American Deliverance—an Introduction

What follows here is a draft introduction of my next book, American Deliverance: Restoring the American Dream in the Post-Trump Era. I am sharing it with subscribers to provide an historical context and outlook on the question, What now?  I hope to have it completed and published before we need it!

American Deliverance: Introduction

I was born in 1957, the peak birth year for Baby Boomers and the year the Soviets launched Sputnik into space which, just thirteen years after vanquishing the fascists of World War II, shocked Americans into the reality that yet another existential threat loomed on the horizon, this time led by the hydrant-sized gap-toothed Nikita Khrushchev.  As Elvis Presley’s gyrations on the Ed Sullivan Show blushed the cheeks of women viewers and left network censors chewing the insides of theirs, Dwight Eisenhower, the twelfth and last military general to become president of the United States, began his second term.  Although 1957 marked the end of the interregnum of relative tranquility between existential threats—between World War II and the heightening of Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union—the late 1950s and early 1960s also thrust the United States from a somewhat clumsy pubescent world power to a full-throated superpower in the international system.  The so-called Camelot years of the administration of John Kennedy became the debutante moment for America’s coming-out ascension on the world stage.  America’s aspirational hegemony—sometimes real and at other times fantasy—was challenged by the Soviets and their proxy states for the next thirty years. Once Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika—accompanied by Soviet misadventures in Afghanistan— caused the Soviet model to collapse in 1991, America became the world’s lone superpower.  What followed was what many historians and political scientists refer to as America’s unipolar moment.  With all existential threats once again vanquished, it was up to Americans to lead the world, or to squander its power through fits of hubris and incurious negligence.  Unfortunately, the latter prevailed.

America’s external threats, however, like the fascist regimes of the early twentieth century and the Soviet menace that followed, were not the threats that ultimately placed American power in peril.  It was the unforced errors of American leadership, the apathy of the American electorate, and fundamental inversions of American values and practices that pushed the United States from its pinnacle of power.  In the realm of foreign affairs during America’s superpower era, engaging militarily in Vietnam was the first egregious error.  Kennedy and, moreover, Lyndon Johnson, justified U. S. involvement in Vietnam by the simplistic fear of a cascading domino-effect of communism that might somehow propagate to American soil some 8,600 air miles away but which, of course, never made it within 8,500 air miles of reaching American shores (even though the Viet Cong succeeded in running the U.S. out of the country).  The second grand mistake in foreign affairs followed the events of 9/11 when George W. Bush and Dick Cheney allowed emotional vengeance in Bush’s case, and a chicken hawk’s romanticized thirst for bloodletting in Cheney’s case, to cast a criminal act—9/11—as an act of war.  The power of law enforcement, which would have been supported by most of the world outside of Osama bin Laden’s circle of power, was set aside for neoconservative delusions of American grandeur that resulted in the isolation of the United States from its allies and cost thousands of lives and trillions of dollars.  Even today, some fifteen-plus years later, a final accounting of this exercise in imperial overreach cannot be summed.  Victory—which was never clearly defined by Bush or Barack Obama—remains an elusive fantasy.  These unforced errors are, however, only a part of the story of American decline.

Apathy in American politics is nothing new, although the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate era was marked by Americans taking a long—forty-plus year—vacation from politics.  Fatigued by the social and political upheaval of the 1960s and by broad cynicism toward government following Watergate, more than half of Americans disengaged from politics.  This abdication of civic duty was compounded by the effects of accelerating affluence that lulled Americans into a lethargic state of stewardship of American values.  This American stupor also allowed the degradation of traditional Constitutional protections by political maneuvering like the legal (but-not-right) acts of gerrymandering in Congress, and extraordinary rulings by the United States Supreme Court, like Citizens United, that compounded the concentration of power among the moneyed class of American corporatists, including Charles and David Koch. This stupor allowed the future to be directed by the few who remained engaged and enraged; by extremists who seized the levers of power and by those who could afford to purchase even more power.  Notwithstanding the apparent progress marked by the election of America’s first African American president, Obama, in 2008, by the elections of 2016 the rudder on America’s ship of liberty was dangling from its hull.

Leadership issues and this general electoral malaise accentuated by rising affluence in the late stages of the twentieth century also compromised three critical American dispositional values that had helped the U.S. rise from ‘The Land of the Free’ following the American Revolutionary War, to ‘The Land of Opportunity” following the Civil War, to its ‘Superpower’ position after World War II.  Individualism, or the notion that Americans were possessed of free will and took responsibility for its expression thereof, was replaced by narcissism.  Perfectibility, or the idea that Americans always strive to make things better than the way they were found, was exchanged for an adolescent sense of entitlement.  And, exceptionalism—the exemplar kind—where Americans attempted to set the example for others to follow, was set aside for hubris.  The upheaval associated with flipping these values to their evil-twin modality allowed, among other things, the election of what psychologists have termed the “malignant narcissism” of Donald Trump as president.  And, as evidence of the power of the presidency and the servile behaviors of Republicans who controlled Congress, Trump was allowed to inflict much more damage on America and the world than any of his forty-four predecessors.

The question for the post-Trump era is, What now?  The broad answer lies in how we address the question, What does it mean to be an American?  More specifically, what values do we choose to support moving forward and what is the story they tell about our fundamental identity?  In the period of cyclical crisis we emerge from today, the values we embrace and the manner in which we execute them will determine whether America moves forward as the world’s steward of goodwill, or discards its legacy becoming—simply and tragically— the next empire to be tossed into the dustbin of history.  The stakes are high and the outcome uncertain.  But, as I will argue in what follows here, among the elements of success are: a return to political engagement, most importantly at the state and local level; a commitment to personal and collective moral resilience; and the reconstitution of authenticity and virtue.  In short, this is what I refer to as leading from the soul.

