American Vision

I’ve just finished Fareed Zakaria’s recent book, “The Post-American World,” in which he discusses—among other things—the growing power of India and China, and what that growth portends for American interests.

To my mind, the most interesting part of the book came in the final chapters, as he evaluated America’s strengths and weaknesses in the context of the global challenges we face. One paragraph in particular struck me as a particularly apt statement of our current dilemma.

“The economic dysfunctions in America today are real, but by and large, they are not the product of deep inefficiencies within the American economy, nor are they reflections of cultural decay. They are the consequences of specific government policies. Different policies could quickly and relatively easily move the United States into a far more stable footing….Policy experts do not have wide disagreements on most of these issues, and none of the proposed measures would require sacrifices reminiscent of wartime hardship, only modest adjustments of existing arrangements. And yet, because of politics, they appear impossible. The American political system has lost the ability for large-scale compromise, and it has lost the ability to accept some pain now for much gain later.”

In short, Zakaria says our economic system is fundamentally sound when appropriately regulated. Our political system, however, is broken. Zakaria gives a number of reasons for this state of affairs, and most of us can add to his list. But one reason, I think, has gotten short shrift, especially from the so-called “chattering classes.” It’s what Bush 41 used to call “the vision thing.”

It has become fashionable to dismiss articulation of a vision as naïve, as the opposite of the sort of “can-do” policy-wonk approach that pundits and bureaucrats favor. But just as you can’t get Mapquest to give you directions to an unknown destination, you cannot muster political will or encourage political compromise in service of incremental changes and “course corrections.” In a democracy, unless there is a clearly articulated vision—a map clearly showing where you want to take the city, state or country—it is simply not possible to overcome the entrenched politics of self-interest and self-dealing.

When Ronald Reagan became President, “sophisticated” observers sneered at his evocation of “Morning in America.”What they failed to appreciate was the importance of placing policy specifics within an overarching framework mapping a destination.

I think Americans are hungry for that map, that vision, showing how America can do again what it has always done best—lead through example. But first, we have to believe in ourselves again. We have to remind ourselves of the values that make us American. We need to recommit ourselves to those values, and we need to restore the rule of law.

If history teaches us anything, it is that we need visionary leadership to remind us who we are, and what Americans can achieve when we work together.
How many of us, after all, are willing to set off on a voyage without a clear map?