The Great Reclamation Project

Would you like to have your life back? Your community? How about your country?

It seems as though the United States has entered a death-spiral of self-destruction. The conservative and always mild-mannered New York Times columnist, David Brooks, suggested America is “falling apart at the seams”; that it is “a society that is dissolving from the bottom up as much as from the top down.” What we need is a new vision of what life can be and the leadership to match. But we also need to make a commitment to ourselves and each other to change some fundamental behaviors to realize a new destiny through reclaiming what we know is true and good founded in a deep sense of personal responsibility.

When was the last time you sat on the edge of your bed before laying your head on the pillow and said to yourself, “If only all my tomorrows could be like today”? To then rise in the morning with a heart filled with aspirations. To find joy in each face you meet. To be overwhelmed by gratitude. To know that greatness—for yourself, your community, and country—were not just possible, they were probable. To feel like a winner living in the greatest nation in the world. This was once the shared prospect of every American and it can be again.

The Great Reclamation Project is our pathway to a new destiny. It requires a commitment to reclaiming our agency as individuals, strengthening the institutions—both formal and informal— that serve our collective interests, and caring for each other and the environment we inhabit in the same manner we wish to be cared for. It also requires a willful suspension of the long list of grievances, doubts, and animosities we all have collected in the dark days of deceit and peril we have endured over the last several years. To be reclaimed—to affect a new destiny—we must first unshackle ourselves from the anchors of fear and anger and hate. They are killing us. Bearing those burdens is no longer worthy of our attention; it is self-destructive. They must be vanquished to the currents of history.

The work begins at the first hint of dawn—when the sun breaks the horizon tomorrow. We must reclaim our individual lives, our communities, and our country.

Here is how.

Reclaiming Your Life

Step one is taking back our personal agency; to take responsibility again for our decisions and actions that define who we are. To regain our capacity for critical thinking that begins with knowledge gained from credible sources. To be honest with ourselves and truthful with others. Since the dawn of the digital age in the 1990s, we have, willingly and lazily, sacrificed our essential personhood to algorithms controlled by those who wish to exploit us like Google, Facebook, and Amazon. We are not algorithms, we are humans. Apps we downloaded to speed our access to news, products, and services to empower our lives have proven to be little more than a means of manipulation that have chipped away at our autonomy one click at a time. In extreme cases of immersion, which I witnessed personally with a former family member, they came to completely displace reality with a toxic and paradoxical mix of self-loathing and delusions of grandeur. Let’s be clear, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook (now the Metaverse) could not care less about our welfare. Do not participate in his meta-ambitions. Click delete—forever. Take back your agency as a human being. Discard the fear of missing out (FOMO) in favor of the joy of missing out (JOMO).

As the editor in chief of Tablet, Alana Newhouse, recently argued, Americans are suffering from an ethic of “flatness” that arose through a combination of the progression of capitalist incentives dating to the 1970s, with the application of digital technologies in the 1990s, that have rendered American lives indistinguishable from each other—an epidemic of frictionless sameness. All round pegs and round holes. Our institutions have devolved into “forbidding exploration or deviation—a regime that has ironically left homeless many, if not most, of the country’s best thinkers and creators…strangling voice[s]…before they’ve ever had the chance to really sing.” The solution is to embrace, once again, what makes us human. Express your desires, ambitions, and truths regardless of pressures to conform to what the algorithms and apps command of you. Return to the richness of creativity and diversity that once was a hallmark attribute of Americans. As Newhouse concluded, “our lives should not be marked by ‘comps’ and metrics and filters and proofs of concept and virality but by tight circles and improvisation and adventure and lots and lots of creative waste.”

Next, engage with the world under the assumption that there is more good in each of us as than there is bad. History is loaded with examples of regular folks doing horrible things. But, by and large, humans are wired for goodness. From the beginning of humanity, doing right by each other was the key to survival. Today is no different. The key to unlocking the good is a matter of expectations. Humans love to meet the expectations of those who they wish to emulate—with whom they wish to share an identity. We must flip our lens of expectations from the darkness to the light. Reclaiming ourselves can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. A change in moral perspective from bad to good—from desperation to aspiration—is essential to changing our personal and collective trajectory.

