through 6 focus on strengths and threats to strngth. The ideas of liberty and individualism are addressed in Chapters 7 through 10. 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 well-organized local communities. This pragmatic and disciplined 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 relatively safe environment. It is for this reason that we will need to rise above our differences to the extent necessary for securing safety, meet shared needs, and create coherent community.
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.
There will be no possibility of sharing our values or influencing the perceptions of others without rubbing shoulders. Only a stable platform for civil discourse will allow genuine listening and understanding. This is why community is a function of civilized order.
We have entered an extremely difficult period of time when responsibility for our families, friends and neighbors will depend on how we think, act, and manage our affairs. Local community represents that unique geography where the safety and security of our families can be addressed, where resolving local problems, meeting shared needs, and building trust can become possible. And, it is here that we will learn the skills of civility, cooperation, and decision-making that will be essential if we are to move forward on a broader front as a nation.
Relative comfort and possibly our survival will depend on the recognition that diversity among our neighbors will be essential – diversity of experience, of knowledge, of technical and problem-solving skills. There will be things we need to learn how to do, and we must support one another in this. We will learn how to work together to meet critical needs, how to master small group decision-making, and how to understand the concept of conflict transformation, all of which we will consider later in the book. The necessary resources are available for those who are ready to extend themselves.
I will not minimize the challenges. Most Americans have little or no experience with genuine community. The proposed strategy will be extremely difficult. I expect courage, loyalty and fortitude from Americans. The future will depend on emotional discipline, a more even temperament, and a generous attitude. Elitist presumptions, partisan bludgeoning, and authoritarian force won’t fly.
I challenge you with the conviction that we can do this together. Americans are resilient and resourceful. History is a process of learning from tests, rethinking our questions, and when our ways of living are no longer adequate we trade them in for something more adequate. We will come through a dark time and out the other side stronger and wiser than we went in.
We must find our way in the coming years with grit and grace, navigating through complex and interacting crises. We have entered a transition that can be expected to dominate much of the 21st century. The outcome will depend on our character as a people and our ability to quickly recognize the unprecedented structural changes in social, economic, and material realities that will confront us at every step along the way.
Necessity presents us with stark, uncomfortable choices. We can choose to give free reign to anger and disillusionment, allowing ourselves to be dragged down into demoralized helplessness. Or, we can determine to stand firmly together as a people, rising above our differences to meet the challenges that confront us.
Will we accept the destruction of civil order, a rending of the very fabric of the Republic, and retreat into a state of siege? Or, will we stand bravely together in the face of danger and loss, to recover the vision of dynamic governance and creative potential that Americans have long struggled valiantly to realize?