By |2018-09-01T18:06:31+00:00July 20th, 2018|General|0 Comments

Shall We Read?

When my now nearly thirty year-old son was a toddler, his incessant demand was “Shall we read?” Or, phonetically, “Shall weeeee reeeeeed?!!”  His favorite, Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit, is probably why I still cringe at cottontail roadkill.  My daughter also acknowledged the family affection for books when, at “Bring Dad to School Day” in third grade, she was asked to introduce me and, in typical Dallas fashion, was also asked to describe what her father “did” since there were so many impressive dads who were doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs and investment bankers.  The look on her face—an ashen moment of utter terror—revealed the fact that she really had no idea what her father did.  She rallied, however, and with rosy cheeks stood upright and proudly proclaimed, “He reads!”

Fortunately, reading literature has survived the onslaught of digital disruption as both electronic and printed books remain in high demand throughout the world.  Although social media has sucked too many hours out of our day with substance no more rewarding than the junk mail the Post Office insists on shoving in our box, I suspect those lost hours will gradually be reclaimed once we realize the intellectual calories offered by social media approximates those in junk mail’s close cousin, junk food.  Spend as little time with social media as you do your USPS junk mail and you will be better informed and maybe even happier.  Junk is, after all, junk.

Read now more than ever! is my prescription for transcending the flood of “truthiness” emanating from the lying peeves who have hijacked our Federal Government.  Facts and critical thinking, when properly applied to put forward an argument, or simply weave the threads of an intriguing narrative are, thankfully, flourishing.  Publishers still have acquisition editors to weed out much of the crap.  As a writer, I know that writing well requires reading well, at a ratio of about fifty pages read for every one written.  Currently, I am in reading/research mode for a new book project tentatively titled “American Deliverance” that will attempt to provide a pathway to right the ship of American values, including tools drawn from Stoicism and Buddhism,  such that we can move forward—individually and collectively—beyond the banality of stupidity and avarice that has become a Twitter-shower of toxic distraction.

Recently, I have read four books (all 2018 releases) that I recommend here below to, perhaps, add to your own reading list.

  1. The Soul of America: the Battle for Our Better Angels, by Jon Meacham, describes the discriminating courage of predecessor presidents and civic leaders, including Abraham Lincoln, to remind us that throughout American history we have tolerated and survived treachery similar to what is occurring today to, once again, rise to a higher and clearer embrace of American values. (Full disclosure: I know Jon; Jon is a hero of mine as a presidential historian.  There exists no person more thoughtful, studied, and fair-minded than Jon Meacham.)  Like the standards set forth in the “Sermon on the Mount,” it remains unlikely we will ever achieve perfection in our pursuit of American ideals, but we can (and likely will) recover from our current predicament to form a more healthy and, yes, hopeful future for our children and grandchildren.  Meacham’s Soul of America reminds us that decency is more durable than any tweetstorm.
  2. Our Towns: a 100,000 Mile Journey into the Heart of America, by James and Deborah Fallows, provides proof that, notwithstanding the trolls in Washington D.C., America is doing much better than we might think. This should be required reading for anyone engaged in civic service, especially municipal leaders at all levels.  For the rest of us, it’s like a pain-free road trip through both familiar and unfamiliar towns that, coincidentally, share several factors of success even where doom was the odds-on favorite.  Jim brings his decades of journalistic prowess to bear on the essential question: What makes American towns American?, while Deb’s scholarship in theoretical linguistics provides insights about our chosen words and phrases that reveal our cultural dispositions.  From 2013 through 2016, the Fallows crisscrossed the country in their Cirrus SR22 airplane to study forty-two towns, doing deep-dives with locals to identify what makes America tick.  Spoiler alert: Tocqueville was on the right track.
  3. Standing at the Edge: Finding Freedom Where Fear and Courage Meet, by Joan Halifax. This is a book for people who care, and who, inevitably, risk tumbling off the edge of their empathetic perch into darkness as they face the challenges of being a good human being in the age of too many bad ones.  Halifax is a Buddhist priest and head teacher at the Upaya Institute and Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  We share an appreciation for the teachings of Thich Nhat Hahn who, together with the Dalai Lama, are the only two Buddhist teachers I have ever been able to comprehend.  I can now add Halifax to that list.  In a spiritual practice loaded with abstractions, Halifax is able to distill those abstractions into accessible utilities designed to coach well-intentioned public servants and caregivers to survive the traps and pitfalls that altruism, empathy, integrity, respect, engagement and compassion hold for those of us who actually give a damn about this world and those with whom we share it.  Unfortunately, good people often suffer depression and anxiety at levels that meet or exceed those for whom they serve.  Halifax shows us how to walk up to that edge, stare fear in the face, and prevail.
  4. God Save Texas: a Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State, by Lawrence Wright. Wright and Meacham are fellow Pulitzer Prize winners.  Wright won his for The Looming Tower: al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, Meacham for his portrayal of Andrew Jackson.  With the exception of a couple of years in the late 1980s, when I resided in Washington D.C., I lived in Texas from 1982 through 2016.  I remember when church was something people did before brunch where the Bloody Marys flowed until the Dallas Cowboys kickoff when Shiner Bock beer took over.  Big hair, big boobs, big balls and big bucks were fun until they weren’t.  In the early 2000s, the weird marriage of Tea Party libertarianism, white Christian rectitude, and pistol-packin’ chauvinism drove Texas into a soup of stupidity and cruelty where it remains submerged today.  My affection for Texas—which was considerable—dropped as fast as the rise in its perplexing pride of ignorance.  The state’s leadership today are a group of gun-toting, Bible-pounding, pasty-white, bigoted men who believe Alex Jones of Infowars (in Austin) just might be the next messiah.  Wright, a liberal lifer where armadillos roam, illustrates Texas’ history of mystifying mesquite-flavored madness that whirls from El Paso to Texarkana to Houston back up to Amarillo and everywhere in-between. And, he shows how the state will likely flip back to its bodacious fun-loving self once this period of righteous conceit (Ted Cruz!) is flushed into the Gulf of Mexico.

