Where the heck are we?

Last week, in this space, I got a bit rough with America’s two major parties.  True, nothing I wrote was remotely as harsh as the ads now polluting every corner of our public space.  But it was strong, coming from me, because frankly, I’m disgusted with both parties and their lack of constructive vision.

When I was a kid, Dad used to tell me about his days as a navigator in the Army Air Corps.  I’ve written about this before, but times like these inevitably bring back memories of Dad and his approach to problem-solving, which sprung from his Air Corps years.

Essentially, Dad’s method was simple:  You have to know where you are.  You have to know where you want to go. Then, you plot the best course between Point A and Point B.  

This method allowed Dad to survive hundreds of training flights, to navigate his B-17, the “Embraceable Eve,” over the Hump, and to rescue downed pilots in the Pacific.  And it got him back to his ultimate Point B, the embraceable Eve, who became my mother.

Using Dad’s formula, which always began with Point A, just where the heck are we?

As I see it, this is where our politicians consistently fail us.  Each party seems committed to taking us back to a long-gone past – as though we were starting from a completely different reality.  

They do this because they believe we’re willing to face where we are – our present Point  A.

Democrats seem still to be in love with the 1960s.  In that tumultuous, exciting decade, America was immensely rich and, despite the challenge of the Soviet Bloc, incredibly powerful.  Our population was young.  Most Americans enjoyed a prosperity unlike any we’ve seen since.  For middle-class families, that meant a comfortable home, abundant food, medical care – even college for the kids – all managed on one income, or at worst, one-and-a-half.

And we had time for family;  civic life, recreation and long family vacations.  

America had the confidence to tackle big challenges.  The Greatest Generation had survived the Great Depression, whipped Hitler and Tojo and stood up to Stalin.  After a long struggle, they’d embraced racial equality – at least in law – and set out to end poverty.  They’d decided to put Americans on the Moon – and to save Indochina from the perceived peril of Communist aggression.

By the early ‘70s, we realized that, for all our wealth and power, America was subject to the same limitations as other great nations.  We couldn’t do everything, at least, not all at once.

While Democrats long for the 1960s, Republicans hearken back a decade farther – to the more conventional, if less adventurous, 1950s.  These were also a time of relative prosperity, though Americans were more fearful of the Soviets, nuclear war and social change – particularly on the racial front.  Still, for most Americans, at least, for most white Americans, life was remarkably satisfactory.  

Now, it’s not entirely fair to say that the two parties long only for a distant past.  Republicans also pine for the Reagan Era, when a period of prosperity made it seem that we might reclaim past glories.  And Democrats, long for the Clinton Era, when the end of the Cold War and the beginning of high-tech introduced another boom, and America emerged as the world’s sole surviving superpower.

The difficulty with such nostalgia is that, in the past two decades, America has passed a point of no return.  Or rather, a series of such points.  

Today, our government annually runs enormous deficits.  We’ve amassed a disturbingly large national debt.  The aging of our population – and the costly miracles of modern medicine – threaten the solvency of our old-age programs and, ultimately, of government itself.

Militarily, we are still supreme, but our new enemies are not superpowers – they are crafty underground networks which can strike almost at will, and on a shoestring.

Our schools are depressingly mediocre.  Our colleges cost far too much.  Our medical care system – expensive as it is – puts us only 50th among nations in life expectancy.

Energy grows annually more expensive as the most accessible reserves of fossil fuels are exhausted – and as billions of new consumers compete for increasingly scarce resources.

Whether or not we are prepared to face it, our planet is warming – and the policies and technologies needed to address this threat are tied up in the politics of the past.

And economically, we continue to grow poorer.  We consume too much, borrow too much and produce far too little.

None of these problems is insoluble, but,taken together, they constitute a Point A radically different from anything in America’s past.   

To plot a course toward a realistic and hopeful future, we must first begin by taking stock of where we actually are, today.   


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