A few years ago I wrote an article in which I argued that we Americans had to get over the notion that the U.S. is first in everything. “We’re number One” may be a decent team cheer, but the constant drumming of we’re the greatest, most exceptional, most powerful, richest, country in the history of the world, was not a helpful guide to our place in a fast changing world. Moreover, it wasn't true. Coffee conversations were places to hear proclamations that the U.S. has the best medical care in the world, the best education in the world, the best highways in the world, etc. The rest of the world is jealous of our prosperity. Everyone wants to come here. It wasn't true then, and it isn't true now. We're not better than everyone else at any one thing. Some nation somewhere is better that we are at something. What we are is very good at most things, with few areas of serious weakness. It's the overall balance that gives us enduring strength.
What I suggested then was a need to be proud of what we do better than most others, and keep at it; satisfied with what we do as well as others, always with an eye toward improvement; and not anxious about what others do better than we. We had to learn to be a leading partner in a world of partnerships: a leading partner, not the leading partner. Perhaps most important, we had to learn that military intervention is seldom a good idea. Pax Romana didn’t end well for the Romans, and Pax Americana hasn’t worked out that well for us, or for others. That's what I suggested a few years ago.
It was not a popular article. The few who read it were less than happy. It bordered on being unpatriotic, some said, and it certainly showed a lack of confidence in our collective ability to sustain our alpha dog place in the world.
In any case, that was before Trump. Whether the article was a good idea or not, the current administration is charging ahead with intentional deconstruction of our accustomed place as the singular world leader. Ironically, they’re doing it under the banner of “Make America Great Again.” Our foreign policy has the coherence of a bellicose drunk lurching from friend to foe, unable to tell the difference. Other nations have to react, but they do so without respect, and more than a little contempt. Domestic regulations protecting the common good are being repealed at a record rate. The process for adopting budgets and passing appropriations has become a tired joke. Congress is all but dysfunctional. The president’s public utterances are dominated by belittling tweets, campaign rants, displays of troubling ignorance, and blatant disregard for truth. On occasion he’s forced to read something not his own, and does so in wooden tones of insincerity. The only major piece of legislation passed so far makes the tax system more complicated, less fair, and self enriching for his family. Some portion of the public was bought off with a few temporary tax cuts, and while it includes a few long needed reforms, they can’t atone for damage done to national deficits and debt.
In a curious way, it’s not all bad. The old place had become a mansion of so many add ons and do it yourself repairs that it creaked under its own weight. It needed a gut rehab, and the wrecking crew is at it: unskilled and incompetent, but at it nevertheless. We will have to rebuild, and that will give us the opportunity to make improvements along the way. Since our place atop everyone else in the world has already been torpedoed by the current administration, we don’t have a choice about becoming less egotistically prideful Americans. It’s been forced on us.
My hope is that we will arrive at a place where we can take well earned pride in our resilience as a people and political system as we reconstruct what has been deconstructed, not as it was but as it should be. From a position of unaccustomed humility, a future administration will have to rebuild global trust in U.S. participation in world affairs as one leader among others willing to work together for the good of the planet. A new congress under new leadership will have to bend to the task of reestablishing programs for the general welfare, this time with improvements and corrections making them more efficient, and simpler to administer. A stronger public education system, universal health care, funding for national infrastructure, research requiring national resources, and programs to aid states and localities in meeting the needs of their citizens must be put back in their places, but with greater accountability and less opaqueness than before. Restoring regulations that protect the public and environment will be needed, but with more attention to making them simpler, less burdensome to follow, and with an eye toward customer service rather than adversarial enforcement. Extremists on the far right and left will still be around to poke at us about things that might require a poke, but they won’t be able to dictate, shut down, or dominate public discourse.
What may speed the transition from deconstruction to reconstruction is the new tax law. I don’t think it will take long for responsible people in both parties to recognize how bad it is. Rather than simplifying, it has made the tax code more complicated. Modest short term cuts for the middle class are set against large permanent cuts adhering to the wealthy. The impact on national deficits and debt flies in the face of financial prudence. Promises of expanded corporate investments in domestic plant and equipment, new jobs, and higher pay for workers, have little evidence to support them.
Working under a new administration with new congressional leadership, bipartisan efforts may result in true reform that both simplifies and evens out the playing field. Parenthetically, it’s uncomfortably amusing that using the tax code to reduce income inequality is seen by some conservatives as socialist redistribution of wealth, when they have used the code for years to redistribute wealth toward the already wealthy. But that’s a subject for another time.
The 2018 midterm elections may signal a new direction for the nation. I certainly hope so. In the meantime, there is some danger that the boundary between deconstruction and destruction may be breached by an incompetent administration and ineffectual congress. We shall see.