In hand with this commitment to the expectation of goodness is the rejection of personally held feelings of fear, anger, and hate. Yes, there are legitimate reasons to feel all of these emotions. I feel them—and fight them—every day. But here is the reality each of us must face. Negative emotions such as these provide those who wish us ill, or who wish to control us, with doors of weakness to exploit. Our fear, anger, and hate are weapons-against-us that produce self-inflicted wounds; that eventually cause us to lose our freedom and any hope of self-determination. This was, and is, the entire strategy of control and manipulation employed by our 45th (and perhaps 47th) president of the United States. It has been used by countless fascists who preceded him. Why provide the ammunition for our own executions?

Reclaiming our lives begins with reasserting our strength of individuality. Taking back our personal agency to create a human garden of beauty and diversity that once left the French philosopher, Alexis de Tocqueville, both amazed and perplexed as he toured a young America. We must live in the present with an eye on the future while expecting the good in each of us and capturing moments of beauty and success as fodder for gratitude. Know thyself and express thyself while safeguarding beliefs and values such that personal integrity is assured. Flourishing requires character and courage, neither of which emanate from algorithms, nor from apps.

Reclaiming Our Communities

If you have read my essays over the least few years, you know I am a fervent proponent of focusing on the development of what I call stronghold communities. And, specifically and urgently, turning our attention away from the shiny loud object that is our federal government. As David Brooks observed, cited at the head of this essay, our “society is dissolving from the bottom up.” That observation is easy to confirm as each of us have attempted to navigate the conflicts and animosities endemic in the communities we call home. Coupled with the ineptitude of our federal government, which has rendered itself little more than a resource-hoarding sloth, and is populated by those more interested in self-aggrandizement than the welfare of Americans, we face little choice but to fix-our-shit at home and envision a future with stronghold communities as the central actor in curing societal ills and enabling a future denominated in aspirations.

Stronghold communities can come in the form of counties, towns, neighborhoods, or any other organization—open to being defined by those who find themselves in any association to serve a common interest. Just as the reclamation of our individual lives requires rekindling our commitment to personal responsibility, we are similarly required to take responsibility for the communities in which we claim association. The principal focus of stronghold communities is for the production and maintenance of what economists call public goods. Public goods are the things that make our lives work—safely and productively—that we all need individually, but which are only achievable collectively. Schools; utilities; security; transportation, commerce and social infrastructure, are all examples of public goods. In America, we follow schemes of collective capitalism to affect the realization of public goods—a hybrid of socialism and capitalism. Even all types of insurance are schemes of collective capitalism even though they are usually dispensed by private companies. Yes, Mr. Allstate, you are (at least) half socialist!

Stronghold communities must see themselves as significantly more autonomous than they have in the past. They must reimagine themselves as the central actor in securing the welfare of their constituents. The three key skill sets of a stronghold community are: 1) a comprehensive knowledge of the needs and issues of the community; 2) the capacity to persuasively solicit and creatively apply resources to affect the objectives of the community; and, 3) the ability to network by and between other stronghold communities to pursue shared ambitions. Forget the hierarchy that places communities below state and federal institutions. In the future, stronghold communities are the hub of the wheel. We must take sole responsibility for whatever our common interest defines as the public goods of the community. Fortunately, technology is on our side that enables us to both network within the community and to forge alliances between communities to affect the capitalist benefits of division of labor and economies of scale. Traditionally, we have looked to the federal government to perform this networking function, but we must now flip that paradigm on its head.

It starts with fighting—tooth and nail—for the return of our financial resources from the federal government to the state and local level. Keep our tax dollars at home for application to locally controlled public goods. To accomplish this, we must also demand the dramatic reduction in the scope of public goods the federal government is (ostensibly) responsible for. Things like national security, central banking functions, and national transportation infrastructure should remain at the federal level. But things like education, public health, and commerce should be re-delegated to the state and local level. There is no question in my mind that my state, county, and town would have done a better job at protecting our public health during the pandemic than was accomplished by the executive and legislative branches of our federal government, let alone the FDA and the CDC. What a disaster. It is time to scale back the scope of burdens our federal government undertakes and return those obligations and attendant resources to the control of stronghold communities.

