This morning at 10 am, Tom Ashbrook will convene a conversation during “On Point” to examine a question that’s been lurking at the edge of our politics for awhile now: “Is America in decline?”
It’s a notion that the right, the left and the middle here in the US actually agree on. Liberals point to the shrinking middle class and growing income disparity. Conservatives point to what they see as declining moral values.
Moderates point to the rise of other nations, primarily India and China.
In the best spirit of In Box contrarianism, I say they’re all wrong. I’ll side with Warren Buffett, who argued in a recent Time magazine interview that the nation’s “best days lie ahead.”
Buffett pins his optimism to strong underlying indicators in America’s economy. My bullishness is tied to something much broader and, admittedly, a bit fuzzier.
The way I see it, we are part of the American Revolution. I don’t mean that we’re likely to find ourselves perched behind a tree with a musket sniping at the British.
I mean that more than any other society at any time in human history, the United States has managed to achieve a kind of permanent revolution, one in which tradition and the “old order” remain in constant flux.
What’s more, despite all early predictions, this state of churn has proved to be remarkably stable.
While more tradition-bound societies — from Great Britain to India to China — fall at regular intervals into utter chaos and disarray, the remarkable American experiment keeps muddling along.
From our fight for independence to the expansion into the West to the cataclysm of the Civil War to our emergence as a world power, we’ve reinvented ourselves over and over.
From the expansion of civil liberties to women and people of color, to the establishment of the modern state, the fundamental experimentism of the Union has endured.
Obviously, this path hasn’t always been straight or peaceful or fair. Slavery, the genocidal treatment of Native Americans, and occasional forays into the crassest form of imperialism are unavoidable elements of our shared story.
But it is a remarkable fact that by incremental degrees, we have bent our revolution toward a more fair and equitable treatment of the people who make up our republic.
This larger trend is often overshadowed by the fighting and bickering and squabbling of our political actors, from the presidential candidates to the street-fighters of Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party.
On any given day, the rhetoric of these partisans would have you believe that we are spiraling out of control, descending into anarchy or debauchery or despotism.
But what we know from history is that this sound and fury is our clumsy way of navigating monumental change. We shout. We shake our fists. We accuse one-another of radicalism.
And we do so, in part, because the issues at hand are often, well, sort of radical.
Consider this. In the last couple of decades alone, America has been trying to sort out what it means to transition from a mostly rural society to a mostly urban society.
We’ve been trying to reinvent ourselves as a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural community, rather than a mostly white Protestant one
We have been sorting out what it means to have an economy and a culture which is hardwired into an increasingly integrated global society made up of more or less equal partners.
We have been grappling with the reality that technology is changing at an accelerating pace, in ways that affect our individual lives more and more intimately.
We have begun to explore the implications of an American society that is increasingly secular in its morality and culture.
We’re also beginning to think honestly about our country’s contribution to global-scale environmental problems such as climate change.
This is big stuff. It doesn’t get any bigger.
So yes, the debate sometimes gets rowdy. And it should come as no surprise that the pace of change sparks a constant cycle of backlash, resentment, fear and counter-revolution.
But it’s also important to remember that the hot-blooded battles of yesterday (the voting rights of women, more liberal divorce laws, interracial marriage, Social Security, etc.) have been “normalized” with remarkable speed.
We’re seeing the same thing happen now with gay rights and same-sex marriage. A decade ago, the concept was shocking. Now, most Americans give it a healthy shrug.
Why do I call all of this hopeful? Because it is an undeniable truth that we live in a world that is increasingly hard-wired for change. Today’s innovations are tomorrow’s buggy whips.
The societies that will prevail and prosper in the muddled, raucous cross-currents of a truly global economy are the societies that know how to adapt and change.
And there’s no one better at this than us.
Other countries are struggling to learn our trick, but so far they’ve only gotten parts of our formula right. China has opened itself to a more supple form of capitalism, without embracing democracy or the rule of law.
Europe has tried to gather itself into a larger, more inclusive federation, without adopting the supple federalism that defines the relationship between our united states. (Europe also overspent, maxing its credit cards in a way that puts America to shame.)
Japan and India have liberalized many aspects of their hide-bound societies, but they’ve stuck disastrously to the notion that their national identities are tied to narrow, racial and ethnic definitions.
Perhaps most importantly, no other society on earth has achieved the same, healthy tension between individualism and collectivism that is embodied in our founding documents, and in the debates that have played out for more than two centuries.
When Americans fight over gun rights or the limitations of the welfare state or the role of government in spurring economic activity or providing healthcare, it’s not a sign of our backwardness. It is part of an essential, never-ending dialogue.
As we enter into another election season, people on all sides of these arguments will moan and sigh about how ugly and argumentative our society has become. We will decry the attack ads and mourn the invective that divides us.
Some partisans will go so far as to suggest that the experiment has already failed. America is broken. Our democracy has failed.
But the simple truth is that this is how it has always worked. This muddled, messy system has carried us past monumental obstacles — many of them far, far greater than the ones we now confront.