Domestic Policy, General, Nationalist Theory, Politics

The Crisis of the American Spirit – The Awareness of Different Histories

In the writings of our historians, as in the lives of our ordinary citizens, we can neither afford to forget that it is the ordinary every-day life which counts most; nor yet that seasons come when ordinary qualities count for but little in the face of great contending forces of good and evil, the outcome of whose strife determines whether the nation shall walk in the glory of the morning or in the gloom of spiritual death.

Theodore Roosevelt, Speech to the 1912 Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association

During the 1980s, a Texas history professor working in the UK encountered an African-American serviceman on the street seeking directions to a local English pub.  He walked him to the local watering hole and ended up talking with him for quite a while before they parted ways. He later realized that such camaraderie would have been much less likely if the same circumstances occurred back in the States. Nevertheless, he began to wonder what made these two Americans feel comfortable with each other despite their different ethnicity and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Thus begins the book “Americans” by Professor Edward Countryman, which explores what truly makes the American experience exceptional. He first recognized that different American races and genders have had different histories within the broader sweep of the nation’s past.  At the same time, they also shared common challenges and responded to them in uniquely American ways.

For most of our history, these differences and even the basics of our history, were relatively unimportant to the average American.  When Henry Ford said, “History is bunk”, he expressed, however crudely, the attitude of most Americans that believed our history was in the future, not the past.  We were still such a young country and so focusing on our past appeared useless. This attitude formed the basis of the concept of the American Dream and allowed the nation to absorb a variety of nationalities, though at the cost of ignoring the fate of African-Americans, Native Americans and women in that same history.

It all changed in the middle of the twentieth century, when the civil rights and feminist movements forced these different American histories to the attention of the rest of nation. Suddenly, America had a history relevant to today’s issues and thus worth studying and debating in the public realm. Sadly, the debate has focused on those differences and deepened the divide among Americans.

It did not have to be this way.  Prof. Countryman’s book recognized and recounted those differences but spends most of its energy finding the unique experiences and attributes that make those groups American. It begins with the most basic experience – survival. While colonial records are incomplete, those we have suggest that whites, African Americans and Native Americans died at roughly the same rate in early American history. They may have died from different diseases, but they all had the experience of trying to cheat death in a new and hostile environment. He moves on to cover how African American freedmen acquired the same entrepreneurial spirit as whites.  He recounts the history of Cherokee resistance to the forced relocation of the Trail of Tears by remembering they used a uniquely American tool as part of their resistance; namely, they filed a lawsuit, Cherokee Nation vs. State of Georgia.  While they lost at the Supreme Court, the resort to the courts to invoke a right potentially found in the Constitution was a response that could only occur in the America of that time.

Instead of highlighting the common experiences of Americans, our media and government leaders have concentrated on the differences our history created and thus courted the same civil divisions that have led other nations down the path of ethnic and sectarian civil war.  This has led to a war of histories as approaches like critical race theory clash with expurgated narratives that ignore the fact of those differences.   A true American bridge leader like Theodore Roosevelt who appreciated the importance of history and was well versed in it would recognize the dangers posed by this debate and forcefully and eloquently called Americans to see their common values and experiences as the solution, not the problem, to resolving past and current injustices.  

Sadly, our current political culture stokes division rather than national unity. The reason lies in two ideologies that rose to dominate our national political culture during the tumult of the middle to late twentieth century.

Next – The Decline of Community Spirit

Domestic Policy, Foreign Policy, General, Nationalist Theory, Politics

The Crisis of the American Spirit – Living with Limits

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            

Domestic Policy, General, Nationalist Theory, Political Reform, Politics, Uncategorized

The Crisis of the American Spirit – Introduction

America has faced and conquered crises over its history that have destroyed lesser nations. The common cause of these crises was the concentration of power in an elite whose outsized privileges threatened our democracy.  Whether it was British colonialism or the “Slave Power” of southern aristocracy, the key to its durability has been our confidence in the morality of our fundamental ideals and commitment to spreading opportunity to all Americans. This commitment never was implemented in a straight line and many Americans were left out for too long, but we always had the confidence that we would eventually prevail.

The US now stands at another hinge in its history more threatening than any foreign adversary. At a time when autocratic powers like China and Russia are confident to the point of recklessness, the American people are mired in doubt and anger about the future of the nation. You see it in statistics like the decline in the percentage of Americans who are proud of their country or the two-thirds of Americans who say the country is on the wrong track.  Statistics, however, cannot truly convey many American’s deep and boiling anger. It shows in songs like Oliver Anthony’s “Rich Men North of Richmond” or hip-hop protest songs about “DemoCrips and ReBloodlicans”.  These anthems come from dramatically different sources but express the same sense of betrayal.  They cry out against a hypocritical government and economy preaches opportunity but makes it impossible to achieve.

Theodore Roosevelt never forgot that he became President because of an anarchist’s bullet during a similar period of economic inequality and protest. Criticized as a radical because of his progressive ideals, he always insisted that they were intended to preserve the legitimacy of American free enterprise against more radical and dangerous policies.  TR knew that America could not be strong unless the American people were strong, and Americans could only be strong if they saw a better future for their children.  If we are to survive as a beacon of democracy, we must have courage to confront and conquer the current crisis in the American spirit.  We start by looking back and determining how we lost our sense of American community and shared commitment.

Next – The Confrontation with the Concept of limits