Some will argue this pits communities against one another right when we need to come together as a nation. Notwithstanding the fact that our national government cannot effectively produce and distribute many of the public goods we need anyway, competition between communities may produce (as competition often does) better solutions for us all. This scheme harnesses that capitalist ethic of competition that will, no doubt, create differential advantages between communities (and varied attractiveness for people considering relocation), but in the long run will force the unification of communities eager to capture those advantages for themselves through networked coopetition—competing to cooperate. And, unless you haven’t noticed, our well-intentioned national leaders have no chance of unifying the country while the malicious ones have no interest in doing so. As members of our respective stronghold communities, we will all still be Americans, but with a renewed sense of thriving rather than suffering. All, without raising taxes!

Reclaiming Our Country

As argued above, our federal government is irretrievably broken. But, that doesn’t mean we can’t reclaim our country from the bottom, up. The Trumplican Party has completely subsumed what was the GOP. Conservative ideals have been dismissed in favor of a naked power grab designed to protect white Christian nationalists who live in fear of losing their position in the hierarchy of socio-economic-political power. Our nation no longer looks like them and it terrifies them. Ideas are no longer their pathway to power; power expressed as coercion has become an end in itself. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party is completely self-absorbed in intra-party bickering and shaming the opposition, all wrapped in a veneer of elite righteousness. As a result, the Biden agenda has collapsed and the American people have been left to struggle to remember why they ever formed a union. Currently, Biden is not just in danger of being a one-term president, he is looking more like a one-year president. This can certainly change, but the prospects look dim. In addition, while the executive and legislative branches seem like they are engaged in a middle school food fight, our Supreme Court in the judicial branch has become a political cudgel that has forgotten such sacred norms as the value and sanctity of precedent. To extend the metaphor of branches, I am reminded of Immanuel Kant’s warning that “out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.” Perhaps our founders didn’t read Kant.

As I read the many recent essays—some scholarly and others sloppy punditry—about the impending collapse of our democracy and the prospect of civil war, I am reminded of an old maxim in my study of international relations which holds that at the time the question has been asked, the eventuality is most likely underway, if not having already occurred. Today, we are indeed no longer a democracy. A government of the people, by the people, and for the people? We have drifted very far from that ideal. The political scientist, Barbara F. Walters, prefers the term “anocracy” which is somewhere between a struggling democracy and authoritarianism. In limbo, but headed in the wrong direction. The prospect of civil war is also well underway. Unless you have been asleep since 2016, we are engaged in a cold civil war that is becoming hotter (just look at the trends of violence) every day. And, the leaders of both major parties are fomenting further enmity at every opportunity they can find. Divide us to oppress us to keep power and money to feed their own illiberal ambitions.

I have heard the argument that other aspects of society—more specifically business, industry and the financial markets—will not allow our democracy to fail, or our cold civil war to become hot. However, the institution most cherished by these entities is capitalism, not democracy. We know, if we accept the highly persuasive research of the French economist, Thomas Piketty, that the endgame of capitalism is the destruction of democracy owing principally to capitalism’s effectiveness in producing concentrations of wealth (then power) among the very few, which is profoundly anti-democratic. Have you ever heard of the Koch brothers? Do you think they prefer democracy to capitalism? Further, unless the violence of civil war disrupts the processes of profit-driven businesses, do you think those executives will care? Their job is to serve shareholders, not the liberal ideals of Thomas Jefferson, or the unification ambitions of Abraham Lincoln.

There is a way to reclaim the spirit of America and the ideals of our founders—to reclaim our country. Like many of the challenges any human organization faces it comes down to charismatic and inspired leadership that is genuinely interested in serving constituent members. In our current circumstances, this means a completely new—even flipped—perspective by new leadership whose aim is to re-establish the prospect of the American Dream, including all the aspirations of every human being within the states and territories of the nation, as well as re-establishing the integrity of traditional American values and human dignity throughout the world. This is damn hard work, but no more difficult than that faced by prior generations.

It starts with candidates who aspire to not just restore a functioning government, but to empower the least powerful among us such that we may all rise to become our best selves. Not just better, best. Yes, we are absolutely stronger together. That has been proven over and over throughout the history of humankind. We need to be lifted up, to believe in ourselves again. New candidates must embrace the intoxicating power of winning; of the natural and contagious appeal of victory, which is among the most alluring attractors known in the constellation of human persuasion. Against all odds, FDR, Reagan, and Barack Obama prevailed over their rivals with one simple proposition: they made Americans feel good again; they made both citizens of the country and people around the world want to identify as Americans. FDR made “happy days are here again” a national mantra during the depths of the Great Depression. Regan claimed it was “morning in America” again. Obama promised the prospect of “hope and change.” Our next president must do much more than “Build Back Better.” They must convince all Americans, regardless of political affiliation, that our traditions of hard work, honesty, and creative innovation will, once again, provide a land of abundance and opportunity unrivaled anywhere in the world.

