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Can We Meet the Challenge Facing America?

Can We Meet the Challenge Facing America?

By Mark Salter - September 30, 2011

Americans are the masters of change. It is no empty boast to claim that whenever history began to swing on its hinges, Americans either pushed on the door first or walked through it faster and further than anyone else.

We can do it again. But will we? That’s the question that matters most not just in the coming election and not just for politicians, but always and for all of us.

For all our problems, we still stand the best chance of not just surviving global changes but using them to advance our progress and strengthen our position in the world. The rise of new economic powers -- China, India, Brazil and others -- doesn’t have to come at the cost of our opportunities and influence in the world.

We are still the most innovative country, which makes predictions of our inevitable decline foolishly premature since they don’t account for as yet undiscovered future technological advances that might affect our fortunes and the world’s as profoundly as did the revolution in communications technology, most of which was invented here.

Our economy is still the largest in the world. No other market is freer than ours. Our standard of living is still the highest. Our universities are still considered the world’s finest. The changes that have enabled countries to generate greater economic growth today than in the United States are changes that have mostly embraced American economic values. And the biggest political changes occurring in the world today are, at least for now, consistent with American political values.

Name another economic philosophy that is as widely adopted as free market capitalism. Name another political philosophy that is gaining as many adherents in the nations of the world as Western liberalism. You can’t. Communism, fascism, socialism, all the “isms” that have seriously challenged the ideals of free markets and free peoples have come and mostly gone. And when has the rising prosperity of other nations ever presented more of a disadvantage than an opportunity for us?

Islamic extremism threatens our lives and property, but cannot stop the global progress of our economic and political values. The Arab Spring, whatever its ultimate destination, was started by a demand for self-determination. Will China achieve the kind of influence in its region of the world that America has in every corner of the globe? Probably not. India, South Korea, the countries of Southeast Asia, Japan and Australia don’t have to and won’t accept China’s primacy.

It isn’t only America that must confront complex challenges in the 21st century. Other countries, including China, will face problems that are enormously difficult to resolve.

None of this is meant to suggest that Americans should replace our current widespread despair with a “no worries” attitude about the future. If we don’t fix our problems we’ll have plenty of reason to worry that our future will be much less successful than our past. We must change the ways we educate our children, care for our elderly, tax ourselves, regulate our economy, invest our capital, generate power, move people and goods, admit immigrants, and many other things if we are to capitalize on global changes as successfully as we have in the past.

Most Americans don’t believe the politicians they elect are capable of addressing seriously our challenges. That’s understandable. The incumbent U.S. president seems to be running for re-election on a platform that has only one plank -- raise taxes on the wealthy. And it seems that Republican candidates have decided to contest for the nomination by haggling over such burning questions as to whether we should provide in state tuition rates to the children of illegal immigrants or inoculate young girls for the human papillomavirus.

No wonder, then, that the public feels that neither Congress nor the White House, Democrats nor Republicans, are capable of even addressing much less resolving our most serious problems. Can they still be made to? Yes. But only if we change how we approach our problems.

Candidates are catering to the obsessions of their bases and single-issue voters because they are the voters who reliably vote in primaries and general elections. Americans who find this unserious and profess “a pox on both your houses” attitude are less reliable voters, especially in primary elections. The upshot is that we get the candidates we deserve.

If you’re worried about the national debt, then inform yourself about the causes and remedies of the problem. No one is keeping that information secret. Accept that fixing the problem will require sacrifices from you just as you demand that politicians sacrifice. Don’t vote for those who cater to your ill-informed opinions -- the candidate who promises to balance the budget by cutting foreign aid or by taxing everyone but you or to keep the government’s hands off your Social Security. Reward, don’t revile, candidates who tell you otherwise, who think big and campaign big about our challenges and our opportunities, who dare to challenge you.

The first thing to remember about change is that it always begins at home. 

Mark Salter is the former chief of staff to Sen. John McCain and was a senior adviser to the McCain for President campaign.

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