It took about 60 years for America to transform from a great power into the world’s only superpower.
What drove this transition? Competition.
Throughout that period, this nation faced some type of challenge that transcended political differences and motivated Americans to work, in one way or another, towards a common goal. During the 1930s, the challenge was nation-wide poverty brought about by the Great Depression. In the first half of the 1940s, the challenge was fascism and the Axis Powers of World War II. Then came the Cold War and the communist threat, which lasted until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
While Americans certainly had their differences throughout those 60 years, the challenges we faced seemed to have a sobering effect on our national political discourse. They forced us to focus our attention on whatever existential challenge the nation faced at the time, which minimized the ideological differences between liberals and conservatives. And within this moderated political spectrum, compromise was much easier to achieve, so America progressed and prospered.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, America has been a country without a cause. Americans are no longer unified by an overarching goal. As a result, American society is becoming increasingly complacent and fractured. Our infrastructure is crumbling. Our education and health care systems are lagging behind those of other advanced countries. And the ideological differences between liberals and conservatives are sharper and more extreme than ever before. So divided is American society, in fact, that there almost seems to be two Americas.
One of the unfortunate consequences of our divided society has been two decades of government gridlock. Politics has become a zero-sum game between Democrats and Republicans. Bipartisanship is all but extinct, and the filibuster – once used only sparingly – is now used more than ever.
But perhaps the most disturbing development has been the gradual shrinking of the middle class. The recent recession, which has accelerated this decline, has also stoked a sense of economic insecurity among Americans, which has slowly evolved into social insecurity and, ultimately, fear.
Unfortunately, some far-right conservative groups, particularly the Tea Party movement, have taken advantage of these fears for the sole purpose of gaining political support. If these groups continue to take advantage of the vulnerable state of American society, its fractured and fragile fabric could be completely torn apart. America will then face decades of economic, political and social stagnation while countries like China, India and Brazil take the lead on the global stage.
It is of the utmost importance, therefore, to find a cause that can reunite American society and save the middle class. This should be the focus of President Barack Obama’s next two years in office, especially if Republicans take over control of Congress after the upcoming midterm elections, which would all but prevent Obama from achieving any more of his domestic or foreign policy goals.
During his presidential campaign, Obama seemed to strike a chord with many Americans, particularly the young and the middle class. His message impassioned and mobilized a huge amount of Americans and resulted in one of the largest Election Day turnouts in the nation’s history. Although he was unable to maintain this momentum, he can still try to figure out what it was about his message that sparked such an emotional response, because that was the closest thing to a “cause” that this country has had in the past two decades.