The sun came out last week and the clear fresh air was a balm for the soul. This sense of possibility, however, evaporated as soon as I was done with the newspapers. Mass shootings, epic floods, an unrelenting plague and now legitimized vigilantism in Texas’s new pro-life legislation left me to ask: where is the pony in all this? The pessimism that courses through each line on the op-ed pages leaves one with a sense of powerlessness—a feeling of being trapped in rising waters, while waiting for the worst still to come.
There is good news and bad news in these times. The good news is that much of what ails us is self-imposed so, in theory, toxic trends can be changed. Since we, as a nation, are democratically empowered to make our own internal decisions, there is much to hope for. Younger generations have more idealistic values, including a desire for progress and a determination to live life more fully.
The bad news is glaringly obvious. We have a shortage of dynamic leaders, and we lack the necessary political will to formulate and advance ideas that will benefit all citizens of this country, not just the base of any one political party. This leaves our future up for grabs. Regrettably authoritarian regimes have one major advantage over countries like the United States that rely on self-rule. They can plan for the long haul, without concerns about the politics of reelection.
Our political leaders talk all the time about the importance of unity, but they don’t present a vision of what a unified country should want for itself…and how we can achieve these higher-order goals.
This came to me over the weekend, as former US presidents and ordinary Americans marked the 20th anniversary of the attack on September 11, 2001. I found among my papers the remnants of a manuscript I was working on in 2004. I had a contract with Scribners to write a relatively short book on what had happened to the American political middle. It was to be focused mostly on the changes underway within my own party, then the Republican party.
As I read the manuscript, I was shocked by things I had forgotten. I could see more clearly why I became a registered Independent in 2008. I wanted some party, any party, to speak to me and make good on the promise to work for all the country, and then to plan for the future. It hasn’t happened, and the deep divisions in our society have only gotten worse.
How could a country that had been so unified after 9/11 suddenly turn in on itself, in ways that would have such a lasting impact? In a word: Iraq.
I still have my partial manuscript on a thumb drive, along with the letter I wrote to my agent and publisher declining to see the project through. I was afraid of what I could see coming. Outgunned, I realized that I was about to finish a book that was politically premature. On publication it would have been dismissed out of hand. By 2003, people were already “taking down names” and threatening others with reputational harm if they opposed what was soon to become the invasion of Iraq. Once we’d deployed our forces, the personal attacks only got worse. Policymakers had failed to think it through—and advocates brushed aside the strategic mistakes by challenging their critics’ patriotism. Not surprising, the opening of a second-front “war”— falsely pitched as an attempt to remove Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction— not only distracted us from the campaign in Afghanistan, but it also led the way to the destabilization of the Middle East region.
In my manuscript, I made clear my fears regarding our policies that had led to a “war of choice.” I also worried about the shrinking middle class, and the dangers implied by the decline of their influence on our democracy.
How the United States could have imagined that the Iraq war would, in a reasonable length of time, produce positive results rather than counterproductive ones, is a topic for another time. But the ugliness and the loss of unity that began in 2003–2004—and continues to this day—can only be restored if we establish a large tract of what is called “common ground.” Only from such a Middle-Way space can we unite and properly plan for the future. We will need vibrant dialogue, as well as optimism and confidence. The work must begin right now to shore up and expand the moderate middle. It will have positive benefits, not just for stabilizing the economy, but also for assuring a sustainable foreign policy.