Enjoy your summer!

By |2018-07-12T19:37:55+00:00May 30th, 2018|General|0 Comments

2018: Passage to Promise or Collapse?

In my most charitable description, 2017 was a wake-up call for America; a year marked by surprise, anger, sadness and regret. In 2018, each of us must consider the blessings of the past and the challenges of the future while embracing an honest assessment of the role we must play in setting a course that reflects the values and dignity of predecessor generations. 2018 like 1776, 1865, and 1945 is one of those seminal years in American history that will determine the fundamental welfare of our citizens for the next two to three generations until we, inevitably, face a crisis of identity again.  The answer to the question, “What does it mean to be an American?” seems an abstract or, at best, rhetorical question.  Yet, in practice, it is the question at the top of the pyramid formed by our values, and beneath which our norms, policies and behaviors flow.  It defines us in every way.  Trump’s answer, wrapped in the patriotic tones of “America First,” is a deceit of epic proportions that aims to destroy the American Dream and abdicates American leadership across the globe.  No self-respecting American can sit this one out.  It is time for all hands on deck.  Trump is a cancer that is eating the soul of our republic and is an existential threat to the future of our children and grandchildren.  He, and his willing bootlickers, must be banished to the ash heap of history so that we may right the ship, which is currently listing toward peril.

On behalf of my fellow Baby Boomers, I apologize for where we are today—for allowing this monster of avarice and deceit to seize the reins of American power and influence.  Although it is true that Millennial voter turnout may have prevented Trump, they did not create him.  He is an early member of the Baby Boomer generation, born to parents who endured and sacrificed much during the Great Depression and World War II but, unlike their parents, went on to a contrary life of radical self-involvement with an insatiable appetite for consumption and aggrandizement.  We Boomers presided over the greatest period of expansion in American wealth and power with the conscience of a sociopath.  Numerous studies in presidential history argue that any sitting president is simply a reflection of the soul of the electorate, and Trump is unexceptional in this regard.  Together with Millennials, Boomers can take America back; redemption can be achieved in 2018, but the clock—both temporal and electoral—is ticking.

The identity of promise—of Global Stewardship—is denominated in the values of our founders including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness without regard to race, religion, creed, or national origin.  Those who embrace these values are caretakers of the American Dream that assures everyone access to opportunity balanced by responsibility within a framework of meritocracy.  This is the ethic of greatness; of a relentless subscription to humanity and humility undaunted by fear.  Stewardship means that the days of American power acquired through coercion are over.  In the future, it will be earned by the extent to which America enables others to achieve their dreams within the context of their unique and legitimate cultures. We must engage with the world in coopetition: competing to cooperate.  It is not our duty as Americans to judge and condemn, it is our duty to protect each other and to support each other as a matter of humanity, rather than as determined through the narrow lens of nationalism.  ‘Promise’ also embraces the fiber of hope—it is prospective—that America’s greatest days lie in the future, not the past.

The identity of collapse—of “America First”—is a narrow, isolationist, and demeaning nationalism that attempts to crush the American Dream and abdicate America’s role in the world.  Its proponents believe there are more threats than opportunities in the world.  That “those people” want what we have and we must fight to protect our borders, our classrooms, our government, our military, and our churches, from the insidious encroachment of intellectuals, socialists, non-Christians, and non-white and non-English speaking peoples. Exploitation trumps stewardship while ignorance is cause for prideful celebration.  Its leaders prey on those threatened by progress with empty promises of returning them to yesterday’s greatness.  For American firsters, there are no shades of gray, only black and white; in every contest, there is winner and there is a loser.  Moreover, the ‘Collapse’ identity plays host to the conceit of a swindler whose prospects are assured by the extent to which he can divide America and concentrate power in his own hands while stealing the wealth and liberties of hard-working Americans.

These are the stakes: the two very different identities in contention for the future of America for decades to come.  This is the year—2018—when, someday, you will be asked, what did you do to protect the American Dream?  What did you do to save America and the world?  In 2018, complacency is complicity.  Unlike prior generations, it is unlikely you will be asked to leave your family to go off to a foreign land with no assurance of your return.  But, you must set aside the whining and fear and stand up for your future.  Participate by contributing through work and financial resources. Focus on flipping Congress in 2018 away from the harlots of Trump’s tribe so that we might preempt their embezzlement of America’s future.  America’s nightmare will not end by counting on someone else to save you.  The time for surprise, anger, sadness, and regret are over.  It is time to win for all of us here today and born tomorrow.  Let’s roll.

By |2018-05-30T20:37:39+00:00December 30th, 2017|American Identity, Donald Trump, General|0 Comments

Who Will Save the American Dream?

As Trump tramples the American Dream in favor of his despotic nightmare, no one party or candidate has emerged as its savior.  The Democrats best effort at fashioning a new narrative has given us the limp ‘n lame “A Better Deal” while the progressive icon, Senator Elizabeth Warren, decries a “rigged system,” both weirdly attempting to sound more Trumpy than the other (see my recent post “Democrats, It’s Time to Wise Up,” August 15, 2017).  Whoever develops a narrative wrapped around the tenets of the American Dream—under attack since the rise of the Tea Party and under siege during the Trump presidency—will likely do very well in 2018 and beyond.  However, to date, Trump’s opposition has become so disoriented with the horrors of his presidency it is either strangely emulating him as in the case of the Democratic Party leadership, or so narrowly focused on particular issues and interests as to be blinded to the strategic imperative of crafting a more powerful narrative to capture the support and enthusiasm of enough Americans to seize power and affect change.

