10/12/2010 04:00 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Take America Forward

Cruising around Pennsylvania this past weekend, I started to take notice of political yard signs promising to "take America back." Immediately, I asked myself from whom, and to what? Since the slogans are generated from Republican candidates, it only makes sense that they intend to wrest control back from Democrats, but the intriguing nature of the battle cry being voiced from within their own party seems to indicate that there is a burning desire to wrest control away from both Republicans and Democrats.

And there is a general anger in the electorate, a legitimate anger I might add, that speaks to the notion that special interests have hijacked the entire system of governance. In my lifetime, I cannot recall a higher level of disenchantment with the status quo since the late 1960s. Then, people were dying, today people's dreams are dying. In times such as these, rational thought is a rare commodity indeed and the greatest fear is that this anger will be misdirected to fringe elements that have neither an answer nor the ability to govern. In the end, the party that directly appropriates the message to deal with this anger will gain control of the apparatus to address the concerns felt and perceived by the disaffected.

But back to the slogan, "take America back." Where are we going back to and what are are we going back to? I certainly do not want to diminish the importance of looking back, because that is a useful exercise to glean what has worked and not worked in the past so as to help us devise a genuine forward-looking set of solutions with which to attack our current problems. But I fear that the lessons learned from looking back might not yield a productive solution without some sense of historical perspective. There are fewer and fewer among us who actually lived through the Depression, and, unfortunately, fewer still who actually studied the policies of FDR.

If a look back stops with Bush or Clinton or Reagan, then I fear the phantom prosperity built upon ever-increasing mounds of debt or deregulatory zeal will lead us to the wrong conclusion. It appears to me that there are two distinct courses which need to be followed: first, we need to address the backlog of physical infrastructure neglect that has left us far behind other industrialized nations and represents an opportunity to put people to work immediately on national public works projects -- remember WPA? CCC? Second, we need to look forward to the jobs of the future, green jobs and the research and development resources to garner supremacy in development of alternative energy for a world choking on the carcasses of fossil fuels.

We did not dig this hole overnight; it was the culmination of decades of political pandering and fiscal insanity. We will not rectify it overnight; it will take decades of effort and the national will to accept the realities of the 21st century economy and the environmental requirements of an increasingly interdependent world. Quite simply, it will take money, and there simply is no way around it. Americans need to remember what it was like to save enough money for that first car, that first home, that dream vacation. Sacrifices were made in the process of building the resources to make those dreams become a reality. And it is not different with the challenges that we face today.

But in the meantime, there is a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done right here and right now. We can put people to work restoring the nation to a first-rate country with a first-rate infrastructure, repairing our deteriorating roads and bridges, investing in modernization of our woefully inadequate public transportation network, restoring sewer systems in our major cities, and in the process reinvigorating an economy that thrives on a populace that is employed at a living wage.

The answer is not to wall in the nation and put alligators in the moat. That is a 14th century solution to a 21st century problem. Middle-class expansion does not equate to socialism, reducing the vast gap between the richest and the poorest among us is the quintessential American dream and ironically the vast majority of those who benefited from this post-WWII expansion now populate the ranks of the tea party movement. "I got mine, no you get yours." The same sort of philosophy that drives the anti-immigration movement here in a society built by immigration. Namely, I am in and you stay out.

The anger out there is real, and it deserves attention, but pandering to the misguided notion to feed fear rather than face it does a tremendous disservice to the present and the future. We do not need to take America back, we need to take it forward and in a sane and rational world there would be bipartisan agreement on this basic premise. We can always argue about the particulars as to how to do it, but we would at least agree it needs to be done. On that count we still have a long way to go.