The decisions we make in the next two years—individually and collectively—will largely set the trajectory of America for the next seventy to eighty years. We are in that magical moment as we emerge from a period of crisis—the fourth in American history—where we re-answer the question, “What does it mean to be an American?” Moreover, how do we organize ourselves for our mutual benefit? The good news is that crises make room to question old rules and conventions as long as we don’t ignore or squander the opportunity.
If history rhymes, 2022 will be like 1790, 1875, and 1945; the dawn of the “objectivism” phase in the cycles of American history which follows the four-phase rhythm on objectivism-liberalism-idealism-crisis that have defined the previous three seventy-five (plus or minus) year cycles. It is a critical time; a proverbial tipping point in our transition to our next future. (For a full illustration of this cyclical thesis see Saving America in the Age of Deceit, chapters 1-3.)
At the end of the first crisis—the American Revolutionary War—our identity emerged as the “Land of the Free.” At the end of the second crisis—the Civil War and Reconstruction—we emerged as the “Land of Opportunity.” At the end of the third crisis—the Great Depression and World War II—we emerged as “Superpower.” At the end of each of these cycles, at a macro-level, the United States became a better and more powerful nation across almost every measure of human welfare. However, a positive outcome following periods of crisis is far from certain. These tipping points can go either way.
Periods of objectivism that follow crises have historically been periods of relative calm denominated in realism, rationalism, and humanism that prevail over the tumult of crisis where all dimensions of our prior identity (most recently “superpower”) are twisted, damaged, or destroyed. In our fourth crisis, which I identified as the Age of Deceit beginning in 2003, it is easy to point to all the damage that has been done. The spirit of America today, which was alive and well after the first three crises (excepting the South after Crisis II), today feels more like a dungeon of depression.
Disunity, anger, isolation, withdrawal, anxiety, and fear are at extraordinary levels right when we need unity, empathy, aspiration, and calm to prevail in our decision making. The American cultural disposition today is both hollow and fragile. We are not heading toward anything as dramatic as an explosion because that requires a significant level of internal (albeit unstable) energy. The Age of Deceit, punctuated by the pandemic, has ravaged our collective spirit. Rather, an implosion seems more likely where our façade of red, white and blue grandeur crumbles like fragile porcelain into a pile of rubble.
At the end of this fourth crisis, an image of collapse is much easier to conjure than one of ascendent rebirth. Rather than emerging into another period of objectivism, we may spiral into a deeper crisis; one that may be denominated by the construct of predation—like a chapter out of Lord of the Flies or, if you prefer a more current reference, Netflix’ Squid Game.
Today, the closest parallel in American history is the South after Crisis II—the Civil War and Reconstruction. Defeated and nearly destroyed, the South fell into a period of depression and regression from which it has never completely recovered. Reflexive Jim Crow laws and the emergence of its stubborn pride of ignorance, or anti-intellectualism, have remained like heavy anvils wrapped vaingloriously around the necks of southern states prohibiting any notion of rebirth or renewal. Had the South not remained in the union and been integrated into its economic orbit, it would have surely been conquered or subsumed by another nation-state in the late 19th century.
In addition to our current dispositional distress, we have some significant structural issues that contribute mightily to our fragility. Within both the political and social realms, we have allowed structural incentives to promulgate the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of the few. This condition assures the continual festering of political, social, and economic conflict that if left to proceed unabated has, as its natural outcome, violent conflict. The relative distribution of power and means into a state of extreme inequality has a long history of producing devastating conflicts throughout the world. Yes, we could be different, but that notion may be supported by little more than our own hubristic naïveté. (Failed empires have always thought they would be the first exception—until they weren’t.)
Frankly, the only structural dimension that is functioning properly (for now) in our country and world are the financial markets. They have been proven extraordinarily resilient in serving their principal function: the creation of wealth based on the efficient allocation of resources. People rail and whine about their contribution to inequality, but financial markets are not (and have never been) designed to foster equality. They are designed on the principle of equity, which is a proportional concept that holds that wealth (the output) be distributed based on the proportional contribution of capital, labor, and intelligence (the inputs). This is the capitalist concept of equity, which has proven to be the most effective economic construct for the creation of wealth in human history. A different distribution, or redistribution, of the output of wealth based on the now-popular concept of equity proportional to need (rather than contribution) is the socialist concept of equity. To realize this concept of equity, distributive practices must be addressed away from financial markets by political and social policy, which as of today in the United States has proven impossible to affect.
As painful as the above rendering of our current dispositional and structural issues may be to read, believe me when I say, it has been even more painful for me to write. I am an optimist by nature and have always subscribed to the patriotic notion that we, as Americans, can accomplish anything. It resides deeply in my Celtic DNA that, to quote William Ernst Henley’s poem, Invictus, “In the fell clutch of circumstance / I have not winced nor cried aloud. Under the bludgeonings of chance / My head is bloody, but unbowed.” However, regardless of the vast majority of evidence that suggests we may slip into a deeper crisis, there is still a pathway to survive and prosper—to enter a new phase of objectivism.
First, let me assert two realities and one essential trend that I believe we must acknowledge and accept if we are to embrace the axiom of realism—seeing things as they are rather than how we might wish them to be.
- Our federal government is irretrievably broken and no longer has the capacity to serve our interests beyond (perhaps) national security.
- Our nation is also irretrievably divided such that while we may possess common interests, we are unable to agree on common facts that are a prerequisite to establishing a shared reality upon which to make and execute decisions aimed at serving those interests.
- We are, slowly but surely, migrating into like-minded communities that provide a natural basis for future collective action. Our choice of domain—where we wish to live—has shifted dramatically to primarily reflect our political and cultural dispositions.
If we accept these three assertions, we should begin the process of dramatically reducing the role of our federal government and increasing the role of state and local government. Coincidentally, much more in line with the Founders initial concept of the distribution of resources and power between the federal government and the states.
In effect, we must shift our attention and our resources away from the model of the nation-state that has been with the modern world since 1648, and toward the development of stronger states and communities that regard themselves as independent sovereign actors that seek benefit and welfare not through the nation-state, but through what I call state- and locally-directed shared-reality, mutually-beneficial, networked alliances designed to produce the public goods formerly organized and provided by the nation-state. In effect, the United States of America becomes the Affiliated States and Communities of America.
This new design of political, social, and economic organization allows like-minded communities to affect the production of public goods in an expedient and efficient manner—something our national government can no longer accomplish. Enabled by new technologies, there are few barriers to creating networked solutions that transcend prior notions of politically imposed boundaries and artificial prohibitions against free association. For example, if like-minded states, counties, or communities can come together to provide healthcare for their constituents, why should the federal government stand in the way?
This concept of governance accepts the reality of disunity and conflict at the national level by essentially draining the beast of the federal government of its capacity to wreak havoc in our lives—by either action or inaction. Further, it recognizes and subverts the negative impacts of the prospect of the entropic implosion of the United States and subsequent splintering of a failed empire. Finally, it puts us back in control of our destiny. It preserves the spirit of Henley’s final lines in his poem, Invictus: “I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul.”
This effort will take many years, extraordinary political will, and highly enlightened and inspired leadership to come to fruition. However, we absolutely do possess the human capital to succeed. America remains a land rich in extraordinary human resources. Alternatively, we can stand by and watch the demise of our American society unfold as the slow-motion disaster that is already underway. We have the power to transition to a period of objectivism and avoid a slide into further crisis if we pursue a new model of governance. The good news is that at this moment in time the choice is still ours. But, by definition, moments don’t last forever.