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.