Last week, in Part I of this short series, I talked about the three main scenarios that dominate progressive conversations about America’s future:
1) Permanent Decline — Due to Americans’ native hyperindividualism, political apathy, and overweening willingness to accept personal blame for their country’s failures, the corporatists finally succeed in turning the US into Indonesia. This time, we will not find the will to fight back (or, if we do, it will be too late). As a result, in a few years there will be no more middle class, no upward mobility, few remaining public institutions devoted to the common good, no health care, no education, and no hope of ever restoring American ideals or getting back to some semblance of the America we knew.
2) Reinvented Greatness — Americans get over their deeply individualistic nature, come together, challenge and restrain the global corporatist order, and finally establish the social democracy that the Powers That Be — corporate, military, media, conservative — have denied to us since the 1950s. This happens in synergy with a move to energy and food self-sufficiency, the growth of a sustainable economy, a revival of participatory democracy, and a general renewal of American values that pulses new life into our institutions and assures us a much more stable future.
3) Happy Face — Prop up the banks, keep people in their houses, and by and by everything will get back to “normal” (defined as “how it all was a few years ago.”)
I also set out three tectonic shifts that have already foreclosed on any chance we’ll make our way back to the Happy Talk scenario — deep trends that are driving us forward toward a new century that’s going to be substantially different than the one we left behind. To wind up the discussion, here are three more trends that are going to have a huge effect on where America will land when this crisis ends.
4. The globalization of power
For the past 20 years, when we’ve used the word “globalization,” we’ve mainly been referring to the globalization of corporate capital, labor, and trade. But where business goes, government regulators follow (and if they don’t, it soon becomes obvious why they should). The recent G20 meeting to design a global response to the economic crisis and next December’s Copenahagen meeting on climate change are two signs that this is, in fact, happening. Emerging global problems are being met with emerging attempts at increased global governance. And this trend has important implications for how America’s role in the world might shift in the years ahead.
The Happy Talk scenario rests on the assumption that America’s role as the undisputed leader of the world will remain intact through this century. There are important reasons this assumption may not be wrong. Americans — especially those on the left — tend to underestimate our vast economic, geopolitical, and cultural strength compared to the rest of the world, as well as the essential resilience of our democratic system. It’s not a foregone conclusion that our glory days are behind us. The global outpouring of enthusiasm for our new president is just one signal that the world still very much counts on America to lead — and will follow willingly as long as we use that power to make the whole world a better place.
But that doesn’t mean things aren’t going to change in some very fundamental ways. A lot of smaller countries have been traumatized by 30 years of neo-liberalism, and are banding together to demand their seat at the table. They’re forming strong regional alliances that increase their ability to bring power to bear on the world stage. This cooperation is being driven by a huge and growing pile of global issues that transcend national boundaries and existing treaties, and will require the world’s nations to work together closely and constantly in this century for the sake of our collective survival. (Going to war, in this closely interdependent world, will become a far less viable option.) And, as noted above, all of these countries are becoming inextricably linked by the Internet and commercial ties, giving the world’s people the means and incentive to work far more closely together than we ever have before.
Because of all this, while America may still continue to dominate much of what goes on in the world, it’s also going to be far more accountable for its choices to the rest of the family of nations. It’s not something we’ve been used to, and the conservatives are already resisting it mightily (anybody who thinks state and federal government is bad is going to absolutely loathe the new global regulatory agencies). But anybody who’s betting against this is betting against a strong historical tide. There’s too much at stake now: on a growing number of fronts, our choice is to cooperate or die.
5. Unequal, unemployed, and unhappy
The Happy Talk scenario also completely bypasses a central political fact of this moment: Nobody trusts the rich any more. They’ve had 30 years to run things, unmolested by regulators and supported by a general belief that they’d do the right thing by the rest of us. American invested them with control over our futures — only to find that those futures are now wholly-owned subsidiaries of MonsterCo. In the process of instituting the widest gap between rich and poor since the Great Depression, they betrayed that trust to enslave the working class, destroy the hopes of the middle class, and strip the professionalism out of the upper-middle class.
