04/06/2012 11:38 am ET Updated Jun 06, 2012

Saving the Republic

Are there deeper reasons for America's discontent than those we usually discuss? Surely, widespread economic upturn would cure much of it, especially if the upturn narrowed deficits and debts. And termination of two much-too-long military ventures abroad would help. It would probably be too much to hope that divisive social issues -- abortion, marriage rights, and so forth -- would reach some civilized resolution.

But presuming all these things took place, would our country be at ease? Would we reach a degree of contentment? Would we (to use a particularly American phrase) "be happy?"

There are reasons to believe many Americans would not. There is a suspicion that the "American promise" promises too much. At its core, that promise is one of opportunity, the dynamic that has drawn and continues to draw people from all over the planet. There are, however, no guarantees that everyone, native born or immigrant, will succeed, will have a steady and rising income, a comfortable home, educated children, healthy lives, and a happy marriage. That is the hope, but a hope that will never be fully satisfied.

In our struggle to become a civilized society, one beyond the dog-eat-dog law of the economic jungle, we made strides during the New Deal and Great Society eras at constructing a social safety net for those too old, too young, or too disabled to work and for those who, despite their best efforts, cannot always find employment in a struggling economy.

For those of us who wish that civilized society would do more, child poverty, hunger, and ill health, among other social maladies not corrected by markets, are the sources of discontent. For those who have achieved material success or even great wealth, discontent may arise from simply having to view (despite gated communities and tinted limousine windows) evidence of human misery and structural decay.

Many thoughtful commentators have concluded that America has reached a kind of plateau at home and abroad and that other nations will soon rival us in the category we hold most dear, opportunity. When and if that happens, it may occur to us that our greatest promise is not in the realm of material wealth. Our greatest promise is in the unique principles and structures of government bequeathed to us ("if we can keep it") more than two centuries ago. While we struggle to accommodate social justice to market economics, we should also struggle with the necessity -- if we truly believe that we are somehow exceptional -- of seeking to perfect a political system that now has fallen far short of our Founders' intent.

My greatest fear for my country is not for its economic system or for foreign competition. My greatest fear is for the health and well-being of our Republic. If we are unable to restore the national interest to its rightful place above partisan and ideological interests, we will have lost that which truly makes us unique and that which is the heart of the American promise and dream.