The American Dream is a very simple proposition, first put forward in 1931 during the Great Depression by historian James Truslow Adams in his essay, “Epic in America.”  Adams wrote,

[The American Dream is] that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. [It is] a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.

Perhaps the American Dream is being ignored as a rallying cry because it is too obvious.  Perhaps Trump’s opponents are taking it for granted.  But, it is exactly what Trump is attempting to destroy in his pursuit of fascist power, and it is precisely what needs to be employed to unify Americans against the hackneyed recklessness of Trump’s Republican Party.  “Make America Great Again”—Trump’s fraudulent appeal to the American voter—can and should be defeated by the simple elegance of “Caretakers of the American Dream.”

While Trump advocates exclusion, uniformity, regression, supremacy, stasis, exploitation, indifference, dominance, authoritarianism, segregation, fear, division, and hate; the opposition is eerily silent about inclusion, diversity, progress, equality, development, empathy, democracy, integration, courage, unity, and love—the characteristics that underpin the American Dream.  The opposition is so appalled it appears confused, or at least distracted, which is, of course, exactly what Trump wants.  And, each and every progressive issue and interest fits nicely under the umbrella of the American Dream as it embraces fundamental American ambitions, including “the pursuit of happiness.”  Fairness, equity, and justice are at the Dream’s heart as civil and human rights, healthcare, immigration, and respect for science and the environment fit comfortably in its shadow.

The British scholar, Lawrence Freedman, argues in his epic study, Strategy: a History (2013) that strategy is “the art of creating power.”  Trump and his Republican Party have waived the flag in support of white economic nationalism to create theirs.  It is time someone or some party started waiving the flag to save the American Dream, where our power as a nation truly resides.

 

By |2017-09-27T22:03:40+00:00September 5th, 2017|American Identity, Donald Trump, General, Leadership|0 Comments

The Silver Lining in Charlottesville

Good news: as of this writing, Trump’s concern for the statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson being removed or vandalized from parks in the U.S. has been averted; that is, as long as we ignore the droppings of resident pigeons.  More good news: the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which prohibits “abridging the freedom of speech,” is doing its job.  Yes, it’s ugly and even scary to observe what some of our fellow Americans believe they should say or do in expressing themselves, but that is part and parcel—the risk and cost—of an essential element of freedom in America. Unfortunately, some folks missed the lesson that having a right does not make whatever one wants to say or do also right.  The wannabe Nazis, KKK, and other cretin white supremacists in Charlottesville provided a disgusting and jarring spectacle that offends the hearts and minds of the vast majority of Americans, none more than a generation of Americans who risked their lives to defeat Hitler, or carried the heavy burden of bringing civil rights to a country that to this day struggles with the simple notion of fairness and equality.  When the images of Charlottesville spread, which seemed like a colorized newsreel from the early 1960s, it felt like more than a half-century of progress in America suddenly dissolved.

In the aftermath, however, what is clear is that these events revealed more than they actually dissolved.  As Michelle Obama said at the Democratic Convention in 2012, “Being president doesn’t change who you are, it reveals who you are.”  And, the First Amendment has enabled our president to reveal, once again, that we made a terrible mistake in allowing his ascent to an office once held by Washington and Jefferson.  Any remaining questions regarding Trump’s fitness to hold the office—at least among reasonable and moral Americans—were settled this week.  He must go.  Those who marched in Charlottesville waving Nazi flags and chanting, “Jews will not replace us,” must be similarly shamed, shunned, and hopefully rehabilitated.  Being scared or fearful of them is unacceptable.  They are the ones who are afraid; behind the veneer of hate lurks weakness and cowardice.  The true patriots are those who marched against them; those who understand that fear has no place in the heart of a patriot.

This chapter in American history will, I hope, be over soon.  Those rights of freedom we hold so dear will have, once again, allowed the country to move forward to assure that we all, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, or origin, are deserving of admiration and respect.

By |2017-09-05T22:13:59+00:00August 18th, 2017|Donald Trump, General|0 Comments

Democrats, It’s Time to Wise Up

As we move into the second half of Donald Trump’s first year as president, the lists of unprecedented things—from Trump’s seemingly limitless lies, to the tally of bizarre actions by his cabinet members, to the volume of leaks from the White House that appear to require the tensile strength of a fire hose—the greater and more curious development may be the Democratic Party’s abject failure to seize the moment and bring anti-Trump energy to bear on consolidating power.  Not since anti-Viet Nam War movement and Watergate in the late 1960s and early 1970s have so many Americans been apoplectic about our national leadership.  And yet, the Democrats, Progressives, Liberals, Berniecrats, or whatever name is claimed, seem bereft of a compelling plan to exploit the craziness that has metastasized throughout the lymphatic system of the Republican Party.

Earlier this month the Democrats, led by Senator Charles Schumer of New York, attempted to brand a new plan with the slogan “A Better Deal.”  The announcement was so lame—so painfully weak and inauthentic—it reminded me of Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis’ fateful 1988 ride on top of a tank wearing a helmet meant for a much larger man.  Further, it mirrors Trump’s transactional disposition in an attempt to suggest the Democrats can out-Trump Trump.  The ultimate irony may be that the Democrats need look no further than the Republicans to learn how to win; yet they are so addled by their inability to look beyond narrow self-interest in favor of a big inclusive narrative, so reluctant to work within the political system to harness its power, and so intoxicated by years of throwing back shots of nihilism that they may squander this generational opportunity Trump has so assiduously delivered.