Last November, I proposed a way out of our mess when I published “MAFGA”: Make Americans Feel Good Again, I argued that “lifting people up has always proven more powerful than putting them down.” That candidates who embraced this concept could save us from the doom of Trumplican-styled authoritarianism. I received feedback ranging from thumbs up to “you couldn’t be more naïve.” Many readers were hung up on a visceral need to bring justice to those (especially January 6th insurrectionists and Trump) who have done America wrong before any pivot to aspirational aims. To be clear, reclaiming America requires justice to be served. I fully endorse bringing the full weight of the law down upon the heads of those guilty of violating our laws, including sedition and treason.  But, I also believe that is the job of our justice system. Our job, as citizens, is correcting our personal behaviors by reclaiming our personal agency, strengthening our communities, and supporting those who are willing to do the hard work of re-establishing the American Dream. We must focus on what is within our control. Absent these efforts, the shaming, prosecution, and punishment of those who we believe have done us wrong may amount to little more than a Pyrrhic victory.

We must flip our focus and intentions to advocating for aspiration, hope, success, and winning, assured and secured in the hand of sincere responsibility for ourselves and each other. If we remain where we are, addled by fear, anger, and hate—divided in the sinister trap of us vs. them—we will seal a fate none of us desires. We will fail ourselves and every generation that succeeds us.

It is time to shift our eyes toward the light of dawn. To rise again in the embrace of hope. To know that our strength and our future are in our hands. It is time to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and, before we lay our heads on the pillow of our dreams, know that tomorrow is another opportunity to prevail in the game of life and maybe, just maybe, re-establish that beacon of hope—that city on a hill—conceived by John Winthrop at the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630.

By |2022-02-07T21:46:32+00:00January 17th, 2022|General, Leadership, The New Realities|0 Comments

The Silent Coup

If you are a fan of the maxim “no news is good news” then you are probably having a delightful summer.  Compared to the screeching vitriol of the summer of 2012 that preceded the presidential election, this summer is one of the quietest I can remember. So far we have had Morsi’s ouster in Egypt which, lets admit it, is little more than a summer sequel to Egypt Spring: Bye-bye Hosni.  Zimmerman’s acquittal in the death of Trayvon Martin is the only thing people have been truly vexed about, and that is because journalists (both accredited and faux) twisted the story in so many directions that everyone was able to be furious about something.  Then there was NBC’s recent lead news item: “‘Rip Van Roker’: Al oversleeps, misses a show for first time in 39 years.” Yawn.  Pun intended.  The lack of exciting news may, however, be an illusion.  More, much more, may be going on than the newsers know (or are capable of discerning).  A coup—albeit bloodless and silent—may be underway.

What is newsworthy and largely unnoticed by those who continue to masquerade as journalists, is what is not happening in Washington DC.  Here I pick up on the themes and observations in my posts “American Empire (?): The Way Forward” (December 27, 2011) and “The Re-emergence of Personal Sovereignty” (June 25, 2012).  Evidence of what I described as big “workarounds” that, I argued, were the key to the successful reinvention of America and Americans, is now everywhere, except Washington DC.  The 113th Congress is no better than the 112th, today’s Supreme Court has proven a parody of judgment, and the Obama administration is largely wandering about with a map that has no roads, no contours, nor even a compass rose. The three branches of our Federal government are gnarled and withered—unable to bear even the lightest load.  And yet, the rest of America is rising, slowly but steadily, from the peril that George Packer so brilliantly illustrated in The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013).

