Losing America: The Way Backwards

08/20/2010 01:20 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The great virtue of Arianna Huffington's latest book, Third World America, is its incisiveness and candor in explaining how we have gone off the rails -- and the extent of the wreckage. For the America we inhabit today is turning its back on the signal achievement of the 20th century, i.e. reconciling the country's distinctive native virtues with the social imperatives of industrial life. The valiant efforts of successive generations of progressives culminated in the great innovations of the New Deal. National solidarity and respect for individual human dignity forged a new consensus on what Americanism meant. That was a landmark accomplishment of historic proportions. Its enlightened creed pervaded our public life for half century. Since 1980 it has come under unrelenting assault by an unseemly alliance of doctrinaire free marketers, selfish and shortsighted business interests and predatory politicians.

Today, we are lurching backwards due to their success in reversing the tide of enlightened thinking and public action. The meekness of liberals and progressives has been a crucial element in allowing that march back to the not-so-Gilded Age to achieve its improbable victories. Even now, struggling to overcome the ravages of financial piracy and despite the dire effects on Americans' lives of regressive policies, we strain to hear a clarion voice from among our elected officials. The White House purveys placebos wrapped in strident 'inspirational' speeches; the Congress offers even less. Hence it is left to unelected public figures like A.H. to be the champion for an ethic of social decency and honest politics. Third World America is notable for an approach that eschews philosophy and doctrine for a stark expose of how conditions of life for most Americans have deteriorated. That includes a dispiriting loss of faith in that most American of ideals -- improvement and betterment through earnest effort. Most now fret about their own lives while losing hope about the prospects for their children.

Demonstrating just how un-American that is serves as the book's purpose, and is its accomplishment. It pushes in our face the sad statistics and the personal experiences that bring them to life. In keeping with a long and honored tradition of (genuine) reform moved by a sense of outrage, Arianna Huffington denies us the standard avoidance devices of rationalization and sublimation. Anyone who wants to argue the case that America has been a successful society over the past thirty years, that we can regain the high road to the American dream by just a nudge here and a trim there, will have to do so in full sight of what their ideas and actions have wrought. The empty bombast of our politicians, the caviling of our compromised intellectuals, and the indulgences of the media dedicated to taking the path of least resistance (and of high ratings) are unable to lead a national soul searching. So let's thank those who have the courage and conviction, so lacking elsewhere, to shine a light on our present plight -- and on the way that leads out of it.