America has become introspective. She is reexamining her mistakes and myopia, symbols of a deep crisis of identity. And the problem is this: Her values have, for a while now, been altered by heightened expectations and excess of modernity. America, here, desires to re-embrace her past and her classical values.
For America, these classical values are the strange confluence of optimism and prudence, a consequence of her historical nature. When her Puritan founders arrived at this land, they came armed with a fierce but focused purpose. Back home, they had retaliated against the Church of England‘s hierarchy and bureaucracy because they desired a relationship with God that was unique and personal, absent from a structured intermediary.
Hence they sought to create a state unblemished by past injustices, a classless society that could engage in individual and divine inspiration free from constraints. America filled that vacuum: unadorned, it was a New World brimming with potential and possibility.
The Puritans‘ voyage to America is where her values were founded. As travelers to a land that was foreign, they cultivated a capacity for great risk-taking. Yet they maintained their European traditions: industry, perseverance, sobriety. They were brave yet measured.
Over time, despite assaults on these values, America always maintained her equilibrium. Hippies ascended to be evened out by the traditionalists. Moralists waged war against the licentious. Excess spending was curbed by thrifty savings. Cultures and countercultures rose and crumbled, but the fundamental balance remained the same. This combination – hope and quiet resilience – is what shaped the American success of today.
What happened during our era was an extreme tilt towards lavishness. America forsook caution for abandon, disposing prudence and living beyond her means with money she never had. And compounding her problem were the arbitrary rules of international trade and investment – America thought she was rich when she really was in an illusion of richness. She engaged in reckless behavior in the financial markets, when “making money as an end in itself boomed as a calling,“ declared the New York Times columnist Frank Rich.
Now, America attempts to restore her normal. But the challenges are threefold: structural, fundamental and implicit.
Structural in the preexisting architectural organization of her institutions. Her infrastructure and public works systems are antiquated. Her buildings and bridges are old, while others are building new magnificent monuments and constructing high-speed, efficient rails at accelerating speed. Dubai boasts the tallest towers in the world while China still basks in her spectacular and majestic Olympics. Others are advancing.
Fundamental in her mindset. With the exception of Silicon Valley and, in a way, Wall Street, America lags behind her international peers in embracing new technologies and innovation. She depends upon misguided short-term policies: Japanese and German cars are outwitting Ford, GM and Chrysler. The energy in Asia, where the most exciting opportunities lie, is immediate and intense. The flippant peer remark that “in the past, America was the place to be. Now that is no longer the case“ might have been casual and callous, but it perfectly epitomizes the reality and sentiment of a less exceptional America and a more distributed power nucleus.
Finally, implicit in her national cohesion. Modern America is less uniracial and more multicultural, its diversity a potential source of great strength or fragmented discord. But America seems to be conflicted; her identity isn‘t clearly defined and she seems troubled in moving forward with her immigration and integrative policies. Uniting the nation to a shared collective purpose is the difficulty.
America today veers toward an inward-looking nation, scrutinizing every past sin. Her legacy is under threat. But she is recognizing her mistakes, rallying as a nation to correct them, and save herself from descending into irrelevance by summoning her defining values: optimism allied to prudence.
ZACH HAN is turning inward too during the midterm week – help him turn outward by hollering at him firstname.lastname@example.org.