As I look back over my 76 years of life, I see many highlights, some significant stumbles and very few regrets. Looking forward into the future, the future my four grandchildren will inherit from my generation, “I have one haunting fear: the state of the nation my generation will leave to them is a country in decline.”
These words are from the introduction to my 2013 book, The Idea of America: Are the Principles Eroding or Enduring? Now, seven years after that was written, my fear remains ever present, imbedded in my psyche.
Conceptually, the founding principles of equality, freedom and justice are as enduring today as they were when the nation was launched, but we seem to have forgotten their meaning in the midst of the present-day political upheaval. Our continued neglect will cause a lasting erosion of the pillars on which this nation was built.
I think it is time to take a thought from Alexis de Tocqueville’s introduction to his book, Democracy in America: “…in writing it I did not mean to either serve or to contest any party. I undertook to see not differently, but further than the parties. While they are occupied with the next day, I wanted to ponder the future.”
And that is where we should start, pondering the future. Focusing on the moment is depressing and can seem almost hopeless. The nation is mired in the tangle of multiple but interlocking crises: a pandemic that is claiming thousands of lives, disrupting families and damaging the economy; racism; recession; environmental destruction; economic and social inequality; the decline of public education; and an infrastructure that is falling apart.
A xenophobic nationalism at the highest levels of government has eroded America’s standing as a world leader and severely damaged relationships with allies. Our national politics has been stymied by greed for power and money, and desperately needed solutions have been buried in political infighting and a refusal to compromise. We seem to have abandoned the quest for common good.
Each of the issues in the web of interlocking crises is in itself daunting, but if we tried to approach each one separately, we would dissolve into factions and competing interest groups each time one came up for discussion—over and over and over and over again. Each of the individual debates would be time consuming as constituencies girded for battle.
The urgency of the fix requires that we see the interlocking issues as a single, comprehensive whole in which action on one affects the others. This brings a variety of constituencies to a single table. It also builds a vast new constituency for reforming America’s national agenda, an agenda for the 21st century instead of trying to reorganize 20th century institutions into a “new normal.”
A Focus on the Future
If the focus is on our grandchildren’s future, our elected leaders need to hear from generations X, Y and Z instead of listening to lobbyists and special interests, and all three of those generations need to be represented at the table as equal partners. The old method of relying on a “gang” of six or eight tenured leaders to make decisions might satisfy the short-term desires of special interests and politicians, but will not address the radical transformation the younger generations are craving.
America has the knowledge, resources and the tools to fix all that ails us. What we are lacking is the national resolve, and we are hampered by our politicians’ resistance to the concept of working together in search of the common ground for common good. Loyalty to country needs to trump loyalty to an ideology or party, and loyalty to our posterity needs to replace allegiance to special interests.