Most families, many communities, some cities, and a few states have figured out their futures without the prospect of relying on the Federal government.  The Feds aren’t even a part of the conversation (which should scare them to death if they had even a modicum of awareness).  On the fiscal front, Americans (but not America) have cleansed their balance sheets of debt and are re-establishing principles of self-restraint and prudence.  The days of avarice are fading in the rearview mirror.  Self-reliance, generosity, and community are verbs again.  Bloomberg reports “Americans … have more readily available funds to cover what they owe. Household liquid assets—financial assets excluding pension and insurance reserves—rose by $10 trillion in the past four years, and the ratio of coverage for liabilities is 2.43, the highest since 2000.”[1]  In another comprehensive study by Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley of the Brookings Institution, they find that

A revolution is stirring. In the face of supersized economic and social challenges, American cities and metros are stepping up and doing the hard work to grow jobs and make their economies more prosperous. With Washington and many states mired in partisan gridlock, networks of metropolitan heads – elected officials for sure but also corporate, civic and university leaders – are reaching across partisan and jurisdictional divisions to reshape their economies, remake their places and prepare their workers for a more competitive world.[2]

Further evidence is found in communities all across America where “Community Supported Agriculture” and “Community Supported Arts” are generating even more “Community Supported _____” organizations that promote the production and consumption of local goods and services.[3]

Unbeknownst to our national leaders and the media that manically follow them, the same type of individuals Tocqueville celebrated in Democracy in America in the early 19th century are in the process of reinventing America from the bottom up—at the local level.  They are the real and viable alternative to the concoction of platitudes and vicissitudes our national leaders spew to convince us of their indispensability. Those national leaders, who believe they are the technocrats and plutocrats in whom we should trust our welfare, might want to look beyond the Beltway.  When they do, they will realize they are being quietly subverted by a once, and now again, powerful people.  People who march forward every day beyond the sightline of the everywhere-yet-nowhere media.

[1] Shobhana Chandra and Steve Matthews, “Americans With Best Credit in Decades Drive U.S. Economy,” August 5, 2013,
[2] Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley, “Embracing the Metropolitan Revolution,” July 16, 2013,
[3] Randy Kennedy, “’Buy Local’ Gets Creative,” August 4, 2013,
By |2017-05-23T17:54:27+00:00August 7th, 2013|General|0 Comments

Is the Doctrine of Common Interest Dead?

The concepts of general welfare and collective action are core elements in the Constitution of the United States, which I collectively refer to here as common interest.  Although common interest has been with us since the birth of our nation, and has been a fundamental component of social order since the days of hunter-gatherers, it appears to be in peril today.  The phrase itself draws ire from all political corners: some deride the invocation of common interest as a dangerous slide toward socialism, while others argue it marks the deceitful rhetoric of plutocrats who wish to extract wealth from the middle class.  Yet, our history suggests when our common interest is served—when we work together toward mutually beneficial ends—America is at its best; we are all better off.  President Kennedy’s ambitious objective of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth” launched one of the most successful programs of political initiative and private enterprise in the history of the United States.[1]  Among other gains, the miniaturization of computing power necessary to accomplish this feat is why we have laptop computers today.  There are many other examples of the benefits of common interest, but the point is this: the security and prosperity of America has never been won by the few, it has been assured by the many with the support of both private and public entities.  So why is common interest being attacked from all sides?  What follows here are some possible contributing factors.

