THE BLOG
02/08/2016 01:11 pm ET | Updated Feb 07, 2017

Identity and the Future of America

Americans are more worried and anxious about the future than ever. Sure, every generation seems to think, for one reason or another, that the place is going to hell in a hand basket. This time, it appears to be a unique convergence of a number of things.

America is in decline because it's broke, because Washington is dysfunctional and corrupt, and because it's drawing back from a world it no longer can or wants to lead. Or maybe it's because Americans are obese, lazy, addicted to sugar and prescription drugs, reality TV, social media, and the sound of their own voices. We are ignorant and ill-educated, and we don't read. Or maybe it is because we are gun-crazy and violent, narcissistic, misogynistic, puritanical, hyped up on religiosity, and turning against science, math, art, and history. The American Dream is dead because today's children will be the first who must expect to have less rather than more than their parents had.

Given all that, it's a wonder how we became the country we are.

This time, however, Americans sense the country is in real and not just relative decline. Their way of life is changing for the worse, and there's very little they can do about it--national insecurity. We are a nation unhinged by a midlife crisis, coming to grips with profound national and global changes. Frontiers have become limitations.

But America's relative decline should be no surprise, really, considering our psychological point of reference. In 1945, we dominated as no other nation had in history. No wonder that era is thought of so nostalgically. Yet, when the Berlin came down in 1989, we failed to see we needed another national conversation about who we are and what we're about as a changing nation in a changing world. So we muddled along, searching for the next big idea to help us figure it all out. Because the United States was the sole superpower, we had no sense of urgency about that collective dialogue, though things were changing more rapidly than we realized. That's because in good part we were too busy being triumphant, convinced that the way we did things was universally good whereas the way others did was not.

A status quo power is more conservative and risk-averse. Real reform is nearly impossible because too many people who profit from the system have too much of a stake in things as they are. Meanwhile, the rest have decided it's more comfortable and gratifying to be consumers than citizens--just give me a tax cut and go away until I need you again. So we dumbed ourselves down. Our attention spans shrunk with our mental bandwidth.

The world has been changing in ways in which our national business model has been increasingly ineffective. In most areas of national competitiveness, we've been losing ground. We're living more on a legacy and less on a promise.

America has globalized just about everything but itself. The world we largely created is now closing in on us, and we don't like it very much--it means we have to change our profligate ways, get out of our comfort zones, get in the global sandbox and play nice with the others, and compete and collaborate according to rules that suit others and not just us. The latest seismic signs of this megachange are 9/11 and the Great Recession--the end of our splendid insularity along with our dominance. These signals will keep coming in installments. The more we ignore them or fail to understand them, like climate change, the more extreme they will become.

Our self-inflicted problems will continue until the fundamental power relationships somehow shift back toward greater inclusion and moderation--socially, economically, and politically. The bad news is that it will probably get worse before it gets better. The good news is that our fate is still very much in our own hands--but not for much longer. The more our political bipolar disorder goes on, the more it costs us irrevocably, and the fewer and worse our collective options become. Our irresponsible political behavior is accelerating national decline faster than anything else. We have met the enemy and he is us.

Standing most in the way of America's future is its paralyzing angst. Nothing embodies this more than our obsession with terrorism. Even though America is as safe and secure as it has ever been, the fear factor seems to drive everything. We still see the world predominantly in terms of threats, persistently pursuing a highly costly strategy of global dominance and intervening because we think we have monsters to destroy. The more we respond to the world out of fear, the more imperious and domineering, even arrogant, we become. That generates exactly what our enemies look for, and it makes their propaganda all the more effective. Arrogance, after all, is a substitute for the confidence of humility, and fear is fed by ignorance.

America cannot long remain the land of the free if it is no longer the home of the brave. When the world sees the large gap between what we say and what we do, and because fear overrules hope, then we are minding our weaknesses rather than playing our strengths. Team America is playing not to lose, and playing not to lose is a strategy for losers. Name me one championship team that has won that way.

The other problem with all this pervasive negativism is that it generates an unwillingness to face the frontiers of change, to step outside our comfort zones and reach out to the other side of the aisle, let alone the other side of the ocean, in a real sense of human connectivity.

The larger point is that most of our sense of decline is an emotional response to something we perceive, rightly or wrongly. There's plenty of evidence that we're going under, but this is as much a psychological condition as it is a physical or virtual reality.

