A Can-Do Nation

5 minute read
Bill Bradley

Why are we still addicted to oil? Why do 47 million Americans lack health insurance? Why haven’t we made Social Security solvent for the long term? Why are too many of our public schools mediocre? Why have we lost respect around the world?

The answers to these questions lie in the story we’re being told about America. It’s a “can’t do” story–as in “We can’t save Social Security” or “We can’t cure our oil addiction.” It embodies a belief in unlimited individual possibilities but severely limited collective possibilities. It is a story of fear, lack of compassion and America-only policies abroad. And it is fundamentally an untrue story about who we are as a people, but it has been repeated so often on TV and in the press that many in the U.S. have come to accept it.

Americans historically have not been narrow, selfish or preoccupied with the present at the expense of the future. We have been open, generous, expansive, forward looking, creative, egalitarian and optimistic. And that’s who we still are today. All we need is a new story about what is possible–and the political courage to honor our best selves.

The New American Story puts country ahead of party. It says we can realize our dreams and we can envision how each of us can have a better tomorrow. Above all, it tells the people the truth. No lying. No fudging the numbers. Just the truth about our current moment–which means facing up to the consequences of our paltry national savings, our growing income inequality, our dangerously unilateral foreign policy, our denial of looming environmental disaster and our failures in health care and education.

Once we face the truth, the good news is that there are answers to all our current problems. An Administration bold enough to tell the truth will find an audience ready for bold solutions. The answers to the problems of our democracy lie in more democracy, not less. If we had public financing of federal political campaigns and if congressional district lines were drawn by citizens’ commissions instead of partisan state legislatures, we would have less polarized politics. And if we moved Election Day from Tuesday (I’ll bet you can’t tell me why it’s on Tuesday!) to the two-day weekend, our voter turnout would exceed its current ranking of 139th in the world. Certainly, we can regain the world’s respect. Certainly, we can achieve balanced economic growth and assure all our citizens health care for their families, a good education for their children and security in their old age. The only thing we have to do is recognize that we’re all connected and then act on that awareness.

One look at the iconic Apollo image of Earth from space is all it takes to realize that our continuing welfare is a global proposition and each of us is responsible for it. This realization leads to what might be called an “ethic of connectedness.” But such an ethic seems to disappear whenever we talk about health care or education or tax policy, and in its place is the endless argument between the “ethic of caring,” with its emphasis on collective action (typically the Democratic position), and the “ethic of responsibility,” with its emphasis on individual action (typically the Republican position). What distinguishes the New American Story is the ethic of connectedness, which requires both caring (for example, universal health care) and responsibility (for example, an expectation that people will take steps to protect their own health).

Without that combination, we can’t solve our pressing problems. Only at the level of government, which exists to speak for all of us, can we formulate a foreign policy, clean up the environment or make health care, education and a good pension available to all. But achieving these goals also depends on individual actions: if you study hard, say, then you’re more likely to acquire the skills to support your family and help make the economy grow.

The ethic of connectedness is at the core of the New American Story. It is the common ground of our political history, and it can support a new politics that is both inspiring and deeply practical. As Americans, we are not red or blue; we are red, white and blue. All Americans want the same basic things: a good job at good pay, affordable health insurance for themselves and their families, quality education for their children, economic security in old age. We can achieve all of this. In our country’s past, we rose to greater challenges: we ended slavery, won World Wars, eradicated polio, put men on the moon. The New American Story is telling us that we can, once again, make great things happen.

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