There was a time, not long ago, when the future of America This America seemed poised for a new golden era. The Berlin wall was gone, and with it the cold war hysteria; the tech boom was raising many boats as we all became proud members of the investor class; and the new millennium was promising to unfold in all its hope and splendor. And, despite some Y2K fears that the end was nigh, when the ball dropped on December 31st, 1999, the people of the world released a collective sigh of relief. We had made it. The future was ours.
But, just like the resetting of the odometer on an old used car, the joy was short lived, and the world was soon back to its old tricks: the backbiting, the financial crises, the fall of those towers on 9/11, and with them the hopes and dreams of a brave new world. For, a mere thirteen years into the 21st Century, the challenges facing America, and indeed the world, seem as dark and terrifying as at any time in recorded memory. We are at a critical juncture in human history nearly unparalleled in depth and scope in all of our chronicled time and before: dwindling world power reserves; dwindling world food sources; dwindling world fresh water supplies; the unchecked growth of world population; uncertainty with regards to the state of financial and political capital needed to address these problems; the increasingly impossible-to-ignore effects of global climate change; and on top of this, leadership in America, and elsewhere, stymied at every turn by extreme polarization and a willful denunciation of reality.
As stated back in the beginning of this series of short essays, it is of great importance to understand what America is, before guessing what America will be, and what role it will play in the uncertain future unfolding before us. Well, that future is now here, and America, for all of its troubles and arrogance, is the perhaps only country left with the strength, resources, and resilience to lead itself and the rest of the world through the series of epochal threats that lie before us. For there is little doubt that events over the next few decades will shape the path of human existence for millennia: thus it is now up to us – every single one of us – to choose the path.
However, it was also previously noted that we can only change in certain directions; that the available paths we can choose from as a people are as much a factor of the directions we have chosen in the past as the directions we seek to choose in the present. And what have those choices shown us: that there are common themes that define what it means to be distinctly American; that America is at heart a divided nation, but that is has the capacity to come together as one in times of great peril; that we are a people who are not timid when it comes to using our military, even conceptually on its own people; that America’s distinction as the world’s oldest democracy is in no small part due to the contract forged by the Constitution between our government and those it governs; that while our ruling class has made great strides in weakening that contract, the people can still strike fear in its heart when they choose to speak as one; that the voice of the public has become increasingly fractured and hoarse as of late; and that the great gift of being able to bloodlessly choose our rulers, bestowed on us by our ancestors at great personal risk and cost, is in danger of being sacrificed on the altar of tribalism, fear, and false security.
Yet, if there is one overall defining characteristic to America, it is its ability to periodically reshape itself in unpredictable ways. We are a country that paradoxically embraces convention while thumbing our collective noses at it, a country with a reverent belief in irreverence, a willful disregard for history, that has little respect for the old ways even as they come full circle, that embraces the folly of youth in the face of entrenched wisdom, that therefore has the capacity to jump the tracks even when the course appears fixed. And thus lays the path towards our salvation.
As there is a common thread that runs through every American, there is a common thread that runs through humanity. As we seek together to reconcile America My America with America Your America and, ultimately, America Our America, let us boldly grab hold of that thread and live up to the fierce response “a Republic, if you can keep it!” Let us loudly, and with no uncertain terms, remind those who would seek to roll back our great social contract that it is not theirs to dismantle. Let us refer the tribalists amongst us to the ancient, bloody road of unification inexorably pursued by our species. Let us regain the daring fire that once allowed us to think big thoughts, to do big things, even in the face of impossibility.
For whether through collective choices we have made or not, it is indisputable that the world is rapidly changing before us, and in ways that will stress the old traditions to and beyond the breaking point. At no other time in history has the world more needed America to be what it has always aspired to be: a nation of hope, of opportunity, of change, of heroic leadership, and freedom from tyranny. Indeed, the long written record behind us has shown again and again that tyranny is the choice often made in the face of uncontrollable change, and therefore the opportunity for America to once again defy convention and blaze a fresh route forward that brings us and the world together: out of many people, one; out of many nations, one; united, finally, in peace on Earth.