There is a story we tell ourselves. It has three parts.
The first is that we are an
exceptional country. There’s a
decent chance history will concur with that claim. Second is the corollary to exceptionalism incorporated into
every politician’s script — we are the
greatest nation on the earth. That
one is more problematic. To begin
with, it is the kind of puffery and self-aggrandizement that makes me squirm. Perhaps being the greatest was a charming claim when made by the then Cassius
Clay during his salad days, but applying it to a nation — any nation —
invites comparison. Greatest is a
high bar and, while we may not all agree on the relevant and telling measures, there
are statistics aplenty that would suggest we fall short. According to just one compilation of multiple
measures of the best nations we don’t even make the top ten. We heard a lot in the healthcare debate
about our having the greatest medicine
in the world, but why then is it that we rank number 29 in life expectancy? We are said to have the world’s greatest
universities and yet we only rank 9th in literacy. Overall it is Sweden, Denmark and the
Netherlands (in that order) who can make the most credible claim to being the
greatest. They don’t. Finally, we
have the standard crescendo of Presidential or would-be Presidential rhetoric; our best years are still ahead of us. The first two — our being exceptional
or great — can be chalked up to hyperbole, but that prediction about the future
is substantive and it’s something we need to seriously consider.
Much is made these days about the unease of the American people. The rise of the Tea Party has been
ascribed to it as have the growing number of polls that cast doubt upon
government action and even trustworthiness. The immediate causes of this unease and lack of trust may be
attributed to our seemly insoluble recession, never-ending war on terror and disappointment on both the right and left with
the recently passed healthcare bill as too much or too little. That our dual icons of industry and
government have been largely flummoxed by the oil disaster in the Gulf only adds
to or confirms that point of view.
Much as we tend to be caught up, often understandably, in the moment, I
think these current events are ultimately beside the point.
What really matters is the larger picture including the new context in
which we find ourselves in a still relatively new century. This is a story that is not the inward
focused one we continue to repeat but the outward one that has produced our
current catch phrase, the new normal. I hate the almost instant cliché
of it, but believe we had better begin to take its message and content
seriously. Tom Friedman’s
perceptive signaling of a flattening of the world
is of course a major component of our future story. So, too, are exploding demographics that are not merely
producing more mouths to feed with diminished resources, but are in the case of
America altering the makeup of our citizenry. Hispanics are on the rise and White Protestant domination is
on the verge of a tipping point in decline.
Back in the 1960s President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty. His vision was to address an age old
and seemly insoluble problem. The
poor were a constant when he declared that war and, despite all his and others
good intentions, remain so. In
fact, we (and to a large extent they) continue to have very low expectations of
the poor not merely taking their situation as a given, but as a never to be
altered state of being. Rising out
of poverty is sadly still the rare exception not the rule. Unemployment and underemployment are
embedded in their story. So it’s
no wonder that the tale that has finally begun to command our attention is the
stagnant and indeed deteriorating condition of our bedrock middleclass. We all know about their declining
incomes and, especially for those long dependent on manufacturing, an
increasing difficulty in find jobs, many of which may be gone for ever. Our once resilient auto industry
remains on its knees and whatever recovery it experiences is unlikely to
constitute even a slim shadow of its past. But the plight of the poor and the frustrations of the
middleclass may not be the most telling in reconsidering our story of the best
being yet to come.
For that we have to look to the more affluent segment of our society,
which is experiencing a vaporizing of the classic American dream. A few days ago, the Times reported on the fortunes of
twenty-four year old college graduate Scott
Nicholson who, like an untold number of his piers, has not been able to
find a job, certainly not one with any predictable upward mobiity. It is equally the story of his World
War II veteran stockbroker grandfather and of his manufacturing executive
father who both stand firmly in his corner, but who somehow know that their
story of success may not be repeated in the next generation. Now Scott, especially with this
publicity, may well land on his feet, but his situation should not be
discounted. Just look around and
you’ll see it repeated, most likely very close to home. In that light, it’s hard to mouth our
best years are still ahead and to do so with a straight face.
America is much like our once invincible auto industry. We are no longer the only game in town
and some of the game we’ve played so well in the past is becoming less
relevant, certainly less proprietary.
The world has changed and the environment has become substantially more
competitive. While America is
unlikely to go down the tubes or even to lose its military supremacy any time
soon, our best days are likely behind us not ahead of us.
Don’t get me wrong. This
is not some warning of gloom and doom, a bear call on our national stock, but a
plea that we become more humble and more realistic about who we are and thus
who we will be. The first step in
moving on is getting our head out of the sand. That means ceasing to buy in so eagerly into a story that
has become myth, more fiction than fact.
Gilbert, the Harvard psychologist who has devoted much of his research to
human happiness contends that a key to our well-being is to come to terms with
our real situation — not our fantasy but our reality. With that accomplished,
the possibilities open up, especially optimizing our condition. America’s best years are unlikely ahead
of us, and in terms of our individual and collective well-being that may not really
matter. But we can’t even begin to
step into the future sure footed until we stop telling the old story and find a
new one, a true and substantive foundation upon which to build.