Early Americans were blessed to grow up without a real sense of limits. After all, an entire continent beckoned before them, offering challenges that occupied the country for almost three centuries. Those frontiers, however, were less important than the values frontier eventually enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It is too easy to forget how revolutionary the concepts of democracy and basic human rights were in a world that remained hostile to those ideas well into the nineteenth century. Pushing this frontier forward was as exciting and dangerous as expanding the land frontier. It involved personal and national sacrifice to tame and develop these new frontiers. The failure to address the contradiction of slavery forced the nation into a bloody civil war. Nevertheless, these frontiers created an optimistic spirit that animated American life and gave the Americans the feeling they were creating something new through the first century of the nation’s life.
The closing of the American land frontier in the 1890s initiated a serious debate about American goals and meanings. The country was then in the middle of an Industrial Revolution creating once again a new, apparently limitless economic frontier of productive innovation. It also created a new challenge for American values frontier. The new industries absorbed immigrants fleeing the same economic and political turmoil as the original settlers but offered more stifling careers and a dangerous level of socioeconomic inequality threatening those values. Enter Theodore Roosevelt, who served as the perfect bridge to this new economic frontier. His life spanned the two worlds of Western pioneering and urban industrialization. He also never forgot that he became President because of an anarchist’s bullet and so sparked an era of progressive legislation that gave new hope for fairness for the average American in the new economy. The America he left behind had renewed its confidence and a sense of limitless vistas as it entered the twentieth century.
American leadership in productivity and innovation led to both increasing international influence and socioeconomic strain that thankfully found a new bridge leader in TR’s cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt. Economists still debate how effective the New Deal was in countering the Great Depression, but FDR’s program clearly lifted the spirits of the country. The advent of World War II not only provided the economic improvement promised by the New Deal, but also ushered in a beguiling new frontier of international influence. The US now had the ability to pursue two of its historic frontiers simultaneously – the expansion of American values across a global land frontier. The fight against fascism and then communism justified the sacrifices involved, but also contained a Pandora’s box of temptations to overreach and hubris.
For almost fifty years after World War II, this Goldilocks period of unlimited American power seemed unstoppable. In fact, the economic and international influence frontiers were slowly closing behind us beginning in the 1970s. The European and Asian economies devastated by the war retooled with more efficient innovative industrial facilities and, in many cases, better educational systems that allowed businesses and workers to move up the value chain and win better wages. Meanwhile, the American industrial system stagnated and lost capital investment to new high tech and information companies. This seemed to revitalize the economic frontier for a time, only to find out how easy technological change was to duplicate, steal or exploit for sinister use. Similarly, the limits of our international power were illustrated in the Vietnam War, but then apparently renewed by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the victory in the 1990 Gulf War. This ushered in the triumphant claims of a New World Order in which the US would lead the world to the new heaven of liberal values and economic bliss.
In truth, this was all being supported by policies that mortgaged the real future to sustain the illusion of an unlimited future. Our political leadership defied TR’s warning and deceived people into believing that these unlimited vistas could be achieved with no real sacrifice. Tax cuts and government spending covered up the decline in incomes while overseas business investment slowly increased. As a result, the US went from being one of the 5 lowest debt-to-GDP countries in 2000 to one of the top 5 highest in only 23 years. The 9/11 attacks spurred a quixotic Global War on Terror that committed the nation to further military spending and long, poorly thought and fought wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The desperate futility of these policies was covered up by triumphalist rhetoric and a financialization of the economy that led to increasing inequality. Instead of TR’s call to visionary sacrifice, the American people were encouraged to act like kids in a candy store who, when asked which piece of candy they would like, respond with “I want it all!”
So now we face the end of the era of unlimited economic and international power without the tools to bridge to the next era. The drop in economic productivity due to our failure to invest in education and infrastructure makes it more difficult to maintain our standard of living and raise the necessary internal capital to keep up with the rest of the world. The rise in debt is corroding the dollars’ status as a reserve currency – an important source of international power. Meanwhile, China and the BRICS of the Global South are ushering in the new G-0 world of diverse powers that can chart their own destiny without us and create new rules of order more compatible with their own interests.
A modern bridge leader would have convinced the American people to invest in themselves through education and industries at home, avoided the weakening adventures abroad, and called us to new visionary, but achievable, frontiers at home and in our foreign policy. Why didn’t this happen? Part of the reason is found in history, and not just one – the subject of the next post.
Next – an awareness of different histories