The lack of a tight, compelling, and over-arching narrative that provides a large tent to attract enough people to truly affect change is the first and probably the most egregious failure of the Democratic Party today.  Democrats are adept at listing all the things they want, but weirdly deficient in their capacity to articulate those needs within a belief system—a narrative based in why (as opposed to what, how, where, and who).[1]  Their many attempts to bring like-minded people together often quickly devolve into a resource competition between particular interest groups concerned with economic inequality, healthcare, environment, immigration, women’s rights, etc. The Republicans on the other hand have, for decades now, wrapped themselves in ideas and beliefs rather than dialing too far down into the detail of policy until, of course, they assemble enough power to implement change.  This strategic disposition has served the Republicans very well: they control the majority of state houses throughout the country, and all three branches of our Federal government.  Their narrative has the American flag as its central symbol—they own patriotism even while many of them barely qualify as more than lapel-pin patriots.  They speak of beliefs, not wants or desires; of a limited role for government, of fundamental values that emanate from the Constitution (and the Bible), of a country that sets the example for the world as opposed to the Democrats who compile lists of grievances in search of “a better deal.”

This Democratic penchant for issues rather than ideas is deeply ingrained in the DNA of the Party and on display recently by one of their standard bearers, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, at the meeting of Netroots Nation progressives in Atlanta on August 12th.  She ticked off her list of popular progressive issues then struggled (and failed) to place them within an inclusive over-arching narrative, or vision, astonishingly borrowing Trump’s tired trope that “the system is rigged!” as her preferred punch line.  She railed against a common target of Democrats—the evil of corporate power—even while a more abhorrent evil, neo-Nazis and white supremacists, were marching and killing in Charlottesville, Virginia.  She managed to touch every special interest in the room while fundamentally failing to provide them with a reason to come together under a transcendent value system that might unite them in something more than hating Trump, power, and wealth.  She may have improved her own political prospects for 2020, but she did nothing to move the Party onto stronger footing.  She and Senator Schumer are squandering the opportunity provided by Trump.

The second strategic failure of the Democrats has also reached legacy status: the propensity to fight a system from the outside rather than penetrating it and accessing its power to achieve transformative objectives.  Michael Tomasky, columnist for The Daily Beast and editor of Democracy: a Journal of Ideas summarized this condition best recently in The New York Times where he argued,

One key difference between the right and the left in this country has been that the right has worked an inside game while the left has mostly remained outside the system.  That’s how it has been since the late 1950s, when the modern conservative movement was first organizing itself and its leaders made the conscious decision to work within the Republican Party.  The Republicans of that time were full of centrists and liberals.  It wasn’t a club die-hard conservatives wanted to join, but they did.  They decided rather than fight the power, they wanted to become the power.  And, of course, they have.

Meanwhile, Democrats are not only unsure of what to call themselves today, they easily succumb to the simplicity of factions—of self-identifying with what they want in the moment rather than a larger ideal—unable and often unwilling to find common ground within their own party, by and between their many myopic, and frankly selfish, leaders.  This is exacerbated by another anti-system sentiment that perpetually keeps power beyond their grasp: low voter turnout among 18-44 year-olds.  This modality is highly unlikely to provide a path to power within a system that will endure well beyond the life of their current concerns and desires.

The third strategic impediment to the success of the Democratic Party is its penchant for nihilism.  While the Republicans proudly espouse an exemplar strain of exceptionalism—that America is the chosen land for people who themselves have been chosen to lead the world to a better place—the Democrats tend to wallow in a nihilistic broth of self-pity.  Jimmy Carter became (in)famous for his “national malaise” jeremiads, and was subsequently easily defeated by the sunny disposition of Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America” that offered Americans absolution from the sins that concerned Carter.  Occupy Wall Street may have been the movement that established the residency of this condition in the modern Democratic Party.  Begun as a leaderless movement with no particular objective other than raising awareness of economic inequality and revealing that Wall Street is governed by (surprise!) greed, their followers accomplished nothing in terms of change but painted the Party as a home for downtrodden Millennials who believe they have no chance of success in a game that is—wait for it, of course—rigged!  Perhaps this is a revelation for some, but people are not generally attracted to negativity and cynicism.  Rather, people want to be associated with winning teams; they want to be for something—proponents—rather than against everything—opponents.  It’s much more fun to have the ball and play offense than it is to look at others playing with the ball and hoping someday to join in the fun.  Republicans understand this, while Democrats, to their great peril, find bewildering comfort in whipping themselves with the repudiation that accompanies failure.

The nearly six thousand Indivisible groups around the country, representing the new progressive core of the Democratic Party, took their initial organizing framework from the playbook of the Tea Party.  That proved to be a wise adaptation from a group that has become a stronghold within the Republican Party.  Democrats, Progressives, Liberals, and Berniecrats would do well to revisit other strategic aspects of Republican success to capitalize on what Trump hath wrought for the GOP.  Tactics follow strategy, not the other way around.  Ignoring these lessons may produce the unthinkable: Trump’s second inauguration.

[1] For more on this type of narrative building, see my essays in the “American Identity” collection at https://ameritecture.com/category/american-identity/.
By |2017-08-18T15:13:56+00:00August 15th, 2017|Donald Trump, General|0 Comments

The Chosen Ones

The following is Steding’s keynote address at the Third Congressional District (D3) Summit in Ridgway, Colorado on July 21, 2017.

Recently, I watched an interview of Elon Musk, the great inventor, entrepreneur, and American immigrant from the 2017 TED conference.  He discussed the many seemingly outrageously optimistic objectives he has for everything from building a new tunnel system for commuters under Los Angeles to his new line of Tesla cars.  If you haven’t seen him interviewed before, he is a very kinetic individual.  His eyes, which flutter and dart from one idea to the next, reveal the intensity of his ambition and the size of his intellect.  Toward the end of the interview when asked why he pursues so many objectives with such confidence and abandon, Musk’s eyes settled, and he did something we rarely see him do, he paused. He paused, took a deep breath, and simply answered: “I’m not trying to be anyone’s savior … I’m just trying to think about the future and not be sad.”  That simple and heartfelt response really resonated with me when I think about the future of America, and I suspect many of you here today share Musk’s sentiment: when we think about the future of America, we just don’t want to be sad—for ourselves, friends, family, neighbors, town, state, county, country and world.

