Reinventing America: Putting the “US” Back into the United States
Why does such a high degree of corrosive disunity persist in the United States?
January 7, 2011
Some people argue that the Civil War in the United States never ended. However, rather than North against South, as in 1861 to 1865, the battle these days is between Democrats and Republicans.
The battle lines are no longer drawn over slavery — but over such issues as taxation, income distribution, energy and environmental policies and the need to invest in infrastructure and education.
Rather than dwelling on the appropriateness of the Civil War analogy, it is more instructive to ask why the high degree of domestic venom persists — a degree of disunity that most other developed nations would find corrosive, if not suicidal.
As a general rule, nations look at themselves and their future pathways in the context of the global competition. Most advanced nations realize that they are part of a much larger universe that forces them to sharpen their policies, as well as to strengthen the domestic willingness for political compromise.
Why be an outsider?
But why would Americans not want to be part of that group of nations? Why are their nation’s politicians dedicated to undermining the country’s social and economic potential by being at each others’ throats?
Most likely, it is a function of two peculiarities. First, the insular position of the United States means that it is rather neighborless in terms of earnest comparisons and nearby competition.
And second, it habitually sees itself as a great nation that was endowed with immense riches and a great competitive spirit that gives it its superior position in the global economy.
Ironically, what is found wanting in today’s America is that realization of being in competition with others. In part, this is a consequence of the United States having had its way with telling other nations what to do — rather than focusing on reshaping its own act.
This points to an amazing finding — an inverse relationship between its global power status and its domestic preparedness for reform. It turns out that being not that dominant was to countries’ benefit.
If opposing political forces are obsessively focused on being at each others’ throats at home, that turns the domestic power equation into a negative-sum game externally.
Americans by and large still believe that engaging in such games, as far as they are concerned, at worst is a zero-sum game. The assumption is that while it doesn’t get the nation as a whole ahead, it doesn’t hurt it either.
That is the core faulty assumption characterizing the contemporary U.S. political dialogue. The dynamics of global competition are such that even the United States needs to focus on creating positive-sum games in its domestic politics.
This state of affairs is all the more regrettable, considering that despite all the infighting, the United States is in a very good position to dig itself out of its current hole.
Yes, there is a budget problem. Yes, not enough has been done on the environment. Yes, infrastructure needs to be improved, as does savings and investment.
But the fact of the matter is that all these things are eminently fixable, provided the political calculations change — and pragmatism once again triumphs over ideology and long-term thinking over short-term gain-seeking.
A return to pragmatism
Ultimately, all it takes is a return to 20th-century America’s core advantages — a can-do attitude and a focus on the common good.
What the United States urgently needs is to abandon the early 20th century, European-style, mean-spirited, negative-sum battles over ideology, social status and religion.
Europe has learned the core lesson from the United States that pragmatism must trump ideology, and that results (and real-life improvements) are the only thing that matters.
Why on earth would the United States, for its part, insist on emulating the Europe of the past, riven by venom and vitriol?
Editor’s note: This piece was originally published on January 7, 2011. It was updated by the author on June 3, 2014.
The dynamics of global competition are such that even the United States needs to focus on creating positive-sum games in its domestic politics.
The United States has long had the luxury of focusing on the enemy within — be it Democrats or Republicans, business or unions, etc.
Most advanced nations realize that they are part of a much larger universe that forces them to sharpen their policies.
There is an inverse relationship between a nation's global power status and its preparedness for reform.