Since the beginning, the United States has prospered as a one-or-the-other nation, building itself around sharply drawn contrasts. Freedom or tyranny. Farm or city. Black or white. Blue or Gray. Good or evil. And, eventually, Democrat or Republican. These outsized stories have served us well and helped us erect our republic on clear bedrock principles. But the trouble is, the world didn't cooperate. It got all fragmented. There's no longer a Walter Cronkite who can say "That's the way it is" and be listened to.
Instead, every statement by just about anyone has 1,000 opinionated offspring, each with a globally connected digital loudspeaker. Never before in American history have so many been able to shout down so many others so quickly. Put geographically, it's become harder and harder to view our experiment in democracy as a land mass; more and more, we're a series of small islands separated by choppy waters.
"What would you really put into an American time capsule today?" wonders John Baick, a historian at Western New England University. "Our time capsule would be so filled with so many different things and so little in common with each other. There's so little notion of a consensus. So little notion of what America is, and so little notion of who belongs in the snapshot."
What is that like from inside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, to consider the sound of 300 million opinions? How do you even begin to parse the problems? How do you take people who are accustomed to answering true-or-false questions and lead them through the high weeds of multiple choice?
And the problems are legion.
We are spending beyond our means. As a society and as a government, the United States has been using a credit card when it should have had a debit card. Yet discussions about how to run the American family budget only provoke more shouting and gridlock and brinkmanship. How would an average household have solved the fiscal cliff crisis, Mr. President? Would it ever have gotten to that point? And yet economic confidence, while hardly robust, is creeping up — as is the American economy itself, though sluggishly.
We made the middle class an ideal for so long, and now even that is a definition for argument. For tax purposes, you want to be counted as part of it. If you're poor, you're having trouble getting into it. It grows broader and narrower at the same time, and ultimately meaningless.
We keep asking, most recently through the debate on Obamacare: How do we care for our ill, our elderly, our poor? Do we look to government, or to ourselves? It is a centuries-old tension that we still struggle to solve.
We look outward, and challenges lurk in every direction. China's rise — economic threat and opportunity — is not slowing, and its sphere of influence is expanding. Little al-Qaidas are eyeing ways to sow terror, and the decade-long struggle to keep the nation safe has taken its toll in the way we view freedoms — the ones we hold onto and the ones we exchange for safety, or at least a feeling of it.
And the gun. Again, the gun. It shaped and protected our nation, and it is also killing us. Both sides have strong, passionate arguments. Both sides make sense — some of the time. More people want stronger gun regulation, and more people are buying guns. And both sides, as is the American way, are certain they're right.
Gay marriage still causes arguments. Both sides of the abortion debate are as far apart as ever. Disputes over the role of religion in public life never recede. The constant American principles of freedom and morality — the Puritans' legacy — still collide, and still divide.
We still call ourselves individualists loudly, assertively, obstinately, but we are individualists who often want to be guided. Some look to God for this, others to once-solid 19th- and 20th-century institutions that are fading or buckling. To the workplace, which no longer guarantees the Horatio Alger story of hard work producing a lifetime of being able to provide for those you love. To the physical town, so many of which faded with their Main Streets a generation ago. To unions, which behind their activism and advocacy contained a structure of community support that held fast for decades.
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