I love the American story. I admire tales told by old-timers, especially about hardship, redemption, and survival. I am inspired by listening to young people express their dreams of how they intend to leave their mark, especially when I reflect on the fact that in many places in the world their peers are still unable to have many dreams, let alone express them. The Next Americans, which I will loosely suggest are the under thirty-five crowd, are today forging a new identity that will change America forever. My generation (Baby Boomers), ambitious and rapacious as we can be, is largely irrelevant in defining what it means to be a Next American. I accept this reality with a gulp of humility, a slice of regret, and a pinch of sadness. Yet, I believe in the Next Americans the same way my peers and I received the confidence of our predecessors: with a transcendent sense of hope.
The Next Americans have an unusual opportunity. While American identity constantly evolves and stalwart values like freedom, individualism, and self-reliance are often squeezed in the vice of circumstance, and at other times manipulated to the point of obscurity, periods of crisis offer the greatest opportunity to redefine the American story—to establish a new identity. For Next Americans, crisis is good. Every eighty years or so America comes full circle and is faced with a crisis. The American Revolution, Civil War and Reconstruction, and the Great Depression and World War II comprise the first three. I have posited that in the interregnum between crises America follows a dispositional progression starting with objectivism where unity, reason, inclusion, pragmatism, tolerance, and self-reliance mark discourse and behavior. Then, slowly, we move into a period of radicalism when we begin to reject the status quo and are attracted to narratives of liberalism, activism, inspiration, and intuition. We reject standardization in favor of differentiation while we accept, if not expect, our government to play a larger role in society. This is followed by a period of über–idealism that establishes a dialectic synthesis of objective method and settled radical ideas and values. Hyper-exceptionalism is projected on an unwilling populace, both domestic and foreign. Grandeur reigns. Conspicuous consumption, speculation, deregulation, class inequalities and high religiosity are normative. The timber of humanity that Immanuel Kant suggested was ever crooked is at its gnarly apex during this period. Then, as if the laws of physics hold a bias for self-correction, crisis returns, generally characterized by both severe economic stress and war. Notwithstanding the requisite humility of an historian—that history is at best an imperfect predictor of the future—it seems more than plausible that we have entered another period of crisis, more or less on schedule. It may be several more years—accompanied by even greater peril—before we move into the next period of objectivism. Meanwhile, American identity is once again up for grabs.
Who we are as Americans is the common denominator of every major issue we face today. The role of government, immigration, fiscal and monetary policy, foreign policy, social services, healthcare reform, education reform, the role of unions, taxes, and deficit reduction battles, all contribute to the debate of what it means to be an American. During every crisis we wrestle between diversity and inclusion on one hand, and the impulse toward uniformity and exclusion on the other. We decide who is worthy and who is not, often based on bigoted parochialism. We engage in incendiary discourse and watch old assumptions collapse under the weight of new realities. Adversaries and advocates both conjure (often) bizarre interpretations of what the Founding Fathers must have meant when they scribed our original documents. Those who feel threatened by dispossession from their historical position in social order become a danger to all, most of all to themselves. But, out of the chaos, ugliness, and pain, a new American story is born. Old threadbare myths gain new fiber from the churn of discontent, like a recovering addict with a new hymn in his heart, we form new narratives that stagger forward toward the future.
Many suggest that our problems are strictly economic. President Clinton’s campaign strategist, James Carville, is famous for his admonition, “It’s the economy, stupid!” I agree with Carville, if your job is to manipulate a political outcome in the favor of your candidate, but I would argue this is otherwise a false premise. The economy and the danger of current and future Federal deficits are indeed deeply concerning. As a former student of economics I give them their due respect and, like many who view the facts in a sober and clear fashion, I see no immediate solutions that avoid extraordinary pain. However, I also recognize that our economic consequences are an effect rather than a cause; there are more substantive objectives we must pursue if we are to assure the future of this great nation. I offer three.
First, we must strengthen what I call our operational code. What we have lost during the last several years is our capacity to reliably predict the behavior of leaders who we have come to rely on, whether they are political, business, judicial, or religious leaders. Ethics have traveled beyond situational to vaporous. What some call our “rule of law” has been twisted to such a degree that we are now unable to form reasonable expectations. We behave at home and abroad as if the rules only apply to those who are subject to our power. The result is a collective social dissonance that may even slip toward civil insanity. We must fight to re-establish a clear operational code and force, as necessary, compliance therewith. Leaders must be accountable to their respective constituents, shareholders, employees, laws, and faithful. If we do not, chaos, while tolerable and even beneficial in small doses, may become endemic.
Second, we must commit to the development and application of creative intelligence. Teachers are a treasure, not a burden or a scapegoat. They should be paid as if we treasure them to assure the best Next Americans train brighter and more creative American minds. Furthermore, basic research and development must be the focus of rebuilding a prosperous and resilient nation. For example, big and ambitious public projects must be undertaken immediately to invent/innovate how we produce, distribute, and consume energy. Our security, health, and wealth depend on it. Second-rate creative intelligence will assure us of becoming a second-rate nation.
Finally, humanity matters. We must, again, take responsibility for each other and ourselves. We must reject the ethos that suggests a government or other institution is responsible for our welfare. The health of our relationships by and between members of families, communities, generations, races, ethnicities, and religions must honor differences first (to establish empathy) and second, identify common interests to produce mutual benefits. For millennia we have formed collectives to assure security and prosperity. In the last several years, however, we Americans have grown selfish and jingoistic. We cannot afford to face globalism with the insular and bellicose chauvinism that has become the clarion call of phony patriots. If we continue to allow this to be part of our story we will lose.
I am pleased to know many people who are the Next Americans. They prefer diversity and inclusion. They realize that zero-sum orthodoxy is more often wrong than right. They reject rational choice constructs that are an artifact of twentieth century scientific prejudice. Ideas and relationships matter beyond the calculus and confinement of worn methodologies. For them, cooperation carries as much gravitas as competition. Well-being trumps wealth as the primary ambition. They see the world as a complex matrix of interdependencies and reject the exclusionary and judgmental simplicity of the Manichean imperative that condemns those who embrace unfamiliar traditions or worship a different God as agents of evil. The Next Americans will do as we all have: they will fail their way to success. In the process they will define a new America. They will determine our new identity. I am grateful they will be the next to call this great country their own.