My fellow Americans, our nation is failing.
It’s not failing because our government is failing. That is, by itself, merely a symptom in a nation where it truly is a reflection of its people. The politics which guide our dialogue and create the government are also little more than a symptom of the disease in much the same manner. To be truly free, much is demanded of a people, any people, and we are not meeting that challenge in any useful way.
We are failing as a people. We are failing as a society. We are simply failing.
In a speech given today, former President George W Bush outlined in eloquently direct terms precisely what is wrong today. There is much more to it, however, but his analysis was remarkable for its clarity and direction.
The great democracies face new and serious threats – yet seem to be losing confidence in their own calling and competence. Economic, political and national security challenges proliferate, and they are made worse by the tendency to turn inward. The health of the democratic spirit itself is at issue. And the renewal of that spirit is the urgent task at hand.
The heart of the matter is that we are more than a nation of people who have to get along. We are a nation of ideals which have led the world for a century. The world is indeed a better place for our leadership, but just about any objective measure. Our failures put the entire planet at risk.
This week, China is holding the 19th Communist Party Conference for the purpose of anointing Xi Jinping as the most powerful man in the world. As capable as he is, the instinct for consolidation of power and clamping down when things are obviously going badly is not an instinct which can carry the world, or China, forward. The desire for order is understandable but it can never be a replacement for an orderly and decent life which springs naturally from ideals.
We are also confronting the horrors of sexual harassment this week. It may seem unrelated, but it is also a symptom of a world where the responsibilities of self control and decency are left wanting. The changes in our world, left largely unmentionable over forty or fifty years, come to a head in each personal act of depravity, disrespect, and dishonor.
President Bush addressed the rot at the top in ways which get to the core of the problem. His words are useful and honorable, but still are only a reflection of the core problem of the basic decency which eludes us.
Since World War II, America has encouraged and benefited from the global advance of free markets, from the strength of democratic alliances, and from the advance of free societies. At one level, this has been a raw calculation of interest. The 20th century featured some of the worst horrors of history because dictators committed them. Free nations are less likely to threaten and fight each other.
And free trade helped make America into a global economic power. For more than 70 years, the presidents of both parties believed that American security and prosperity were directly tied to the success of freedom in the world. And they knew that the success depended, in large part, on U.S. leadership. This mission came naturally, because it expressed the DNA of American idealism.
Bush didn’t stop there, however. He found his way to the core of our problem.
We have seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty. At times, it can seem like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together. Argument turns too easily into animosity. Disagreement escalates into dehumanization. Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions – forgetting the image of God we should see in each other.
Bush’s words are worth reading carefully because we need this kind of leadership. Our nation has always depended on individuals reacting first and foremost to our basic values – that everyone is created equal and that we are all born with the gift of freedom. When we forget this, as we clearly have recently, everything falls apart. It takes leaders to remind us what our true calling is as a free people to bring it back.
But there is much more to it than this. We are, for a wide variety of good reasons, the leaders of the world. This is not a position of power to be used capriciously for personal gain but rather a calling to always be at our best. We are not. Personal power is instead projected in destructive ways for personal gain, starting with the subjugation of those around us and radiating out through the world.
We are seeing the complete break-down of our nation play out in many ways this week. From the personal tragedies of sexual harassment to the paralysis of our own politics to our inability to lead in a way the world desperately needs the root problem is entirely one simple thing:
Our nation is broken. We have forgotten who we are. We are not decent, respectful, or kind. We have no values any longer, only power and a desire to throw it around as widely as we can.
We must do better. When our nation fails, we do more than fail each other. We fail the entire world.