Today we should also remind ourselves that there are many reasons the United States is the envy of the world. We actually do things right most of the time. As Winston Churchill once suggested, we get things right after trying everything else first.  Americans are imaginative, optimistic, hopeful, caring, hard working and always have an unshakable desire to do better in the future.  And yes, American’s are also precocious, arrogant, and even grotesque, a perplexing combination often creating confusion around the world.

We believe we can make ourselves into whatever we want, unencumbered by where we were born or whom our daddy is. Our ancestors do not define our stake in the world. Our self-image is largely prospective. This uniquely American condition requires, at its very core, that we be individually capable of exercising free choice and willing to accept the consequences of those choices, including electing folks who will represent us in a fair and respectful manner.  In short, we must exert our political will.  Otherwise, we end up with elected officials who want to “take America back again,” which is foolhardy to suggest and frankly impossible to accomplish because, as Roger Cohen, columnist for The New York Times and new resident to Ridgway wrote recently, America is always “ceaselessly becoming.”  Those who peddle fear, anger, and intolerance only act to reveal their own shortcomings and their own misunderstanding of what truly makes America great.  Those who embrace hope, summon courage, and engage with empathy for their fellow citizens must unite to stem the tide of vitriol and secure the future of an America that preserves the prospect of the American dream for future generations.

·      I believe that the values of the vast majority of Americans will prevail over those who espouse win/lose, zero-sum thinking, wrapped in deceit and fear.

·      I believe we will return as exemplars of self-restraint and moderation, rather than zealous missionaries of consumptive duplicity.

·      I believe we will renew our commitment to diversity and find a way to keep the gates of America open.

·      I believe we will educate our children to know more than we do—that we will succeed in enabling their dreams.

·      I believe we can and will rein in the effects of climate change and eliminate the use of fossil fuels altogether, perhaps even in my lifetime.

·      I believe we can engineer a system that protects and rewards merit balanced by empathy and mitigate the pernicious effects of concentrated wealth and its natural progeny plutocracy.

·      I believe we can be good stewards of a globalizing world and that we will continue to be welcomed in the capitols of the world as those who enable and lift the lives of others—who compete to cooperate.

·      I believe we will honor our American heritage and come together to relight the city upon the hill, rather than strut down the path to irrelevance.

But it all depends on the will of the people, of the will of folks like you, the self-chosen ones who have accepted the responsibility to rescue our imperiled union and the values of liberty and justice for all from those who wish to turn back the progress made by now seven generations of great Americans.

It is our collective political will that will successfully navigate this period of crisis and transform our identity from superpower to global stewards; that the nation of Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, and Hamilton will not become an isolated, self-centered, and decaying archetype of liberty.  And while there is never a clear roadmap toward a certain future, history suggests that Americans will do what they have always done: combine seemingly disconnected and disparate ideas and materials into new inventions and innovations to create previously unimaginable solutions to our greatest challenges.

Your future and the future of this country are in your hands.  And, although the challenge seems daunting at times, you and your family, neighbors and friends have the power.  I want to turn now to something you’ll need on this journey—to exercise your political will—and that is what I call transcendent courage.

There are five elements of transcendent courage:

1.     The first is the capacity to see things as they are, which comprise what I call your truth.  The truth in transcendent courage is based in the simple reality that we know what the right thing is to do.  The difficulty comes in listening to and honoring our sense of truth (allowing its transcendence) against the pressures of competing influences. Those who possess transcendent courage are the most innocently (or unapologetically) honest among us.  They live in their truth all day, every day.

2.     The second element of transcendent courage is the capacity to subordinate consequence to the necessity of action; consequences are inconsequential.  Fears are faced down.  The prospect of immeasurable burden is accepted with grace and dignity. Risk, ridicule, and loss are accepted as the inevitable partners of a courageous life, one which, above all, honors (its truth.

3.     The third element of transcendent courage is selflessness.  Many people define their lives by their service to others.  They measure their self-worth by the extent to which they make others smarter, healthier, happier, and safer.  Teachers, doctors, clergy, police, firefighters, paramedics, military, and community volunteers come readily to mind.  By their very nature or life choice, people who spend their time serving others have a significantly greater propensity to possess transcendent courage.  Service to others teaches us the intrinsic value of selflessness.  It isolates the influence of adoration and compensation from consideration.  It gives us the opportunity to embrace our humanity and feel connected to community while enhancing our self-esteem.  Selflessness produces that warm feeling many call peace.  Selflessness is the liberation of the soul from the oppression of our desires.

4.     The fourth element of transcendent courage is self-acceptance.  Are you comfortable in your own skin?  Do you like you?  Have you resolved with yourself who you are?  People who have access to transcendent courage accept who they are and live lives bounded by dignity and imbued with grace. They are at peace with themselves, in the present.

