Americans are experiencing a critical period of time in the first half of the 21st century, arguably as profound as any in our history. A growing number of menacing crises have emerged into view during recent decades. Economic instability, social disorder, belligerent partisan antipathies, and environmental degradation threaten the future and challenge our resilience as a society. Such a confluence of challenges is unprecedented. More recently a viral pandemic precipitated a dramatic worsening of immediate conditions and exacerbated every controversy.
I will argue here that our circumstances call for realistic understanding in historical context. We are confronted with fundamental questions that predate the partisan conflict current at this writing. Among the concerns addressed on these pages are a number of unexamined assumptions we have inherited from the past. Both the divisive antipathies and practical challenges we face are influenced by philosophical inconsistencies, ethical dilemmas, and a convoluted history we would do well to recognize. And, it is especially important that we come to understand the meaning and interdependence of freedom and responsibility, ideas which have long been avowed, but have never been clearly defined.
In the first half of the book, I will outline some history, including both ideas and social turmoil that appear significant in light of the knotty place in which we find ourselves today. My observations will seem overly simplistic to some, but my purpose is to draw attention to significant issues for your consideration, rather than to resolve them. I have attempted to acknowledge conflicts and complexities that bear on the challenges before us while refraining from political debate.
In the second half of the book, I will propose a strategy to take us forward that both acknowledges and transcends partisan differences. Some readers will think me hopelessly idealistic, and I understand this. However, I believe we have no choice. I am offering a strategy that respects American character and ideals, and challenges the durability of our commitment and discipline. It is supported with rational reasoning and practical guidance.
I am very aware of the difficulties this course entails and the stamina and determination it will require. I believe the United States has entered a downward spiral with extremely destructive potential. Many readers will doubt the viability or effectiveness of the course of action presented here, and this is rational. Those who feel hopeless about finding a way out will, never-the-less, always have a choice. You can wait and watch as disaster unfolds, or you can investigate the endeavor initiated here. Yes, it will be a long fight, and you can make the choice at any time. A personal commitment might not seem significant in the face of historic extremes, but it will provide you with the basis for seeking meaningful purpose and the opportunity to contribute to a future you can honor and believe in.
I expect individuals and families concerned about physical safety or survival may find the concept especially attractive. However, my intention is to carry us forward well beyond our current challenges. Ultimately, in my view, an authentic American future can be reached in no other way.
This book is offered to loyal Americans of every viewpoint who wish for order and well-being in the soul of America. It is inspired by the vision and values embodied in the United States Constitution. Whatever our views and concerns at this time of great physical and emotional turmoil, it is the Constitution that provides the foundation for stability and the framework for initiating a future we can respect and believe in. To rise above our differences does not require compromising principles or opinions. Rather, it reflects a commitment to justice, civil order, and the rule of law.
A safe and prosperous future will depend on the ability to engage with one another honestly and productively. While political differences are natural and inevitable, threats and disruptions to constitutional governance should be a concern for everyone. Our discontents are complicated. They are intensified by radically deteriorating social and economic conditions, as well as the widespread abdication of ethical values and moral responsibility.
That social and political conflict has erupted repeatedly in the United States should come as no surprise. A contentious national character is the function of a humanity largely freed from constraint by an elegantly simplified and streamlined constitution. However, the necessity for virtue ethics and moral responsibility is clear. And, the potential for social disorder and violent extremism is often present. The economic instability attributable to the American traditions of myopic fiscal mismanagement and unabashed extremes of wealth and poverty, promise immense potential damage. Financial instability and economic injustice are likely to precipitate and exacerbate every other 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 steady economic degradation for several decades at this writing. This is not a political view, but an observation of fact. In addition, the financial crisis of 2008 pitched much of the American middle class suddenly into poverty as well. 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, civil 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. This has been directed with growing hostility toward people of color and recent immigrants. Rural America feels increasingly, and uncomfortably, dominated by the growing influence of urban America. Open expressions of racism, as well as challenges to systemic racism, have emerged to dominate public discourse. National cohesion remains weakened at a time when crises call for solid grounding and moral strength. 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 require that we have a sense of who we are. An awareness of historical context will be helpful. 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, 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 our sense of integrity. 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 brought about 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?
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. The United States was conceived as a pluralistic society, and it will ever remain so. Our shared values are many, and can only be identified and defended through open interpersonal and time-tested dialogue.
Without passing judgement, I believe it useful to consider our present challenges with an awareness of where our views and ways of thinking came from. As Americans our heritage is grounded in history, and this poses inevitable questions. Among the most significant, in my view, are assumptions regarding the domination of nature, the denial of metaphysical order, and the rejection of religious belief, all of which came with Enlightenment thinking. The civil society and social order of the high Middle Ages was deconstructed and secularized by the Enlightenment. However, when we fail to recognize the moral foundations of Judeo-Christian consciousness embedded in the intellectual mindset of the present age we are in denial.
How has the human need for meaning and moral order faltered as it attempts to reconfigure itself in a society bereft of spiritual grounding? And, in a world dominated by digital communications and media, what happens if we remain unaware that we are being manipulated by political partisans or extremist ideologues?
Responding to such questions is beyond the scope of this book. However, we would do well to remain alert to these dangers, and, in particular, to recognize the assumptions and illusions we have inherited from the past. Awareness does not require that we have all the answers. It is important that we try to understand how things came to be the way they are.
I hope you will find the following pages helpful. My purpose here is neither analytical nor interpretive. The partisan reader may think my observations simplistic—or might infer judgments where none are intended. I come to you in an effort to inspire reflective thinking and 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. However, 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.
Why is this such a challenge? As human beings we naturally desire knowledge. Yet, our access to knowledge is filtered through personal expectations and assumptions. We can only know what we are prepared to accept. 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 clearer thinking about the assumptions and belief structures that hold us back from honoring the genuine loyalty and commitment of our fellow citizens—those who may differ from us in various ways.
The objectives of this book are not grand. As you can see, however, they are not easy. I will suggest qualities of character, attitude, and responsibility that can allow Americans to overcome multiple crises with our 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, followed by practical guidance about how to proceed.
I will examine the unique capacity of local 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 safety. 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 local problem-solving.
It is apparent that our concept of community needs to change. This is discussed in Chapter 10. Too often “community” in America means a group of like-minded people intent on preaching, asserting, admonishing, or proclaiming. As a free country this will get us nowhere. Neither will we find safety or ultimate prosperity by retreating in fear behind the wall of a self-imposed state of siege. Nothing will change if we insist on confrontation.
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, influence, and attract, and, in short, to forge a degree of functional unity amidst the turmoil around us.
Nowhere on these pages will the reader find any suggestion that we compromise our values or personal opinions. Rather than abandon 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 learning the skills of living and working effectively with others. 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. Values are learned and lived in context, and often unconsciously. If we are to live together, certain essential values must be shared; others will challenge our patience but not our personal integrity. No community, nation, or culture will share a consensus regarding values. This is a reality of human nature. We will think about how to deal with it in Chapters 11 through 14.
It is possible to accept differences without compromising ourselves, to respect the dignity of others, and to defend the freedom to think and believe what we will. 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, stimulate productivity, and expand our knowledge and creativity.