This year’s US presidential election is likely to unleash the most polarizing discourse we’ve seen in decades. We’re likely to hear both sides use extreme labels like fascist, socialist and racist. We’ve already seen a clear schism between the parties and an equally deep-seated hostility within the parties.
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In short, the 2020 election has the potential to seriously divide the nation more deeply than ever. While this may provide short-term catharsis, it’s also a trap. But if we’re smart, we can instead use it as an opportunity to refocus on what really made America great. The country at its best has avoided the attraction of tribal, partisan politics and has instead focused on the common purpose of what it is to be an American. Here is what we should remember about how the United States became the world’s most successful democracy.
Looking at America
America has thrived precisely because we avoided the dangers of extremism. We have consistently found a middle ground with a healthy balance of government oversight and investment. Before the Reagan revolution in the 1980s, government policy wasn’t solely built on tax cuts or the warfare over redistributing wealth — which has only polarized our society.
Rather, we relied on strong government investment and private industry providing new technology to consumers. Economic mobility and massive advances in manufacturing technology (think Henry Ford and IBM) became the origin of the American dream and our soft and hard power across the globe. And, most importantly, there was a national consensus on funding a vibrant public school system and investing in a world-class network of community colleges and public universities.
There are many examples of how America did what other countries couldn’t. Starting with the GI Bill in 1944, we understood that with affordable college education we would give a generation the opportunity to become part of a thriving middle class. We formed coalitions across party lines to invest in our schools and teachers so the next generation of Americans gained the skills to be successful. We created an infrastructure that connected every corner of our nation via rail, freeways and, now, through high-speed internet connectivity.
The next generation of infrastructure — 5G technology — will allow businesses to reach new markets as well as give the next generation of young people (in rich and poor communities) instant access to the world’s information. We’ve done it before and we can do it again. Blue sky research produced public goods like GPS, the internet and the Green Revolution.
Only government can make the difficult investments at the scale necessary to maintain our position as the world’s innovation leader and largest economy. But that requires that we heal our political and cultural rifts and figure out how to prepare for increasing competition from foreign companies and countries.
Our mixed economy of private and public investment has also been integral to our national security and global dominance. America’s innovative spirit put the first airplane in the sky and the first man on the moon. To win the competitive global race in this century, we must push for strategic investments now across the broad swath of our country. China is outpacing us on EV infrastructure and funding for artificial intelligence and scientific moonshots, while we lag behind on educational performance relative to other OECD countries.
We Built America
These challenges can’t be solved by tax cutting our way into innovation or by calling our opponents names. They require smart investments and strategies to ensure that we provide both our companies and our young people — in every community — a chance to succeed.
In the coming election, we need to remember what made America great. America has always been good at forging a strong consensus on national priorities — from keeping our union intact to putting a person on the moon. We made concerted investments in the future. And with government and the private sector working together, we made sure no one was left behind. Our kids and grandkids — be they Republican or Democrat — will benefit from our investments today. Divisiveness and name calling didn’t build America. We did.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.