Scared. Overwhelmed. Angry. Hopeless. These are the words Americans are using to describe their lives. The American Psychological Association reports that 87% of Americans feel the last two years have just been a relentless stream of crises without a break. Covid-19, our democracy in peril, war in Ukraine, inflation, gun violence, climate change, and a Supreme Court apparently determined to re-impose medieval cultural norms have Americans focused on survival rather than hopes and dreams for the first time since the 1930s. According to a recent New York Times/Sienna College poll just 13% of Americans believe the country is on the right track. Just when people think it can’t get any worse, it does. Then, it does again. We seem to be in a self-fulfilling spiral of decline.
As the Stoics suggested hundreds of years ago, the key to any crisis is not the crisis itself; rather, how we respond to the crisis. Thus far, we have responded with an array of coping behaviors; we have put our heads in the sand while pointing in any direction other than ourselves to assign blame. The sale of weighted comfort blankets and drugs and alcohol have been big winners. Denial and self-deception are natural by-products of the Age of Deceit that has persisted in America since the early 2000s. As many analysts point out, the irony is that many factors social scientists use to measure human welfare have never been better. The perils of life—even with the pandemic—are at historical lows. And, we have more than enough wealth sloshing around the country and world to solve every problem we face. The problem is something no government or political party, or corporation, or any of today’s organized religions can fix. The problem is personal. The problem is character.
Take a moment and look again at our list of crises. Of the seven named above, only one—Covid-19—is natural, which is to say not caused by humans. This is good news! This means we can mitigate, and/or eliminate every other crisis that threatens our well-being through the principled application of willpower with existing knowledge and resources. In short, leadership. But we can’t do any of this while hiding inebriated under a blanket, and while expecting others to solve our problems. We need to wake up, sober up, reflect on the values and norms that actually did make America great, and demand more—much more—of ourselves. This begins with better decision-making in all aspects of our lives: personal, professional, and social. Above all, we must set aside deceit in all of its forms in every decision we make. Continuing to fool ourselves is not the path to redemption or renewal. We must put truth back on its pedestal where it belongs.
Let’s stop down for a moment so I can explain the elements of decision-making and illustrate its modalities throughout the last hundred years or so in America. All, so we can understand how we got in the mess we are in today, and to find a path out.
People make decisions—both big and small—by accessing their knowledge and beliefs to inform their choice. That sounds pretty straightforward, almost like, “Duh!” However, as one who has studied this process of decision-making to a degree of ad-nauseum, I found it is anything but simple and predictable, let alone straightforward. The model of rational humans quickly falls apart when trying to understand why people do what they do, which is to say the very concept of rational decision-making is, well, irrational. To some degree, this has always been the case, but today it has become normative.
Knowledge is based on empirical facts and experiential truths. This is the realm of decision inputs we gain through education and experience—as a matter of reason. Collectively, let’s call this the head. Beliefs are based on ideas we accept as truths that are acquired through indoctrination and socialization—as a matter of faith. Collectively, let’s call this the heart.
In early twentieth century America, the head was promoted as the dominant set of decision-making inputs. As we emerged from the post-Civil War era and entered the modern industrial age, people were expected to largely set aside the heart in favor of the head that drove what I have termed the “scientification of everything.” The concept of “rational man” was ascendent. From the invention of modern production lines for the automobile to the widespread mandate of scientific method, we Americans thought we could make everything rational and predictable. Coincidentally, it should be of no surprise that religiosity (a completely faith-based “heart” endeavor), while always present at some level in our society, entered a period of remission in the early twentieth century. It was in the private sphere (where it always is), but less so in the public sphere and, after the Scopes Monkey Trials in the 1920s, nearly vanished from the political sphere.