  1. The Ascent of Me-ism.  While doing my doctoral research on the rise of religion in the political sphere by the mid-1970s I came across a monograph on the 1960s by Mark Hamilton Lytle wherein he argued (much to this baby boomer’s chagrin) that “many people in the sixties passed off self-indulgence and arrogance as moral and political commitment.”  In other words, while we traveled in the clothing of righteous liberation, we were actually just enjoying the hell out of ourselves.  Lytle continues, “by listening to Dylan, smoking dope, marching for civil rights, wearing long hair, and protesting the war in Vietnam, anyone could claim to have joined, though what they belonged to was far from clear.”[2]  More recently, Kurt Andersen at The New York Times joined Lytle in boomer bashing when he suggested that the late 1960s marked the beginning of individualism run amok.  Andersen argues, “‘do your own thing’ is not so different than ‘every man for himself.’”[3]  He further finds that the “Me” decade of the 1960s expanded to encompass the entire last half of the century giving rise to a super-selfish culture that has lost its capacity for considering the interests of others.  Recently, this selfish hyper-individualism has been cloaked in a veil of self-deterministic rhetoric most often conveyed by those who identify with the Tea Party.  These are the folks who live in the fantasy of self-sufficiency, while often disproportionately relying on government support programs like Medicare, agricultural subsidies, mortgage interest deductions, federal mortgage guarantees, and Social Security.  They suffer from what philosopher Firmin DeBrabander calls the “delusional autonomy of Freud’s poor ego.”[4]  For Tea Partiers (unless they are the beneficiaries) all government programs are evidence of toxic socialism.  The questions are, how has this selfish impulse been generalized in American society, and how is it sustained?  Part of the answer lies in three largely exogenous variables: affluence, technology, and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
  2. Affluence, Technology, and Hubris.  Three structural events have occurred since the 1960s to fuel our selfishness and contempt for common interest: we’re rich, we suffer the illusion of ‘connection’ with others, and a force equal to ours no longer threatens us.  Let’s start with affluence.  Don’t get me wrong, I love wealth, but it can produce nefarious effects.  Since Saigon fell and we retreated “with honor” as President Nixon often claimed, the Dow Jones Industrial Average has increased sixteenfold.  By most any measure there is no wealthier nation than the United States, and money (and the debt capacity it supports) has been a significant sustaining force of our selfishness.  If we wanted something, we were a swipe of a credit card, or another issuance of US Treasury bills away from getting it.  Even though the US is fast approaching technical insolvency, the rules of financial prudence do not apply to us since the dollar is (for now) the world’s reserve currency of choice.  Next up: technology.  Again, I love it, but I also recognize it has produced its own deleterious effects.  Humans need to be connected to form a sense of empathy, which is the foundation of many things including our subscriptions to human rights and common interest.  Technology has tricked us into thinking we are connected and that we are bonded by common interest.  We are not. We suffer the illusion of connection and common interest.  Just because someone ‘friended’ you or ‘follows’ you does not mean they know you, or care about you. Just try reaching out to your so-called friends and followers when you are in need.  Absent an established sense of empathy, those cheerful beeps, ringtones, and vibrations that signal friendship quickly fade to silence.  Finally, there has been no other state since the collapse of the Soviet Union to keep the US from imperial overreach; the natural boundaries of power collapsed as well. The result: we, like empires before us, risk decline at our own hand.  Hubris is deadly to both people and states and we Americans have been quite full of ourselves in the last twenty years, as we have sought to remake the world in our own (selfish) image.  Other contributors to the threat to common interest include what I describe here next as the twin delusions.
  3. The Twin Delusions: Free Markets and Big Government.  Both sides of the great political debate of this presidential season—those who hold fast to their belief in free markets and those who believe with equal certitude that more government is better government—are wrong.  Neither thesis alone has any chance of solving the problems we face, yet to even suggest a middle ground that includes elements of both ideological extremes is met with hatred and hostility.  The Affordable Healthcare Act (aka Obamacare) has been one lightening rod of these twin delusions. Healthcare is not a right, nor is it a privilege (as it is most often debated by adversaries); rather, it is a classic example of a public good.  When we are healthy individually, we are also collectively better off.  I often ask: do we really want those who teach our children in school, or prepare our meals in restaurants, to be without healthcare?  Public goods like security, financial stability, and clean air and water are only created out of a subscription to common interest.  As Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel argued persuasively in his new book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, markets alone are an ineffective tool in the production and sustainability of public goods.  He cites our slide from a “market economy to being a market society” as a dangerous illustration of the moral limits of markets.