America has been a beacon of freedom and hope for the world for two and a half centuries. Not because god blessed America. Not because of fate. Because we held close to a shared purpose and identity.
All Americans hold these truths to be self evident...that all people are created equal...all people have the right to live, worship, speak and love how they wish. True Americans believe that a government by the people and for the people is the only path forward that allows all people to find meaning and pursue happiness.
But the America we should love is now under threat...by Americans.
The guardrails of our Democracy are slowly eroding and faith in our institutions is failing. Our Constitution is only a piece of paper if it is not held up by the American people and the leaders we elect. Our two parties increasingly view each other as adversaries worthy of contempt, and no law can stand in the way of an electorate that has almost completely lost the courage and curiosity to learn from those that think differently.
There is a path forward for Americans to come together. We have done it before. I believe in my heart that we can do it again. But if we are going to come together we need to understand why we are falling apart, use this knowledge to rebuild our shared American identity, and retake our role as leader of the free world.
Why America is Falling Apart
My great Uncle William "Bill" Hunt Sadler Jr. was born on August 8, 1925 in Guilford County, North Carolina. He helped his parents, the late William and Ruby Sadler, take care of his five younger siblings and scrape together a living on a modest farm in Iowa. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor he joined the Marine Corps and fought in Guadalcanal where over 1,600 Americans died directly and many more from disease. He passed away at 90 on Tuesday, August 25, 2015.
Uncle Bill was part of our Greatest Generation. They were great because their experiences gave them the courage to do what it takes to make our Democracy great. They appreciated the freedoms we take for granted today because many of their friends, family, neighbors and fellow Americans paid the ultimate price ... to hold our beacon of freedom and hope up for the world.
The challenges they overcame gave our Greatest Generation the strength to lead the world into the most prosperous period of world history. They didn't just lead America...they led humanity into an experiment in global peace and collaboration that no other global superpower had ever attempted.
The result is hard to comprehend today. Entire nations were able to bring their people out of poverty by building businesses and growing trade routes that for the first time didn't need to be defended. Democracies flourished and dictators feared the power of an America that stood for justice for all.
But today our Greatest Generation is dead or dying. We Americans have inherited a gift that we can't fully appreciate because we never paid the price.
The void our Greatest Generation has left is evident in the growing partisanship between our political parties. Split ticket voting peaked at the peak of our Greatest Generation's influence. Veterans who fought side-by-side other Americans from every walk of life grew their influence after WWII. Split ticket voting hit an all time high of over 30% in the 1970s as our political leadership was full of former WWII veterans.
Today...split ticket voting has fallen to nearly zero. Nearly all American's have stopped thinking about who they are voting for...so long as it's their party on the ticket. The plague of partisanship is nearly total. Both parties are responsible.
The same goes for bipartisan legislation...or lack thereof. The percent of congress that crosses party lines to vote for a bill looks the same as the above chart. American's are electing politicians that don't care about what the bill reads...only which party has proposed the legislation.
So why is America falling apart?
Societies are not all that different from individuals. We are at our best when we are challenged and overcome. We are at our worst when we have been given everything on a silver platter. We become complacent, lazy in our thinking, and take what we have for granted. When we are given everything we have no right to truly believe in ourselves.
The Chinese have a saying for this ... huò xī fú suǒ yǐ fú xī huò suǒ ... Pronounced: who-ah she foo sue-oh E foo she who-ah sue-oh foo.
This literally means: misfortune leads to fortune and fortune leads to misfortune.
The saying has its roots in Taoism an eastern philosophy that the Chinese have reflected upon for thousands of years to cope with misfortune. What this saying means to me is that crisis is the cure. That struggle is what makes us strong. That strife is inevitable, but also necessary for growth and prosperity.
We tend to put off dealing with problems until they become urgent. Until then, we will take the path of least resistance. We will just keep kicking the can down the road until the necessary degree of cooperation and shared sacrifice is no longer sufficient for our institutions to function.
You can see this phenomenon in financial markets as well. US debt as a percentage of GDP is now at an all time high. After WWII...our Greatest Generation worked together to balance the budget and find bi-partisan ways to grow our economy and sensible government programs sustainably. But as our Greatest Generation faded we became reckless and increasingly expect our government to bail us out and give us handouts.
Crisis of Confidence
During the lockdown my daughters spent a great deal of time learning how to cultivate curiosity in children. With the help of our CTO, Wei Jiang, and several young people in the neighborhood ... Sumay and Aila build a new learning platform called Makeshift Homeschool where kids teach each other. Kids can write lessons about their passions, and share them with the world.
After more than twenty interviews and hundreds of hours of research we discovered something powerful...perhaps the most important thing I've learned about human nature in my life. And that is the necessity of self-love and confidence in cultivating curiosity. To explain allow me a thought experiment.
Think of someone you know that lacks confidence. Now ask yourself...
How do they respond to criticism?
How interested are they in learning?
How selfish are they in trying to get what they want?
One day my daughters were playing with a boy that kept running into the street. They would call out to him every time and yell "Stop! What are you doing? You are going to hurt yourself!"
They were confused as to why someone would do this. I pointed out that the boy was struggling at home for various reasons that I won't get into. Suffice to say that it was likely that he wasn't getting a lot of attention from his parents. We discussed his behavior some more and came to understand that the boy's actions were actually quite logical. He didn't believe that he was valuable...and him running out into the street was an easy way to get people around to show that he mattered.
People will do anything to feel they have value. It is a need...like air, and food. Without it we lack a will to live.
One quality that differentiates people cleanly is their willingness to distort reality in order to satisfy this need to feel valued. And when a person lacks self-love and has no confidence they are likely to take dangerous shortcuts to satisfy this need.
Distorting our perception of reality is easy. Changing reality is hard. And because of this reality we all feel the pressure to change how we see the world if it makes us look better to ourselves.
Evidence of this is everywhere. People who are pretty value beauty. Those with money value wealth. Changing behaviour often changes our values more than values change behavior. If you spend more time with your kids you will value family more. If you spend more time working out you will care more about your health. Churches invented tithing because they discovered that when the faithful paid them they actually caused their followers to become more faithful. We need to believe our actions and circumstances are correct and good...and so we reshape our perception to satisfy that need, that longing, to feel good, to feel worthy.
You can see these mental tricks playing out all over...in the family member that chooses to surround himself with failures in order to feel better about his own failings...in the coworker that obsesses over a promotion because he has no family and thus puts his entire identity into professional success. You can see it in people who tell you how to live your life when it’s perfectly clear that they haven’t a clue because they never bothered to listen long enough to know anything about you, and what they propose happens to be exactly what they always did.