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Rebuilding America requires more than ‘thoughtful, committed citizens’

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A copy of the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. The handwritten document is on display at on display at the National Archives Building in Washington.

American anthropologist Margaret Mead is quoted as having said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Some have suggested that changing this statement to “thoughtful, committed and organized citizens” would modernize it, make it more relevant for 2021 and sustain its potential to inspire. Yet this doesn’t go nearly far enough.

Not returning to our pre-pandemic “normal,” building a new and better America is an urgent, world-changing task. To accomplish it, we must find ways to reduce the tribalism that is crippling our ability to understand and respect one another, seek consensus and value compromise. “We, the People” won’t be able to “promote the general Welfare” and “insure domestic Tranquility” until we do that.

We also have to reshape our societal systems of values, politics, economics, education and how we use technology. Such change is essential.

Overhauling failing institutions such as corporations, political parties and schools will have to be concurrent with societal change if we are to progress toward a “more perfect union.” All of this adds up to a tall order, to be sure — one that will require much more of us than just being thoughtful, committed and organized.

Tribalism has always been with us, rooted in the human need to belong. Its modern American form began expanding with the loss of groups and activities that brought people together, requiring their time, attention and physical presence. The growth of hyper-individualism, economic factors and other matters that isolated us from one another weakened communities. Social media and the evolution of online group relationships enhanced the development and extended the reach of modern tribes. Many of these now thrive in reinforcing information bubbles, deepening their isolation and mistrust of other tribes.  

To counter this, new opportunities to belong — to join with others committed to something that is bigger than any tribe — need to be created. The forces of exclusion and intolerance, whether built on political, economic, educational, racial, ethnic or religious differences, must be weakened. We must reduce the influence of social media and the lawless public square that the internet has furnished us.

Our values, politics, economics, education and use of technology are large, complex, interactive societal systems that have powerful impacts on us — individually and collectively. Americans’ harmful overconsumption and wasteful materialism showcase the need for change. So do our political dysfunction, income and health care inequalities, poor public education and non-stop adoption of technologies without regard for whether they enrich or impoverish our daily lives.  We’ve pursued the virtues of efficiency and competition without sufficient social responsibility to such an extent that they have become vices. Concentration of wealth has given too much power to individuals and companies motivated by profit, not public good. They have huge influence without accountability.  

Many Americans feel powerless to change the direction of our country because these societal systems have become difficult for people to understand, let alone change. We’ll need new knowledge, new skills and new ways that enable us to unravel, understand and reshape them.

We create institutions such as religions, governments, corporations and schools because we need them. They provide ways to channel the necessary activities of our modern lives such as faith, education and work. They also provide stability, and for that reason, we design and expect them to persist. That expectation of persistence contributes to making these institutions, as some political scientists say, “sticky,” resistant to change. We would like them to evolve naturally, keeping up with society, but they are thwarted by their stickiness. It’s not new that institutions that are failing need to be reformed, but meeting the challenge is more urgent today because of the scope and speed of societal change. Information technologies are a significant driver of that scope and speed.  

So, what will be required of us to build a new and better America? What words should we add to Margaret Mead’s famous quote to fit our circumstances today? Certainly we must be inclusive, tolerant and put a high value on human interdependence. We must be creative, willing to invent, experiment with and engage in new activities of citizenship. Diligence will be necessary for us to develop insights in how to fundamentally change complex societal systems. We’ll need it, as well, to get a contemporary understanding of the attributes of networks and hierarchies so we can balance them as we renovate our institutions.  

We must become real revolutionaries, willing and able to see a new, shared vision of our future together — and willing to work to achieve it. Truthfulness, trustworthiness, fairness and generosity in far greater abundance are prerequisites for success in what I hope will become a modern “American revolution.” Healing what divides us and rebuilding America will require nothing less.

John J. Grossenbacher retired in 2003 as U.S. Navy vice admiral and commander of the U.S. Naval Submarine Forces, following a 33-year naval career. He directed the U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory for 10 years, overseeing scientific and engineering research in nuclear and other energy resources, the environment and homeland security.

Tags Economic inequality Education reform Information technology Margaret Mead political tribalism

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