Saving the idea that is America

Saving the idea that is America
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After decades of growing dysfunction, our political system is failing. Hyper-partisanship, inaction on critical issues and ineffective governance by both political parties have done considerable damage. They have contributed to Americans becoming polarized, resentful, discouraged and cynical. Politics should be neither entertainment nor sport, but ours have evolved into a mixture of both.

Truth and integrity are under assault, drowned in an ocean of blogs, social media, talk radio and 24-hour cable news. Technology is being used to “personalize” this tidal wave of information to match our predispositions and prejudices. This assault confuses, undermines trust, feeds the conspiracy-minded and assists those who want to manipulate others.


Our economic system is not working well for many. It is concentrating wealth in a few and failing to create opportunity for many. The rules that define the “free market” have created a financial sector that is too big and influential. Monopoly power based on invention of a digital platform, network or pharmaceutical patent is unchecked. Goods and services valued primarily for their low price carry hidden costs, rewarding economies of scale that negatively impact the quality of lives and jobs.


We are mismanaging the challenges of globalization and technological change, leaving many Americans behind. Short-term perspectives and narrow self-interest prevail. Long-term investments in our collective future are not being made.

Views on personal choices are dividing us into tribes engaged in ideological battle, each trying to impose preferred behaviors and beliefs. Tolerance for the right of others to make choices with which we disagree, but which do us no personal harm, casts doubt on our membership in our tribe.

The world outside our country is in disarray. The international system is unraveling with no reassuring replacement in sight. Leadership is needed to combat the growing disorder and create new institutions and norms. Yet, the United States has abdicated its role, behaving like a victim, blaming others, retreating from the world stage to “Make America Great Again.”

Historians, economists, political, social and religious leaders have offered analyses and solutions to our current condition. Some cite historical perspective, America’s resources, demonstrated resilience or the inherent goodness of our people and reassure us. Others observe that America’s decline is natural, that the world’s history is one of rising and falling empires and the time has come for America to fall.  

I do not believe our future is assured by past success or condemned to inevitable decline. It depends on how well we understand ourselves, what we want for our future and whether we will work together to achieve it.  

America at its best has always been less a place or a people and more an idea — the idea that people can unite to govern themselves under the rule of law, work and sacrifice together to preserve individual freedom and opportunity. Its premise is that we can enjoy freedom of choice if we adhere to necessary rules, possess sufficient self-discipline and tolerance. It is the idea that we can work together to give everyone a chance to fairly pursue a life of quality and meaning in their own way.  

The people and place called America have always attracted others from around the world to join in, live up to and renew that idea. We are not always successful, we don’t always stay on track, but when we do, that is American exceptionalism, a unique gift to mankind, and that is worth saving.

So, how do we save the idea that is America? We should begin with these actions:

Values. We need to have serious conversations in public gatherings and our homes focused on key questions: What is a life of quality and meaning and how is it achieved? What are truth, trust and justice and why are they important? What do we mean by the rule of law, equality, the rights and responsibilities of citizenship? That discussion also must address the value we place on consumption, leisure, entertainment. Sacrifice and discipline for our own good and the good of all must re-enter our conversations and consciousness.

Politics. Votes must count more than money. We have to significantly reduce the influence of money in politics. We cannot continue grouping ourselves into ideological enclaves to create political advantage. We’ve got to recognize compromise as fundamental to good governance in a free society and reward it.

Economics. What we call the “free market” is not some naturally occurring system; it is a system we created. The rules that shape the “free market” must be better understood and adjusted to provide fair opportunity for all. They are opaque and too heavily influenced by narrow special interests through legal and financial engineering. Without choking opportunity or stifling ambition, we must reign in the excessive concentration of wealth and power. Bigness, economies of scale in providing essential goods and services are dehumanizing, representing a huge hidden cost we must account for when choosing the lowest price.

Technology. We must own responsibility for the technologies we choose and their impacts. Technologies are just tools that can be used and misused. Information technologies should be harnessed to modernize our self-governing and help prevent large system failures. The power of information technologies necessitates we value truth, trust, integrity and expertise when we provide information to others or obtain it for ourselves.

Education. We must better educate and inform ourselves. If we value freedom of choice we need to prepare ourselves to choose wisely in today’s world.

At a critical moment in our history, some of our predecessors pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor to each other in taking actions, at great personal risk, to pursue the idea that is America. We are again at a critical moment. That statement is neither exaggeration nor “useful hyperbole.” What are we willing to pledge to each other? What personal risks are we ready to accept? And what actions will we take to save that idea?

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 also 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.