When I was a kid, my mother taught me a little poem by way of encouraging me to be my best. It went like this:
Good, better, best
Never let it rest
Until your good is better
And your better, best
My grandparents emigrated here from the old country, Mom reminded us. We were obligated to take advantage of that opportunity. We weren’t expected just to be good; we were expected to be exceptional.
Our political discourse is littered with the term “American exceptionalism” these days. Conservatives like to remind voters of the loss of traditional values and its impact on society and our place in the world. Liberals point out that our greatness was enabled by government and social structures that were the creation of a central government.
America is, indeed, exceptional largely because it has some inherent advantages. One must start with geography. We are the only country in the world with long navigable coasts on both the Atlantic and Pacific and we have a natural river system that seems to have been designed to deliver goods to seaports for shipment overseas. Our land is fertile and our climate diverse enough to produce a vast array of agricultural products.
Our second advantage is cultural. The earliest English settlers in the 17th Century were adventurers determined to forge a new world. The charter for the settlement in Plymouth, Massachusetts from James I permitted the establishment of a republican government independent of the crown. The founders of the United States were grounded in the philosophy of Locke, Spinoza, Voltaire and Adam Smith. They gave birth to a nation that thrived on independence and achievement.
Nineteenth century America was marked by a period of laissez-faire government that enabled entrepreneurs to create railroads and the telecommunications, steel and energy industries. In turn, these developments enabled America to achieve global economic leadership in the 20th Century.
Like any nation, ours was founded by way of bloodshed as the early English, French and Spanish settlers fought with Native Americans and each other. But, over a 150 year period, American global hegemony emerged from that bloodshed and through the strategic brilliance of American leadership. Our mainland was secured and our economic future was insured by the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the Mexican-American War of 1845 and the Spanish-American War of 1898.
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The founders were also keenly aware of the need for a government to provide opportunity for those less fortunate. James Madison provided for the right to a free education and public land in the Virginia constitution. The 19th Century saw an immigrant-driven expansion into the Great Plains enabled by the Homestead Act of 1862 which provided free land to those adventurous enough to claim it. This egalitarian culture of governance enabled immigrants over our 236 year history to make a better life for their children and in turn drive U.S. economic growth.
The Industrial Revolution moved bread-winners off their farms and into factories. That corporations were not the most humane of bosses led directly to the social reforms of the 20th Century. Laws protecting the right of collective bargaining, worker safety rules and the development of a “social safety net” were government’s response.
The U.S. military, which had virtually created the steel industry in the 19th Century, evolved after World War II into a “military-industrial complex” (a phrase coined by President Eisenhower) which fostered innovation through scientific research and led to space exploration, the development of the internet and the explosion of the electronics industry.
The U.S. education system – public schools and the university system – produced the best educated workforce in the world. World War II’s destruction of foreign industrial capacity provided a window of opportunity in post-war America to thrive economically and attract vast inflows of capital investment.
Now, many of those trends are beginning to reverse themselves. Our education system is no longer producing the best graduates. The shift in our economy from manufacturing to services has motivated our best and brightest to abandon science and engineering in favor of finance and law.
Foreign Direct Investment in the U.S., which peaked at over $300B in 2000, had dropped 50% by 2010. Meanwhile U.S. multinationals and investors have increased their investment overseas to new record highs – over $400B in 2009 remaining over $350B in 2011.
How could a country with so many natural advantages come to this point in the 21st Century? How is it that our political class sees everything as a battle between two world views as opposed to seeing opportunity to build on our successes of the past?
Today’s political debates over education, immigration, healthcare and the national debt offer no hope of compromise. There are well thought out solutions to each of these major social and fiscal issues. They are well documented and understood by leading members of Congress and the Executive branch. Yet, each side of the political divide lives in fear of being "primaried" if they compromise the core principles of the extremes of their respective political parties.
The political forces at play during our Revolutionary War and its aftermath were marked by fierce philosophical differences as well. Indeed, there was doubt that the 13 colonies who had defeated the British could sustain as a single nation. Each had its own political philosophy, constitution and currency. Many in the north advocated for union while many in the south feared the influence of money center banks and a central government. There are echoes of this debate evident even today. Yet, with a vision of what our nation could become, the founders compromised for the greater good.
The outcome was an exceptional compromise: the United States of America.
WHO WILL LEAD?