[5]  Public goods, like landing a man on the moon, or healthcare, or addressing the onset of climate change, are accomplished with a blend of market flexibility and centralized governance. All public goods rely on competitive and innovative markets as well as centralized command and control.  Healthcare should be addressed in the same manner.  The good news is there is more than enough money in the system today to make it work for more people at a level of service unmatched in the world.  However, common interest must be established once again or issues like this will continue to be hijacked by small thinkers and powerful interest groups, which endangers the future of America.  (In the case of climate change there may not be enough interest or resources to address it, but that is another story.[6])  The next factors that threaten common interest include those related to cognitive degeneration.
  4. The Demise of Critical and Integrative Thinking.  The now notorious decline of the American education system—particularly in math and science in our secondary schools—means that other nations will soon (if not already) exceed the United States in developing the critical thinkers who will produce tomorrow’s innovations to address our most urgent needs.  Through a combination of neglect, unintended policy consequences, and disengaged parenting, the education our children receive today is inferior to the education we boomers received that was achieved with fewer resources and analog technologies.  This condition has been further exacerbated by xenophobic attitudes toward immigrants who are educated in our superior universities, but who are then forced to return home when they would prefer to become the next generation of American innovators.  I am not sure whom we believe we are protecting with this backwater thinking, but it is most certainly not the future of America.  The other cognitive victim to the bipolar, zero-sum, us vs. them mind-set that has developed in the United States over the last few decades is integrative thinking.  Complexity, which is the nature of the globalized world we live in, requires multiple disciplines that each provide a piece of a solution that must be combined, or integrated, into an option that had never been thought of before.  This skill, or predilection, is what Roger Martin calls “the opposable mind.”  Martin suggests that, “integrative thinking shows us a way past the binary limits of either-or.  It shows us that there is a way to integrate the advantages of one solution without cancelling out the advantages of an alternative solution.  Integrative thinking affords us, in the words of poet Wallace Stevens, ‘the choice not between, but of.’”[7]  Integrative thinking has, however, fallen victim in part to the hubris mentioned above, and also from the application of cognitive constructs that have their roots in absolutist and universalistic thinking, which emanates from different places; preeminent among them today is religious-based certitude.  In short, the religious righteousness that has ascended unabated since the early 1970s has closed our minds to options that reside in the relativism and complexity of the real world.  Moral certitude has placed absolutism right where we need it least: in addressing complexity.
  5. The Rise of Religious Certitude.  For the last four years I have studied the impact of religious beliefs and convictions on presidential decision making in foreign policy.  I am often asked if religion is a good or bad thing when it comes to policymaking.  For me, the question is moot; it doesn’t matter.  What matters is that religious beliefs and convictions are a factor that we need to understand much better than we do.  Depending on the individual, religious beliefs contribute with varying emphasis on decision-making and, of course, the beliefs themselves differ both inter- and intra- faith.  When I construct the cognetic profile of a president each is as individualized as a fingerprint: no two are the same.  What applies more broadly here however, is that the level of religiosity in any given era matters, and in the contemporary era religion matters a great deal.  Since the mid-1970s, religion has been fully ensconced in the private, public, and political spheres in the US.  Throughout history this condition is not unprecedented, but the crescendo that has occurred over the last four decades matches if not exceeds other periods of high religiosity in US history.  During these periods—for better or worse—faith-based religious cognitive constructs find higher expression in all decision making.  While all religions purport a number of common values including tolerance, inclusion and, moreover, an expectation that we would all like to be treated well by our neighbors, the monotheistic religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam)—the dominant religions of the Middle East and the West—produce a dangerous irony: they demand of their followers a strict adherence to their particular traditions that (by their monotheistic subscription) does not allow room to consider other religious traditions as theologically valid or worthy.  This sets up a cognitive construct of absolutism and universalism (black and white thinking applied to everyone and everywhere) which compromises the values of tolerance and inclusion that are necessary to form the empathy that is the foundation of common interest.  Absolutism and universalism may arguably be appropriate in establishing moral foundations, but they are ill-suited to deal with the complexity of those issues that effect all people—where common interest must be established and where integrative thinking is required to succeed. In effect, these cognitive constructs get too much playing time in periods of high religiosity that has a chilling effect on common interest.