5.     The fifth element of transcendent courage is the transmission of strength.  I’d like to tell you about Sara.  I met Sara at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas at the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders where she was being treated for an aggressive form of leukemia and where I was a volunteer.  Sara was five when she started her treatment and like most five-year old girls Sara liked everything as long as it was pink, purple or somehow related to Barbie. Sara had pale, crystal-blue eyes and strawberry-blonde hair, always gathered with a satin, clip-on bow. She loved to have her nails painted and preferred patent leather shoes. Soft and shiny was her style, which meant that both silk and fleece could be mixed in the same outfit without offending her aesthetic sensibilities. Sometimes she looked like a kid who had dressed herself while standing in her closet, blindfolded. Everyone who spent just five minutes with Sara loved her, including me. Sara is the most courageous person I have ever known.  During Sara’s three years of horror battling leukemia I never saw her cry out, whine or complain.  I will never forget the last few days before Sara’s death. Sara was the first one to accept what was coming. She helped everyone else through the painful anticipation of losing her. She smiled every moment she was awake. She never expressed concern for herself. She only wanted to make sure her mother, father, and little brother would be okay.  Sara’s legacy is the strength she transmitted to those around her.  Her courageous behavior made anyone who was in contact with her a better and stronger person. This is the fifth and final element of transcendent courage. Those who act courageously enhance the lives and behaviors of everyone around them.

Those of you who marched on January 21st of this year are really no different than those who tossed tea into Boston Harbor launching the American Revolution for independence, or the abolitionists who fought to redeem America from its original sin of slavery, or who fought fascism in the 1930s and 40s, or those who rallied to the side of civil rights and against the Viet Nam War in the 1960s. You are the true patriots, the chosen ones to protect and assure our future.

At D3 we have adopted an ethic—a manifesto—of “six words to write on the wall” to guide our efforts.

1.     Authentic.  Keep it real, and keep it true. In periods of crisis there is not enough slack in the system to reward work that is almost right.  Only the real stuff wins. The question is, what is the fundamental value you wish to express in its simplest form?  Seek to promote values that are pervasive and durable throughout the system, product, policy, or personal regimen.  Once identified, set them like cornerstones to support everything you do.  The best example of authenticity I can offer you is Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. who launched a civil rights revolution with fewer resources than any of us has today.  He had no money, no weapons, no statutory power, and no technology—no Internet, social media, cellphones, or even fax.  But, he had authentic beliefs and convictions that resonated with millions of people, expressed as his “Dream.”

2.     Resilience.  Here is a not-so-newsy flash: you, your family, your company, your community, your city, and your country will suffer a blow or blows as we unwind from the current crisis in the chaotic and messy climb toward a new more settled state.  Crises, like forest fires, are indiscriminate.  Even if you avoid catastrophic damage, collateral damage is a certainty.  Many herald schemes of sustainability and independence, but they are just part of this larger objective of resilience.  To survive we must have the ability to bounce back.  In our personal lives, this means we have to be mentally and physically fit, and have access to sufficient financial and human resources. Have go-to folks that can bolster your efforts in those areas where they are stronger than you.  Take personal responsibility for your lot, however you define it.  When the blow comes take the hit, dust yourself off, and get ready to hit back.  Make yourself a hard target.

3.     Gonzo.  Honor the ethic given us by the late Hunter S. Thompson.  In shorthand, gonzo means that you should write all the rules down so you know what not to do.  Channel your inner Gonzo.  The vast majority of rules, policies, and structures were adopted to protect those in power, not to protect or serve you. In the ascent from crisis, those who set aside tradition and define their world in their own terms will be profoundly successful and yes, much happier.  When you face the inevitable admonishment “you can’t do that” or “that isn’t allowed,” simply respond: watch me.

4.     Transcendent.  Rise above the rabble.  Don’t be drawn into the muck of ignorance that is so-often the marker of organizations and factions whose survival depends on the condemnation of opposing perspectives. Be wary of ideologies and theologies that practice judgment and condemnation.  They are debilitating.  Retain your free will.  Read often and deeply; look for character, structure, and meaning.  Pursue knowledge beyond your comfort zone.  What does the artist know or do that might benefit the scientist?  This is the best way to nurture the power of an opposable mind.  An opposable mind is always open to new ideas that create solutions no one else has thought of—that transcend the moment.

5.     Stealth. High profiles are dangerous in periods of crisis.  Humility and self-restraint are clearly preferable to hubris.  There are many people who enjoy health, wealth, and happiness who never stick their head in front of the camera. Be like them.

6.     Grace.  There are many definitions and interpretations of grace, so let me start by suggesting the grace I speak of is when the proper balance of virtues are combined with other elements and resources to produce something beautiful.  A state of grace then is the modality that produces beauty, whether it is an object, product, service, idea, or writing.  Pierre-Auguste Renoir often argued that the most durable things in the world are those that are beautiful.  Grace is the capacity to bring everything together in such a way that people say wow that is beautiful, or amazing, or just plain cool.  I am suggesting that grace is when you bring authenticity, resilience, gonzo, transcendence, and stealth together in just the right way to assure your destiny—which is indeed a truly beautiful thing.  Then, you are in a state of grace.

In my final comments today, I’d like to share a poem by William Ernest Henley, written in 1875 and subsequently published under the title, Invictus.  I use it as a source of strength and inspiration when the world seems daunting.

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the Pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

 

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

 

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

 

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll.

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

“We the People,” is arguably the most powerful phrase ever written in the history of humankind.  But remember this: no one person has the authority to decide who “the people” are, yet each one of us bears the responsibility of making the “we” happen.

Go forth to engage and unite with a calm sense of resilience to establish a new America whose influence is gained not coercively, but referentially by empowering people throughout both America and the world.  This is not a fearful America, nor is it bounded by bigger walls and bigger guns.  It is an America that believes in itself and its traditions of inclusion and empathy, and of its passion for education, innovation, and leadership.  This America views dynamism and creative destruction as prerequisites to continued greatness, rather than a “great” that can only be found in a romanticized Rockwellian past.

Our future will be determined by the decisions and actions of individual Americans every day.  Like water carving a new gorge in a mountain of stone, it will be the collective will of the people, expressed in their nearly imperceptible movements that will set the course of the future.  I believe that the loudest, most angry, and most fearful among us will not prevail; it will be the actions—not rhetoric—of the vast majority of us who decide how to behave as Americans that will lead America into a bright and prosperous future.

