The news is grim, and you don't have to be a newshound to know that. It seems that all trend lines are pointing in the wrong direction -- whether it's economic disaster (domestic and international), mounting death totals in Afghanistan (and even Iraq), London in flames, the promise of the Arab Spring becoming a summer of bloody stalemates, a drought-stricken American heartland, and on and on. We're not in complete panic yet, but most of us are starting to feel mighty queasy. There's a real sense out there, even amongst people not prone to hyperbole, that perhaps our nation's best days are behind us. I guess it matters how you define "best days," but I, for one, am not buying it.
To be sure, there are millions of Americans who are struggling for the basic necessities of life: keeping a roof over their heads, food on the table, their children on the path to an education. Their pain and needs must be a priority, for elected officials setting policy and for those of us who can afford to lend a hand. But when faced with the challenges of the present, we cannot allow ourselves to be so demoralized that we lose the strength of perspective that can lead us to a more hopeful future.
One of the hallmarks of American history is that, by and large, we have been moving in the right direction. We have had a remarkable streak of facing down dark times and emerging in a better place. I think that leads us to underestimate how difficult and perilous some moments in our history actually were. In school, when we study major stress points in our country's development, the focus often is on how they were resolved. Sure, Valley Forge was a tough slog, but George Washington was able to rally the troops for a miraculous defeat of the mighty British. The evils of slavery had to be purged through the bloody Civil War, but Lincoln was able to rescue the Union. There was a time when women couldn't vote, children worked in dangerous factories, our food wasn't inspected, and a host of other social ills that led to a flurry of progressive legislation. Pearl Harbor launched our country into a triumphant global defeat of evil regimes. An era of lynchings beget a civil rights movement. The Soviets beat us into space, but we beat them to the Moon. The terror of the Cuban Missile Crisis now only gets a few lines in a textbook, just part of the story of us winning the Cold War. It's hard to get young people to feel the piercing uncertainty surrounding the Watergate scandal because, as we all know know, Nixon resigned and the country was able to move on. Crisis averted, problem solved. But during these moments and so many others, a successful outcome didn't always appear at the time to be a guarantee.
This is not to say that we're anywhere close to a perfect union, or that we haven't taken steps backwards as well as forwards. It's just that hopefully we can look at what ails us now and see how we were able to conquer problems of the past. And the reason why I think we can do it again is because I have a deep and abiding faith in the American people.
One of the greatest joys of my charmed life is that I have been able to travel to every corner of this country, and I am almost always amazed by the intelligence, work ethic and sense of fairness of my fellow citizens. We are a generous people, a hopeful people and a decent people. I believe, and I think the polls show, that if Washington were really representing the peoples' will now, a lot of things would be different.
Most Americans believe in true compromise, a balanced approach to solving our budget. I think even many wealthy Americans are embarrassed by our national income disparity. We wonder why we have to be the world's policeman, shouldering almost all the costs alone, when we can't afford to build bridges and schools back home. We want to help out the least amongst us, take care of our seniors and keep our water and air clean, but we know that costs money. We just want to know how we can afford what we need without burdening ourselves with too much debt.
The problem is that Washington isn't working. That's not necessarily new. There were many times throughout our history when it didn't work. But ultimately, something came along to make it work. Sometimes the change came in the form of a rising political leader, like a Teddy Roosevelt or a Harry Truman. And sometimes a groundswell of change came from the people, like the Civil Rights movement. It's unclear from where the break in this unhealthy stasis will come. But it must come, and I believe it will.
Politicians and the chattering media class in their air-conditioned studios need to get out of their bubbles and talk to real Americans, who are doing their best everyday to make tough decisions in their own lives. They should talk to families in food lines, an unemployed worker going to community college to learn a new skill, a police chief trying to make a budget and the millions of other kinds of Americans who are living in reality. We have enough wealth in this nation, in terms of human and physical resources, to move toward solving our problems. What we need is a lot more leadership than we're getting. But I think our history shows that if we don't get leadership soon, we the people will demand it ourselves.
In the meantime, there is this: for too long, the world has overestimated what America's military and economic strength could accomplish. As we've learned, there are limits to such power. Maybe it's not so bad now to have the world underestimating us.