“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,…”
The opening of Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities is so often quoted, particularly to describe inflamed political discourse, that is has become almost cliche. But take a look at the rest of the passage and you discover that it perfectly expresses the story behind last week’s raucous political “conversations” in the U.S.
“…it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair….”
Indeed, anyone watching the political back and forth in this country from afar might be forgiven for concluding that the two sides couldn’t possibly be describing the same reality. How can we possibly reconcile the opposing world views offered by President Obama in his “America’s all OK” State of the Union Address and the apocalyptic responses from the Republican presidential candidates?
As it turns out we live in one of those unusual moments when two such contradictory states actually can exist simultaneously. On President Obama’s side; it is true, that according to many of the traditional economic measures, the United States is doing pretty well, particularly when compared to the rest of the world. But his Republican counterparts are also correct when they argue that for many traditional Americans life seems completely out of kilter.
What the traditionalist fear most- that our society is radically changing, is an undeniable fact. The transformations we are undergoing; economically, socially and culturally, are far more disruptive than even the most bellicose of their candidates imagine. For those who fear that the future will be radically different than the past, it is easy to imagine this as “the winter of despair.”
Of course, for the more liberal members of our society (and for the record I count myself as one), many of these same changes foretell the arrival of the “spring of hope.” Hard to imagine a more apt metaphor for the President who was propelled into office on just such a promise. Where the current progressive story falls short is in its blind attachment to the old metrics. More employment in a world where the very nature of work is changing does not represent the bright future we dream of.
The problem is that both sides are missing the bigger issue; the very story of America is changing. The old stories of endless frontiers and boundless capitalism watched over by the policeman of the world no longer work. The same changes that are causing cultural and economic dislocation are fundamentally disrupting the very nature of our political system.
One might argue that the politicians currently jousting for power avoid this deeper debate because it would be too hard of their constituents to consume. In truth, I suspect, that many of them lack the ability to even comprehend these challenges, much less the tools to address them. They are trapped in the old stories, where their role is to step forward as the traditional hero, brandish the weapons at hand, and vanquish the foes.
There is some serious evidence to suggest that the challenges we now face can’t even be addressed by our old pantheon of heroes. The problems we face today are either too large: global warming, terrorism, systemic poverty, for a national level government to attack or too local; transportation, education, housing, for that same government to be agile enough to address. National politics in this country is stuck in the disappearing middle. The same changes that are carving out the economic middle and dismembering traditional industries are challenging the old political narratives. These forces are stronger than our best rhetoric. No matter how loud we may shout, we will not be able to stem the tide of change.
What then are we to do? First, we need to realize that beyond the current turbulence there are plenty of reasons for optimism. We still can imagine tomorrows that are better than today. Once we shed the old skin of a system designed for an outmoded age and become comfortable with the new worlds we live in we can begin to find ways to build those better tomorrows. In order to successfully make this transition, we need, to quote Wendell Berry, “a new story.” Or more precisely many new stories. Expecting those stories to come from the heroes trapped in the old narrative is at best an unlikely proposition.
Instead of more heroes in the old story, we need heroes of the new story. These new storytellers will not likely be found in the places we traditionally look; industry, government, academia. It is much more likely that they will come from the fringes. They will be young, or at least, young at heart, wildly optimistic, entrepreneurial, and willing to boldly try new ideas and create new visions.
To become a hero of the story requires a certain amount of selflessness. It is much safer in the short term to follow the old paths and play your role in the old stories. But short-term thinking, and avoiding risks will not lead us through these turbulent times. We must find those leaders able and willing to look beyond the horizon and share their visions for brighter tomorrows.
The most important question is; will you be one of those heroes of the story?