Yesterday the CBS/NYT poll reported that 81% of respondents thought that the country was headed down the wrong track, the highest number in the history of the poll. I'll bet I'm not the only liberal who thinks that there might be a silk lining in this sow's purse. That's a big bag of lemons, enough to make a whole lot of lemonade. Even as the ominous economic news keeps not going away, there is a palpable and growing sense that the US is ready to make changes. That's what this kind of polling data reveals: a willingness on the part of individuals to make changes in their own lives.
Great leaders (Lincoln, FDR) know what any good teacher knows: people rise to the level of the expectations that are put on them. If one treats people as passive spectators, that's how they behave. But contrary to some of our lazier intuitions, it also turns out that people don't like to be passive spectators. People want to feel that their lives have meaning, that they have something to commit to, and eventually something to be proud of. And that requires engaging them at a personal level in challenges and problems. Maybe the biggest failure of the Bush Administration is the utter lack of any sense of sacrifice, even a sense of responsibility, on the part of the citizenry. It suits the corporatists if we are just consumers, and it suits the conservatives if the government makes no demands whatsoever on the commonweal. But this ideological value of detaching the public from the government of the nation is a spiritual dead-end. People need that sense of communal enterprise, shared effort and sacrifice. Right now we're at the end of two terms of Alfred E. Neumann, and you can feel the dissatisfaction: it's a dissatisfaction with our own lives as citizens, not just with the service we're getting from our elected servants (and this Administration doesn't act like servants, they act like masters).
It's a dangerous business. The good argument that Bush has (and yes, that he does understand, if you listen to him) is that demagogues have always harnessed collective energies to this or that cause, creating enemies, fanning hatreds, consolidating power (the argument is weakened coming from Bush, since he does so much of this stuff himself). I too am wary of the dangerous potential of collectivist thought. So, what to do?
Energy policy, is the obvious thing. The People are telling us through these polls that they are ready to make real sacrifices, to change the patterns of their own lives, to evolve, to get involved. The next president needs to approach energy policy the same way JFK approached the moon shot in the Sixties. Set a goal, one that is positive and in the national interest. Be ambitious. Communicate to the public that the goals can be reached only through collective action: we can't just vote for a policy platform and then sit back like we just changed the channel. Reduce energy consumption, increase all forms of energy production.
Another thing that has to change is America's role as global gendarme. We've already been fired from this job by the rest of the world. We just haven't noticed it yet. And I will say this for the USA: the Europeans and the Asians are much too hidebound and cautious to take the radical actions that will be needed. We're still going to have to lead, by cultural default, even as we finesse the end of our hegemony, such as it is. And good riddance to it!