12/22/2012 11:29 am ET Updated Feb 21, 2013

The Systemic Environment of Dying America

In preceding discussions, I laid the theoretic foundation -- systems analysis -- for my "dying" analogy. Beginning in this post, I will present propositional observations about the possible "whys" and "hows" of ailing America.

First, let's explore the declining systemic environment, which represents, arguably, the most daunting challenge to the future of American democracy and for President Barack Obama's ambitious legacy.


My thesis of American democracy begins with the truism that a political regime reflects, to a great extent, the environment within which it operates. More pertinent to our discussion, American democracy -- as we have known it throughout our national history -- has reflected the favorable systemic conditions under which our country was founded and developed; and the erosion of those conditions in recent decades may help explain our democratic distemper.

The Favorable Environment of a New World.

Accordingly, in this manuscript I contend that American democracy was established and prospered in a setting of natural propitiousness unknown to any previous society.

Despite its adversities, the New World was a fairly open environment teeming with economic, social, and political opportunity; and these conditions provided a favorable laboratory for American nation building.

The Founders' awkward experiment of jumbled theoretical principles and political practices probably would never have worked in any other setting; but the loose, unstructured, advantaged environment of the New World encouraged a collective chemistry for pursuing the progressive ideals of our national purpose.

Tocqueville's Boundless Continent. Their course was tough, but early Americans encountered a world of unlimited resources; most importantly, they had room to breathe, to grow, to experiment, to exercise freedom, individualism, and independence.

As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1835 in Democracy in America, the practical attraction of this rich New World was central to the foundation of democracy in America:

The chief circumstance which has favored the establishment and the maintenance of a democratic republic in the United States is the nature of the territory that the Americans inhabit. Their ancestors gave them the love of equality and of freedom; but God himself gave them the means of remaining equal and free, by placing them upon a boundless continent ... The physical causes, independent of the laws, which promote general prosperity are more numerous in America than they ever have been in any other country in the world, at any other period of history. In the United States not only is legislation democratic, but Nature herself favors the cause of the people.

Turner's Open Frontier. A half-century later, in a little noticed speech at the 1893 meeting of the American Historical Association, another unknown young scholar named Frederick Jackson Turner expanded this idea into perhaps the most significant essay in American historiography.

In the opening paragraph of his paper, Turner stated that "the existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development" (The Significance of the Frontier in American History).

American democracy derived not from some theorist's dream, Turner declared:

It came out of the American forest; and it gained new strength each time it touched a new frontier. Not the constitution, but free land and an abundance of natural resources open to a fit people, made the democratic type of society in America for three centuries while it occupied its empire.

In sum, the richness and openness of the expanding frontier fostered freedom for America's settlers, and they proceeded with their own individualistic endeavors. National governance was relatively limited; and most Americans went about their lives without resorting to political institutions for help or redress of their grievances. A select, elite leadership ran things with impunity so long as it did not antagonize the public egregiously. The result was a functioning partnership, within a frontier environment of freedom and opportunity, among the people, their government, and the simple political machinery linking them together.

Eventually Tocqueville's nomadic people reached the Pacific Ocean; and Turner's open frontier closed, at least by census count, at the end of the Nineteenth Century. But, interestingly, America continued to experience the progressive blessings of American democracy.

A New Frontier of National Public Authority.

My thesis of American democracy holds that, as the original, bountiful, natural frontier faded into history, America gradually turned toward a different frontier -- national public authority, i.e. "the government" -- to extend the benefits of its democratic experiment.

The natural frontier thus yielded to the political frontier of an emerging nation. The depleted, crowded, unruly wilderness gave way to a more orderly and authoritative public forum and a governmental cornucopia of progressive development.

In fact, Americans discovered that national public authority functioned, in some ways, just as well as or better than the wild frontier. Whereas New World conditions fostered freedom, individualism, and independence, the subsequent popular growth of public authority secured the more elusive blessings of equality, security, and justice for the people of our republic. The government actually could define, create, and distribute values and benefits more progressively than did the state of nature.

The popular expansion of national public authority thus exerted a clear and positive impact on America for a century after the closing of the original frontier. It enhanced our democratic opportunities in much the same way and to a comparable extent as did the original environment; and it enabled our young country to deal with serious national challenges well into the Twentieth Century.

The Inevitable Decline of Our Systemic Environment.

We might say, then, that we have experienced two timely, overlapping "frontiers," or challenging developments, that have proven historically central to our Great Experiment -- the original challenge of westward expansion and the subsequent challenge of political nationalization. And both have contributed greatly and sequentially to the evolving success of American democracy.

However, just as with our original environment, there was no reason to assume that national public authority could expand forever and consensually. In the latter half of the Twentieth Century, this historically-favorable environment turned sourly contentious; and the American people have plunged into a deep philosophical debate about what America means and how they want American democracy to work.

The degenerative nature and impact of our philosophical civil war is the topic of my next post. (For previous posts in this series, click here.)

Author's Note: This is the seventh in a sixteen-part series of discussions about Election 2012, Barack Obama, and the future of American democracy. This series includes edited, updated material from my book, The Future of American Democracy: A Former Congressman's Unconventional Analysis (2002). I'm grateful to University Press of America for allowing me to borrow from that publication for my discussions on Huffington Post.