04 Apr What’s Wrong with America
What’s wrong with 21st Century America?
In a single word, leadership … or, more precisely, the lack of it.
America has lacked effective, constructive leadership for almost 30 years. That’s an entire generation! America’s Presidents, the successive standard-bearers of the Republican and Democratic Parties – Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump (as well as those who have aspired to their leadership roles) –, have failed at achieving both their own goals … and America’s. They failed to articulate and subsequently execute durable policy platforms that resulted in consistent government action that lasted for a decade or more beyond the end of their terms. History judges a successful leader on the effectiveness and, importantly, the durability of his policies. Recent leaders’ policies have not endured. They have been rejected by voters and largely reversed by successors. There has been no shockingly little consensus and continuity in American domestic and foreign policy. That’s an appalling failure of leadership … and a scandalous commentary on America’s instability and unreliability, materially damaging to both American business and the American brand of democracy and capitalism. Four consecutive Presidents have presided over the erosion of America’s global hegemony. Four Presidents have failed to fuel America’s economic engine or enhance Americans’ standard of living. They’ve instead largely ceded those functions to the Federal Reserve (discussed by TLR most recently in “America’s Perpetual Motion Machine”). America suffered serious economic and strategic blows in 2000, 2001, 2008-09 and 2020, a series of blows that eroded Americans’ standard of living and their belief in the American system Dream. None of the four Presidents fostered, let alone enhanced, Ronald Reagan’s vision of America as “the shining city on the hill.” Their policies failed to captivate a majority of Americans or convince divided Congresses to adopt their policies. Partisan divides widened under each. The leadership qualities of an FDR and a Reagan have been MIAP – Missing in American Politics (though they clearly have existed in abundance in American industry, a notable contrast). Also missing has been Congressional deal-makers like the 20th Century’s Everett Dirksen, Lyndon Johnson and Bob Dole.
The 30-year lack of success of America’s Presidents and Congressional leaders is a harsh commentary on America, one that China, among others, has propagandized highlighted. American government has devolved into an ineffective, divisive instrument of self-destruction that has proven itself incapable of adopting and executing a consistent, coherent, beneficially-American set of policies. America’s previously-effective Constitutional system has been destabilized by, among other things, computer-assisted gerrymandering and unlimited vote-buying financing of fringe candidates. That one-two punch has sent America reeling … and may prove to be one from which American democracy will not recover. American government has ceased to be about the business of governing. It’s become an exercise in financial leverage, media manipulation and extremist coalition-coddling building.
It therefore is not surprising that many dedicated American politicians – true patriots from both sides of the political divide aisle – have chosen to retire. Leaders – and favored Presidential candidates – like Bill Bradley and Paul Ryan decided not to battle fruitlessly over partisan issues. They chose to leave politics, concluding that their efforts were in vain, that they could not enact laws that furthered America’s interests, and that they could not help the country by their service. In announcing his decision in 1995 not to seek re-election in 2000, Senator Bradley said: “We live in a time when, on a basic level, politics is broken. The political debate has settled into two familiar ruts. The Republicans are infatuated with the ‘magic’ of the private sector and reflexively criticize government as the enemy of freedom, and the Democrats distrust the market, preach government as the answer to our problems and prefer the bureaucrat they know to the consumer they can’t control.” No leader since then has bridged that divide … and those most capable of doing so have withdrawn. No dynamic leader has yet appeared capable of both motivating America’s voters and managing America’s government. And, for more than 30 years, no President has created a durable legacy by presiding over the bipartisan legislation needed to add long-term fuel to the American economy.
The ability to create an atmosphere in which Party lines can be, and are, crossed has been replaced by sterile partisanship. The effective ability to deny the Party in power the ability to pursue its platform has been the hallmark of modern Congresses. Witness Newt Gingrich, Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell. Each partisan Congressional leader has been incredibly effective, not at advancing America’s national interest, but in promoting the destructive tactics of his and her Political Party. To paraphrase Shakespeare’s Mark Antony, America’s leadership needs to be made of better stuff!
Leadership is the art of motivating people to achieve common goals. A President, as well as the country’s Congressional leaders, need to be able to motivate government and voters to further the interests of the country … and not their own puerile interests. Doing so requires management skills – by the President, his Cabinet, and the leaders of the Senate and the House – to direct the machinery of government to pursue strategies that meet the country’s needs. Under America’s Constitution, that requires negotiation, compromise, and the will to serve the people rather than pursue power for power’s sake. The failure to pursue long-term, consensual and constructive policies has resulted in America’s declining global influence, its widening inequality, its increasing divisions, its economic, educational and infrastructural decay, and the attempted insurrection of January 6th, 2021. Effective government requires leaders to find ways to bridge partisan divides.
One of the many lessons that Ronald Reagan taught was that a Presidential agenda needs to be sharply and narrowly focused in order to succeed. Trying to do too much spreads government resources – and voter support – too thin. America’s government needs to set priorities that are achievable … and that will make a significant difference to Americans. Two today stand out.
The first is education, a subject recently addressed by TLR in “Education – Another Inconvenient Truth.” Covid-19 has spotlighted how damaging America’s fractionalized public education system is, and not only for the less-advantaged. The vast majority of America’s children lost a year of learning that has placed them – and America – ever further behind in the global Darwinian race. As previously discussed in “The Essence of a Meritocracy” and “Education in the Time of Covid-19,” prior to 2020 America’s children were sliding down global scales in reading, writing and math skills in a self-destructive death spiral, America seemingly forgetting that it was its highly-educated workforce that drove its technologically-advanced industrial success, increased its standard of living, provided unparalleled opportunity, and made America the most powerful nation in the world. If American education fails – and it is failing –, so too will Americans’ standard of living, its ability to provide opportunity to its people, and its global wealth and power. America requires a national policy that doubles down on the formulae that made American education the best in the world … and resulted in America’s primacy. America’s education system is failing, and not solely at the elementary and secondary school levels. America’s premier university systems have been stumbling as well, in part because the rest of the world – America’s competitors and pretenders to its wealth and power, particularly China – have been more focused on excellence …, and on exceeding America. Complacency is the enemy of achievement.
The second is infrastructure. America once had the best electric grid, the most efficient energy generation, the best technology and most successful R&D, the best roads, bridges, rail systems, airports and ports, and the most highly-incentivized entrepreneurs. It doesn’t any longer. Nor has it had the best nation-wide communications and computer network, or even reasonably effective government IT. All are essential for 21st Century success … and none has been an effective focus of American policy. As Bill Maher recently editorialized, “On a national level, we’ve been having infrastructure week every week since 2009, but we never do anything. Half the country is having a never-ending Woke competition deciding whether Mr. Potato Head has a dick, and the other half believes that we have to stop the lizard people because they’re eating babies…. China once put up a 57-story skyscraper in 19 days. They demolished and rebuilt the Sanyuan Bridge in Beijing in 43 hours. We binge-watch. They binge-build.”
There’s a lot wrong with America. It takes leadership to make it right. The starting points are education and infrastructure, two priorities about which
even both Democratic leaders Democrats and Republican leaders Republicans agree. They should be able to find common ground. The time to begin is now.
Finally (from a good friend)