THE BLOG

The Past Wasn't Always So Easy

07/12/2013 03:10 pm ET | Updated Sep 11, 2013

It would be easy to conclude that some of our nation's current problems are simply unsolvable.

With declining participation in the workforce, a stagnant median income, and a partisan and paralyzed political environment inside D.C. ... well, maybe, some things are just too hard.

But before we accept this pessimistic outlook and throw in the towel, we need to put things into perspective. We have faced more difficult challenges in the past and managed to work our way through things. Consider the following examples from our history:

-- In August 1776 the War for Independence seemed lost. The Continental Army was essentially trapped on Long Island, and the British merely needed to corral the small force to end the conflict. But in the midst of this bleak outlook, the army evaded capture, Washington devised the bold attack on Trenton on Christmas night, and fortunes began to turn from there.

-- In the Fall of 1864, after three years of war with staggering losses (almost 50,000 casualties at Antietam on one day alone) and the possibility that George McClellan might defeat Abraham Lincoln in the '64 election, the future of the United States as a viable political entity looked as bleak as it had in the fall of 1776. But, as we all know, history turned out differently.

-- During the Great Depression unemployment reached almost 25 percent. To many Americans the system simply had failed. But the structure of society didn't collapse and people maintained trust in basic institutions. With the U.S. entry into the Second World War, the sense of collective purpose increased. Millions of young men left home to join the military with no idea as to how long they would be gone. Women worked on bomber assembly lines, school children collected tin cans and rubber, and millions volunteered for local civil defense projects or to support the Red Cross. Very fundamental things were perceived to be at risk and the entire nation stepped forward for as long as required.

-- The Civil Rights movement in the U.S. from the late 1800s thru the 1980s reflected this same pattern. Especially in the crucial years of the 1950s and 1960s, where a relatively small segment of the population sensed that the goal of equality and opportunity was essential to the nation's future. Many made significant sacrifices in their day-to-day lives and many took significant personal risk, most notably Martin Luther King and Medger Evers who ultimately gave their lives for the cause.

-- In February 1967 the American manned space program was in disarray. Just weeks before three astronauts had died in a spacecraft fire during a test on the launchpad. The subsequent investigation identified a number of major deficiencies with the Apollo spacecraft and the lunar program at large. Meeting John Kennedy's goal of a lunar landing "before the decade is out" looked highly unlikely. But thousands of NASA employees and private contractors across the country maintained a focus on Kennedy's vision, went into overdrive, and completed the Apollo 11 mission in July 1969. Sometimes accomplishing really hard things simply requires a lot of hard work.

There are clearly other examples you could examine, from epic events such as the building of the Panama Canal to smaller scale actions taken in local communities across the country. But the main point is that we have faced huge challenges in the past, some considerably more severe than we face right now, and with a vision of a way ahead, persistence, and a desire to protect the future we prevailed. And we can do the same today.

As specific examples look at two issues -- the current debate over immigration and the budget/fiscal policy impasse. Both topics cut across core ideological beliefs and face huge uphill battles. But over the next three to four months through the hard and gritty negotiations that are part of the democratic process we should be able to find areas of agreement in both. In the end, not everyone will be happy, but we will have effective policies that most Americans can support and will have addressed two difficult long-term challenges.

Achieving all of this inside four months sounds extremely ambitious. Almost naive. But consider the effort that developed the U.S. Constitution. In the summer of 1787 representatives from the various states met in Philadelphia and argued for four months -- in Independence Hall by day and in taverns at night -- over weighty issues such as the relative power of large versus small states, a national versus federal government, the power of a national executive... At times the differences seemed so profound that the effort almost collapsed. But it didn't -- through leadership, the ability to keep a long view, pragmatic compromise, and common sense the group produced the Constitution.

The 1991 book Generations, The History of America's Future, 1584 to 2069, which outlined a pattern in American generations from 1584 to 2069, concluded with this paragraph:

For ourselves and our posterity." The Preamble to the United States Constitution includes these five words, a summons to treat the present and future as partners in human destiny. When reading (or writing) history, we naturally digress from remembrances of others to imagine future remembrances of ourselves. Just as we are all heirs of ancestors we mostly admire, so too are we all ancestors to heirs whose admiration we should wish to earn. Reflecting on the story of America's eighteen generations, we realize that all of us alive today were once "posterity" in the dim vision of times gone by. And, perhaps, we will remind ourselves of our sacred obligation to act as kindly toward the future as ancestral generations once did toward us.

Our nation is at a crossroads and the path we take over the next few years will affect generations of Americans through the rest of this century. When you look at today's problems thru the 1787 lens -- or that of 1864 or 1942 -- and consider the truly herculean challenges our ancestors were able to overcome for our benefit, it seems as though we should be able to do better.