And we are rather out-of-sorts about this, in ways that Wall Street and Washington haven’t yet begun to reckon with. If the upper classes think the country will just turn right around and go back quietly to those minimum-wage McJobs after enduring what can only be described as protracted economic rape, they’re delusional. Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose — and there are too many of us out there now with that kind of freedom on our hands. Decades of repressed rage over the loss of the American Dream is surging through the cracks in our economy. There will be a reckoning — you can bet on it.
6. Generational shifts
William Strauss and Neil Howe argued persuasively in several books that Anglo-American history has been driven in no small degree by the moods and expectations of succeeding generations. Whether America’s future looks more like The Permanent Decline or Reinvented Greatness depends heavily on us — on what we value, where our priorities lie, and which future we’re more inclined to put our energies into creating.
The choice of whether to accept decline or fight for greatness is currently being negotiated between the three distinct generations that are politically active right now. On the older end are the Boomers — the original authors of both scenarios. They’ve understood since they were teenagers that Decline or Greatness were the only two options; and have vacillated wildly through the years between fatalistically accepting the first and giving everything they had to achieving the second. That split is widening: now in their last productive decades, some have given into the cynicism bred by decades of loss, while others quietly kept the dream alive in their souls and now feel a growing urgency to reach for it one last time. It’s now or never. They’re getting old, the world’s falling into chaos, and there’s nothing left to lose.
In the middle is Generation X, now between the ages of 30 and 50. Fiercely pragmatic and individualistic, these children of Reagan have never seen government function effectively. Nor have they ever been impressed by collectivist visions of any kind. Whatever they have, they mostly built for themselves. (“Just Do It” and “Look out for #1” are their generational mottoes.) But now, at midlife, they’re also confronting the collapse of the world this kind of me-first nihilism has wrought. They’re not surprised — failure never surprises them — but they want something better; and they’re starting to think that getting the government involved in that might not be a terrible idea, after all. In fact, it may be the only way left to git ‘er done.
Rising up at the bottom are the under-30 Millennials, who raised their collective political voice for the first time in the 2008 election. They believe, with every fiber of their being, in teamwork and collective solutions. They don’t doubt for a moment that Greatness is possible, and have a strong shared generational vision as to what it should look like. (On both the left and right, it looks a whole lot like the fondest 1960s dreams of their Boomer parents.) They’re the best self-organizers we’ve seen since their GI grandparents died; and they approach the visions of their idealistic Boomer elders and the authority of their experienced Xer bosses with astonishing respect.
Strauss and Howe argued that these three particular types — older idealists, mid-life can-do managers, and a young adult generation of teamwork-oriented optimists — have lined up in just this way three times before in American history. The first time, it produced a revolution. The next time, 80 years later, it produced a civil war. The third time — again, 80 years on — this same combination waged and won World War II.
This particular constellation of generations isn’t capable of letting things be. It has the vision, the organizational skill, and the cohesiveness required to ignite transformative shift on the grandest possible scale. Working together, they are a force of history that’s got everything required to rewrite the economic rules, re-envision our way of life, and re-create the way the entire world works.
Their transformative season is upon us, and will be for another 15 years. While it runs, anything is possible — certainly more than has been possible since the 1960s, and maybe even since the New Deal. By 2025, we may not recognize the world they leave us. Right now, their very presence signals that it’s unwise to bet that the world will stay as it is.
* * *
The very fact that the conversation has come down to the particular two mutually exclusive scenarios tells us, all by itself, something important about this moment. The truth is that there are plenty of other options for how our future might go. But it’s also true that we tend to get the future we work and plan for — and right now, progressives believe viscerally that we have a stark choice to either get our act together and decisively reach for Greatness, or accept the only other option — Decline.
Which means that, in the end, one of these is where we’re in fact most likely to end up. Destiny has presented us with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ride some powerful historical tides, and create the future we’ve always wanted. From this point, the outcome will depend on how boldly and courageously we strike out on that rough water, how firmly we keep our eyes fixed on the far shore, and how determined we are to make these waves take us where we want to go.
Greatness or Decline? The time for debate is over. The time to deliver is here.