While James Madison warned us of the danger of factions in his Federalist Papers, and Thomas Jefferson worried about the role of the church in the affairs of state, Tocqueville also observed the curious synthesis of individualism and community that he surmised was fundamental to the success of Americans.  These concerns and observations all point to the importance of common interest and to its preservation at all costs.  Today’s political discourse too often threatens the doctrine of common interest espoused by our Founding Fathers and memorialized in the Constitution.  Selfish hyper-individualism, affluence, technology, the absence of a formidable foe, the twin delusions of free markets and big government, cognitive degeneration, and absolutist thinking that emanates from religious certitude, all contribute to the peril facing the doctrine of common interest today.  It is time for our leaders to find the center again and to set aside notions of absolutism and exclusion in favor of compromise and integrative thinking.  We must once again embrace the concept of ‘the many’ over the idiocentric beliefs and needs of ‘the few’.

[1] John F. Kennedy, “Special Message to Congress on the Nation’s Urgent Needs,” May 25, 1961,
[2] Mark Hamilton Lytle, America’s Uncivil Wars: The Sixties Era from Elvis to the Fall of Richard Nixon (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. xiii.
[3] Kurt Andersen, “The Downside of Liberty,” The New York Times, July 3, 2012, See also, Letters to the Editor, “Sunday Dialogue: Are Americans Selfish?” The New York Times, July 14, 2012,; and Frank Bruni, “Individualism in Overdrive,” The New York Times, July 16, 2012,
[4] Firmin DeBrabander, “Deluded Individualism,” The New York Times, August 18, 2012,
[5] See Michael Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), p. 10.
[6] For a (reasoned) skeptic’s view on the climate change debate, see Bjorn Lomborg, “Environmental Alarmism, The and Now,” Foreign Affairs (July/August 2012), pp. 24-40.  For a decidedly unsettling account of climate change, see Bill McKibben, “The Reckoning,” Rolling Stone (August 2, 2012), pp. 52-60.
[7] Roger L. Martin, The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2007), p. 9.


By |2017-05-27T17:44:52+00:00September 3rd, 2012|General|0 Comments

The Re-emergence of Personal Sovereignty

It has been six months since my last post, “American Empire (?): The Way Forward.”  I imposed a kind of self-banishment from blogging to finalize my PhD dissertation and compete my viva voce. Upon emerging from my academic cave a couple of weeks ago, I was greeted by the realization that little has changed.  I now know how Punxsutawney Phil must feel every February 2nd when the same old drunk Penn-men get dressed up to greet him and violate what for this subterranean mammal must be a blissful slumber including hopeful dreams that something new awaits him on the morning of his next winter’s wake up call.  The same knucklehead politicians and pundits seem to be with me after my academic reclusion, although fewer of the more colorful and stupefying ones like Perry, Bachmann, Santorum, and Gingrich are with us in their aspiring form.  I must admit that my masochistic evil twin misses them a great deal.[1]  However, notwithstanding the constancy of our national leadership deficit some things do feel different, which I interpret (using the much maligned term) as hopeful.

As I identified in December, the US does appear to be experiencing a decoupling from the woes of the world, especially that emanate in Europe.  While not entirely decoupled, our markets are certainly benefiting as a relatively safe place to store wealth, especially for monied folks in the southern Latin clines of the euro who want to avoid catastrophic losses with a return of the drachma or the peseta.  Among other things, they are buying up big-city US real estate; and it is important to note that US Treasuries, slammed by S&P last July, are doing quite well, thank you.  The reality is that while we have gained a great deal of weight that should compromise our prospects as the most attractive (one-night) romantic target at closing time at the local bar, demand for all things American remains at unprecedented levels.  However, there is a greater (hopeful) decoupling development, which is more local and more personal that appears to be taking hold: people seem to be ignoring bad news and have begun to find ways to get on with their lives.  In the absence of national leadership—particularly in Congress—individuals are leading for themselves.  It is as if they have declared the current crisis moot.

This condition amounts to another ‘work-around’ to be added to the list of three others in my last post; this one is, in effect, a psychological work-around where we each—one-by-one—reclaim our personal sovereignty.  People are beginning to turn the noise off and listen to their own music.  They are making tough choices (in many cases because there is no other choice) and moving on.  They are forging new pathways and new identities to escape the banality of the current crisis to produce what for them is transcendence toward a more manageable future.  This development is not based in apathy, or denial, or anger; it is based in reality and, I believe, is for the most part a very good thing.  While reclaiming sovereignty can be interpreted as a dangerous trend toward isolation and disunion, in the current crisis it may be just what our leaders need to sober up and start serving their constituents again.  Can you imagine the tectonic shift that will occur when our leaders realize that no one cares anymore what they have to say?  Who is elected this November, or in the coming two or three election cycles, may become irrelevant.

Nearly two centuries ago Alexis de Tocqueville observed of Americans that they had a particular sense of sovereignty that began with the individual and eventually “emerged from the towns and took possession of the government.”[2]  Perhaps reclaiming our personal sovereignty is a first step, however painful, to reclaiming America’s seat at the table of greatness.

[1] Although I read this morning that Bachmann has had her staff reserve precious lawn space outside Congress to herald the expected battering of Obamacare by the Supreme Court, no doubt with her trademark bimbonic stare.  My twin awaits re-satiation.)
[2] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 2004), p. 63.
By |2017-05-27T18:23:43+00:00June 25th, 2012|General|0 Comments
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