Besides, we're doing better than advertised--we still have a lot more strengths to play than weaknesses to worry about. Our inherent strengths go beyond the blessings of geography, our demographic diversity, and our capacity for self-reinvention. Among them is an integrated immigration-assimilation culture centered on the simple yet sophisticated principle of e pluribus unum. This is, in fact, our greatest comparative advantage in the twenty-first century--a societal software the Russians or Chinese can neither hack into nor pirate.

From a demographic perspective, we are becoming more the country we were set up to be in the first place. Our national formula of identity is a complex fractional equation, and although those fractions feature many numerators of human multiplicity, there is always one common denominator--personal freedom and human dignity. People have multiple identities--in their professions, family lives, social circles, and so on. What makes you the same person in your various personal manifestations is your character--what you believe in enough to live out in all of them.

The painful moment of truth has arrived. If we don't like what's going on in or with our country, the first place to look is in the mirror. We want it all our way but can't have it all our way. We and our elected leaders can no longer afford our supersized self-indulgence and willful ignorance. Washington is not going to fix itself, no matter what the polls or the politicians say. We got away with absentee citizenship for much of our national life, but we can't anymore. The world beyond our doors and shores just won't let us anymore.

Not all the answers are in Washington, anyway. It's our communities that make our country great. The good news is that networks of metropolitan and municipal leaders--mayors, business and labor leaders, educators, and philanthropists--are stepping up to move the nation forward, in a demonstration of cooperation among organizations that once competed with each other. Potholes don't have parties.

In the same respect, Jefferson's informed and active citizenry is an idea whose time has finally come. The governance we need comes from citizenship as responsible to our neighbors as it is to our nation. And for those whose attitudes toward government, politics, and civic duty range from apathy to enmity-- when you go bad on the system, the system goes bad on you. Our leaders won't rise to the occasion any more than we do.

If you don't know who you are and what you're about, events control you more than you control them. Learning that takes a journey. The world we inhabit is often a cold, hard, and unfair place. It always has been. But you can't find the goodness in it unless you find the goodness in yourself. They are one and the same.

It begins and ends with us--what is good about America is all our doing; what is not is all our fault. That's why our behavior, big and small, should strive to reflect more what we're for and not what we're against. "The key to the future of the world," [the late] Pete Seeger said, "is finding the optimistic stories and letting them be known." What the heroes in our personal and collective consciousness have been teaching us is to keep the big picture and the long run in mind while living in the moment--to think globally and act locally.

In a world of uncertainty, there's one thing we can be sure of: What we refuse to experience positively we will most assuredly experience negatively. Motorcycling is an appropriate metaphor. Like people and nations, you can only stay upright and balanced when moving forward-- there's no reverse gear. Here's another example: To avoid potholes and other hazards on a bike, you have to first acknowledge they're there and then look away from them, because where you look is where the bike goes automatically. So if you focus your attention and energy on negatives, that's where you wind up steering yourself. More times than not, what you look for is what you get.

So, by answering the constant call to citizenship--local, national, and global--we embrace and renew the strength and promise of American reinvention and renewal. Greatness is a lot of small things done well. Every one of us, in every generation, must take our own journey to learn what it means to be a citizen not only of our country but of a larger world that technology and trade are hooking us up with, within and beyond the horizons of our lifetimes.

The choices we make along the way reveal our true character. By taking that personal journey in service to others, we change ourselves. When we change ourselves, we change our communities. By changing our communities, we change America. And when we change America, we change the world.

Because the new frontiers are more psychological than physical, more internal than external, the path to a more perfect union and a more peaceful world lies within us. The big idea we seek has been with us all along: It is America itself. How lucky, indeed, we are as a people-- especially when we're good.

America is in and of itself a journey--more than three hundred million of them--whose signposts are frontiers and whose ultimate destination is the world's and thus uncertain. It is the greatest collective adventure the world has ever seen. The arc of that collective journey is often a slow, imperfect, torturous, violent, but inexorable march toward freedom and a more perfect union.

"Follow your bliss," Joseph Campbell advised his students, but bliss, like freedom, is not just doing what we want. It's taking responsibility for your destiny. It's answering a call to a personal voyage in the public realm. We must all grab and pass the baton and run the human relay race, if only to enable others to do the same, as those who went before us did for us.