But the heart doesn’t remain quiet forever. In the second half of the twentieth century, it became apparent that the head could only carry us so far. The concept of “rational man” was incapable of dealing with issues like human and civil rights, and also produced whopper mistakes like the popular “domino theory” that justified getting into the Viet Nam War, as well as scientific breakthroughs like DDT that killed pests, but was also killing us. Head-based decision-making needed to elevate its game. It needed to mature from rational decision-making to a higher level of judgment inasmuch as our scientific head didn’t understand enough of an increasingly complex world to avoid making tragic mistakes. Having tapped out the capacity of the head, we reached again for beliefs, or the heart, to improve our game. Inherited truths, which emanate from cultural beliefs carried from one generation to the next, returned to support this need for higher-level judgment. For roughly three decades, we came as close as we ever have to a truly holistic and balanced approach to decision-making. This produced one of the greatest periods of invention, innovation, and wealth creation in U.S. history. Incidentally, heart-based religiosity came rushing back into all three spheres of influence: private, public, and political.
Toward the end of the twentieth century, the scales of decision-making tipped in favor of the heart. Again, unsurprisingly, religiosity (especially more fervent Christian fundamentalism) was at an all time high. This shift collided with another transformational development in technology that proved both a blessing and a curse. This was the dawn of the digital age which, among other things, ushered in much higher levels of productivity resulting in yet higher levels of wealth and affluence. One critically significant negative side-effect of these developments was that the costs of bad decisions were often absorbed into the frothiness of affluence, which created unprecedented slack in the natural system of consequence. Bad decisions went unpunished and the learnings that accompany mistakes were also lost. In hindsight, we were not nearly as smart as we thought—making many poor decisions—without paying the appropriate price. Wealthier does not equal smarter. This is when things really started to go off the rails resulting in the mess—social, economic, and political—we have today.
One might expect that we would adjust our mix of head and heart to meet the decision-making challenges of the day, but without appropriate consequences and the learnings born therefrom, we went in an even more dangerous direction. We set aside knowledge and beliefs—both the head and the heart—in our decision-making and slipped into the realm of greed and delusion. We decided the truth didn’t matter; we entered the Age of Deceit. We started acting like spoiled entitled brats who believed we deserved whatever we wished regardless of any social, economic, political, environmental, or moral consequence. And, we modeled these behaviors for our children and grandchildren.
Today, we look at Millennials and Gen Zs and wonder why they can’t seem to get their act together; why won’t they seize the day and take America to the next level of superpower dominance? But, let’s all stop for a moment and ask ourselves: what have we given them to believe in? Hard work? Personal responsibility? Empathy? Humility? Altruism? Any notion of civics whatsoever? We don’t even teach virtues anymore, let alone model them in our own behaviors. (I know, you and I are exceptions; it’s everyone else who is lame. Big wink.) To make matters worse, we now have a group of leaders at the national level—in government and business and religion—who are some of the most selfish base hucksters of all time. They make the Wizard of Oz, flailing behind his curtain, look like a Rhodes Scholar in a think tank.
I am an ardent advocate of the American Dream. I believe when you consider our traditional American values collectively, their fundamental intention is to assure everyone has the chance to be whatever they want to be. Freedom, equality, liberalism, pluralism—all exist to enable our dreams. However, when we abdicate the truth found in our head and heart—when greed and delusion become fundamental modalities—we destroy confidence in the collection of values and tenets that undergird America. The result? There is no foundation upon which to build one’s dreams. We end up where we are today: feeling disenchanted and forlorn. If we want our children and grandchildren to set the standard for the world to follow, as was the aspiration our parents and grandparents had for us, we need to clean up the mess we have made.
It starts with demanding that the truth returns to the center of our decision-making. And, that the values and tenets that established America are renewed as touchstones in everything we do. Finally, for the Boomers (or older) among us, this should be our final act after which we exit the stage in favor of much younger leaders. Just because modern medicine keeps us churning doesn’t mean we get the last word. Maybe the occasional deep word, but not the last word. It is time for a new generation of leaders to emerge. They won’t be able to rise if we continue to block them. For the first time in our history, the majority of both political parties do not want their frontrunner—Biden or Trump—to run again. Perhaps younger leaders can get a new grip on reality, based in truth, to rebuild America. They will (as we did) make mistakes. And, if they endure consequences they will learn. So, please, Biden, Trump, Schumer, Pelosi, McConnell and all the rest of the geriatric class who hold power in Washington D.C., go home. Redemption and renewal—searching for rainbows—is for the young (and honest) in both head and heart.