Thank you very much.

 

By |2017-08-15T19:55:20+00:00July 22nd, 2017|American Identity, General|0 Comments

Power of the People

Ask any former living president, or read the dead one’s memoirs or presidential documents in the national archives, and you will find at least one thing they have in common: they came to understand their power was largely a function of the will of the people.  Yes, presidents do have specific constitutional powers, but without significant approval ratings they lose institutional support from federal bureaucracies and members of congress.  I expect our new president will become an historical touchstone for this reality. He enters office with the lowest approval ratings of any newly inaugurated president and those may prove to be the highest of his presidency. (See http://time.com/4636142/donald-trump-inauguration-polls-approval-ratings/.)  In the vernacular of Wall Street, he is a slam-dunk “short.”

That is not to say presidents don’t learn this and recover.  President Reagan, known to many as “the great communicator,” was keenly aware of keeping what he called “the common man” by his side throughout his presidency.[1]  He had polling, although it was fairly rudimentary by today’s standards, and he would even note in his diary how many people gathered on the sidewalks as his motorcade passed.  When the number of people who waved enthusiastically declined, he would take to television and give a national address, which were covered by the three big networks.  It worked.  Not only would the gears of government work for him, Speaker Tip O’Neill, his partisan nemesis in the House, had to make deals.

President Trump has neither the skills nor the temperament to manage this phenomenon.  140-character insults via Twitter will not endear him to the will of the people, nor has he surrounded himself (as other presidents have, including Reagan) with top-flight advisors and cabinet members.  Most, if not all of his cabinet picks are, at best, benchwarmers in the game of governing.  As attractive as ‘outsider’ status is during a campaign, it is crippling when the task of governing begins.  Just ask President Carter.

As I have written before, your future and the future of this country are in your hands.  And, although the challenge seems daunting at times, you and your family, neighbors and friends have the power.  (See https://www.indivisibleguide.com/web.)

Rejecting Trump at every turn will quickly degrade his power.  He will lose what I call referential power, critical to the support of those who actually make things happen.  I expect once Senator McConnell and Speaker Ryan get what they want from Trump, Mike Pence will be sworn in.  Pence may not be what many of you want, but probably no worse (and perhaps even better) than Trump.  And, 2020 will arrive before you know it.

[1] William Steding, Presidential Faith and Foreign Policy: Jimmy Carter the Disciple and Ronald Reagan the Alchemist, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), Ch. 6.
By |2017-06-05T21:49:07+00:00January 18th, 2017|Donald Trump, General|0 Comments

Obama’s Farewell

Tonight is Obama’s farewell address.  If his is received like his predecessors, few of us will listen.  It may, however, be the last sensible address given by a sitting president until late January 2021 when we will (hopefully) come to our senses and inaugurate the 46th president.  Unlike those missed celestial events that seem to always present themselves in the middle of the night, Obama’s will be available in real time and anytime thereafter to listen to, and re-listen to.  I recommend it.

Presidents often give their most compelling notes of wisdom in these addresses.  For the first time in their presidency they are allowed to tell us what they have learned and, moreover, what we should lock in our minds to avoid in the future, without immediate political consequences.  George Washington established this tradition when he cautioned us about partisanship.  It certainly was a warning we should have heeded.  He wrote that hyper-partisanship,

serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another; foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passion.

More recently, President Eisenhower warned us of an emerging “military industrial complex.”  We should have listened to both. (See a compilation here, http://www.npr.org/2017/01/10/509052320/obamas-farewell-address-how-presidents-use-this-moment-of-reflection.)

The United States will survive Trump.  Power will be abused, mistakes will be made, people will suffer, but America will emerge battered but largely intact, and so will you.  But not if we don’t listen to the wisdom of those who came before us, and not if we don’t stand up, speak up, and act responsibly.  Our future is in our hands, not Trump’s.  Focus on the difference you can make.  First locally—home and community—then with a wider lens.  Do not bully or be bullied.  Engage with a calm sense of profound resilience.  It is your life and your country.  Own it.

By |2017-06-05T21:50:01+00:00January 10th, 2017|General|0 Comments

Your Gift

We arrive in this world by circumstance and spend much of our life trying to reconcile the gift.  We endure our struggles and ascribe our lot with the certainty of burden.  Between the jubilation, pain and occasional humility we scrape a path that is ours, alone.  In the seam of these struggles life offers brilliance: the warmth of late summer’s sun quenching our shoulders as we gaze across a horizon of promise; the magical touch of a child’s hand who clasps ours for comfort; the flash of a smile from a heart who loves ours, too.  We are placed here to express a life all our own.  Tear away the wrapping; therein lies the gift.

Our choices are many, perhaps too many.  Some wring their hands over pearlized ivory or satin cream, over the eight-place setting or twelve.  Some pay others to tell them how to dress, behave, and raise their children.  Some find decision making an unbearable burden, fearful of those who may judge their choices as wrong.  Still others among us are addled by success; frozen by a world we herald as great. Those who understand their gift grant short shrift to such contrivances and lean forward into tomorrow.

Every morning offers beauty.  Every day arrives as a clean slate, if we look past the indelible erasures.  When the sky is dark, the wind unyielding and the news dire, there is reason to smile.  We each possess the promise of greatness: to thrust our spirit into the light where our gift can shine.  The choice is ours, in this moment and every moment that follows.  Look at that person who stares back at you in the morning mirror and accept your gift.  Draw those near who nourish your soul.  Let others pass.

This season, take a morning walk in the silence of new-fallen snow; lift a child upon your knee and tell them a story about your grandfather; sit outside at night until the sky throws a star your way.

Listen.

Love.

Laugh.

Embrace your gift.

By |2017-05-27T17:17:59+00:00December 23rd, 2016|General|0 Comments