We are in for a reckoning when our social fabric and societal systems become too brittle to adapt. The release of the report of the 1776 Commission — a Trump response to current events calling into question equality, racial justice, and liberalism — on Martin Luther King Day contrasts with a building coverage on the historical wrongs, and rights, of historical American behavior and its implications for the future moral and political development of the country.
As quoted in the New York Times, the report states that “Historical revisionism that tramples honest scholarship and historical truth, shames Americans by highlighting only the sins of their ancestors, and teaches claims of systemic racism that can only be eliminated by more discrimination, is an ideology intended to manipulate opinions more than educate minds.”
Yet, there can be no doubt that the United States, despite profound conflicts with its founding documents, not only pursued slavery with a vengeance but continued with its ethos long after it was abolished.
This is not to say that the progressive agenda in the United States is all right, it is not: barreling into hyper-individualism, free speech is disappearing at an alarming rate as political correctness and cancel culture generate their own rot.
No doubt the opposing views will continue to diverge as respective camps fight harder to reclaim the high ground. If questioning America’s rights and wrongs, and their meaning is a tough subject today, it is a harbinger for much more difficult challenges soon.
Only mature leaders and healthy societies are capable of recognizing their past deeds, interpreting and atoning for them as needed, as a transitional opening to building the next step in living our ideals. Joe Biden’s inaugural speech calls on Americans to begin this reckoning when he says “The cry for survival comes from [the] planet itself, a cry that can’t be any more desperate or any more clear. And now a rise of political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat.” It is a welcome call for America to finally grow up.
Fundamental questions are on the doorstep and if the polarization on the essence and identity of the United States continues to grow, our chances of addressing them are nil. This will in turn lead to America’s downfall, either precipitous or through long-term erosion.
The first challenge is already working its way into our reality. The great divergence in incomes and well-being is fueling poverty, instability, and loss of hope for millions of Americans. These are exacerbated by the political divides as noted above, but no one is seriously questioning the systems of production, consumption, labor, capital.
The change in the nature of production, especially the rocketing power of digital tools and communications mean that opportunities, although growing perhaps at the systemic level, are rapidly leaving many Americans behind as automation hastens the evaporation of jobs that require labor. Of course, it is possible to re-divide the pie, but the trends of digitization and artificial intelligence and the changes in its wake demonstrates a more fundamental societal challenge is upon us. If we have the means, is equity a viable answer in our existing system? Does everyone deserve to have a meaningful life or only those who are good or lucky enough to work the system?
A second change, with equally profound implications is coming in the form of climate-related transformations. The changes have crossed the threshold and now threaten the fundamental ecological systems upon which we depend. Think pollinators, soil health, and production; think water availability, drought, fire; think loss of nature and the creatures, forests, and oceans we love. The existing systems and theories, in which we have invested for a century, are not turning these trends around. Doing so requires fundamentally changed systems, as cited in the UN IPBES report of 2019.
Addressing these challenges requires a politics that works, yet these additional trends are putting strain on our systems in ways that people scarcely recognize.
Many say that it requires healing, but it is difficult to imagine how such healing will take place without a nonpartisan recognition of the problems confronting us and their causes. It is time for fact-based dialogue about the big picture and where our politics and systems are taking us. This starts with the virtues and dysfunctions of the current system but must extend to their systemic implications.
This does not mean demonizing today’s United States, but it does require recognition that we have been living in a way that is no longer sustainable or appropriate. It requires dialogue, a difficult one, but also a practical one that recognizes that we are living in an unprecedented moment in which Americans can and must find common ground to intercept accelerating and disastrous trends for both the country and the people of the world.
But doing so, will require more than “redividing the pie.” It will require a root and branch re-imagination of what it means to live up to the ideals that established the United States, and a recognition that we have a new chance to do so by expanding our horizons beyond a dogged adherence to an imagined capitalism that does not work in theory or in practice.
The forces of technological transformation and climate change hold virtually limitless opportunities for human and economic reinvention that can be hugely productive and inclusive. Many pioneers who believe so are already busy pursuing solutions that provide good lives in ecological synergy, yet they are swimming against a societal stream that is not supportive of these goals.
To unleash the creative energy for which America is known a national dialogue needs to take place, with space made at the highest levels of government to enable dialogues — such as citizen assemblies and juries, and Impact Dialogues that generate action rather than more talk — that empower people to again engage, with a sense of agency, in pursuing the future of which we dream.