America's Quest for Greatness

A voter casts her ballot in the primary election Tuesday, March 15, 2016, at an American Legion Hall in Marengo, Ohio. (AP Ph
A voter casts her ballot in the primary election Tuesday, March 15, 2016, at an American Legion Hall in Marengo, Ohio. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Polls and pundits indicate that America has never been more polarized. Yet, there are also some striking commonalities among all presidential hopefuls in their understanding of the challenges, in their shared quest for greatness and in their failing to offer a path to achieving it in a world where an unprecedented pace of change is aggressively disrupting the very fabric of society.

Mr. Trump, Senators Cruz, Sanders and Rubio, Governor Kasich and Secretary Clinton all agree that America's middle class is struggling and increasingly vulnerable; that 'Washington' is gridlocked and that lobby groups have too much power; and that the international standing of the USA is in crisis. Each has their own policy-ideas in case they become president, yet even if they get to implement all of them, America is unlikely to restore and sustain its greatness.

History teaches a few lessons about greatness of nations, those that not only sustain security and prosperity for their citizens, but also offer the world a unique proposition for enlightenment and progress. During their golden epochs, which last few decades to few centuries, great nations have grown both responsive to change and resilient to internal and external challenges. According to Paul Kennedy, author of the famed The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, their common denominator is their pragmatism, which emerges from ensuring, to varying degrees, personal freedoms based on a transparent legal system and a political system that is open to societal and economic experimentation. Examples include ancient Egypt, Persia, Greece and Rome, as well as the Netherlands, the Ottoman Empire and the United Kingdom.

For modern free-market democracies, pragmatism should have been inherent. Their electoral systems regulate gaining, sustaining and transitioning out of power, and their constitutional frameworks ensure the togetherness of their union, while encouraging diversity and adversity among regions and cities. This structure makes them adaptive to the ever-changing reality.

Yet, these nations vary in their performance. While Australia and the Scandinavian nations over-perform according to OECD indicators, Greece and Italy under-perform. Few like Germany, Britain and France even aspire to offer global leadership, and only a handful are able to consistently do so. The differences in their collective performance stem from deeper layers of their polities, which differentiate their incentives for honest and transparent public sphere and for effective and constructive collaboration across society in facing emerging challenges.

This backdrop highlights America's destined greatness. Its sheer size and abundance, the brilliance of its Constitution and Bill of Rights, its democracy and free-market and its universal outlook are the essential foundations. Equally important is the USA's de-centralized architecture with a federal government that is very small compared to other nations; its fifty states, each representing a semi-independent experiment in governance; and relatively strong cities and local jurisdictions that empower citizens. This is a structure that should have ensured America's robust vitality and global leadership deep into the future.

Yet this remarkable system seems to have been hacked and shackled. Primarily, decades of gerrymandering result in a deadlocked Congress, immobilized by intransigent politicians who are safe in their seats if loyal to the base of their parties. Thus, the ability to build broad coalitions that are necessary for tackling the challenges of tomorrow based on a long-term view is compromised.

Campaign financing, super PACs, and the excess power of lobby groups are further distorting the incentives of American politics and fraying American society. The attack on Wall Street sounds populist, yet it echoes a deeper sentiment that capitalism and free-market are no longer consistent and complementary. They represent a reality where a select few, armed with well-funded lobbyists, manipulate regulation to supplement their engineering, business and innovation skills and to shield themselves from market upheavals.

These weaknesses turn into strategic vulnerabilities in this era of a dramatic change in the nature of change itself, emanating from compounding developments in technology, economy and society. This means that every person, nonprofit, business or nation must repeatedly reinvent themselves just to remain afloat, as the longevity of any good idea decreased and the volatility of every area of our life increased. Bill Gates famously said: "Microsoft is always eighteen months away from bankruptcy" and columnist Thomas Friedman wrote: "If it can happen it will happen. Either by you or to you."

Two areas of our society are particularly compromised by these new realities: Governments are increasingly incapable of adapting legislation, regulation and politics to the pace of change, and households struggle to remain employable and stay afloat. Consequently, vulnerability is skyrocketing in all developed nations and distrust toward government and politics, aka 'Washington', grows. This may explain the popularity of Sanders, Cruz and Trump, and the challenges faced by mainstream and establishment politicians like Bush, Kasich, Rubio and Clinton.

The accelerating pace of change and the challenge of pragmatism are intrinsically connected. Resilience and prosperity in a time of volatility require intellectual exploration and experimentation, which challenge traditional distinctions between conservatives and liberals. In such a world, pragmatism cannot be left to the personality of the politician but must be inherent within the political, economic and societal system. Two good first steps may be redrawing Congressional districts to ensure that they are competitive between Republicans and Democrats and limiting the ability of big-money to divert politicians from serving the American people.

Because the promise of America's greatness will only be materialized if it is pragmatically led from the center, and if its colors are not red-or-blue but purple.

Gidi Grinstein is the founder of the Reut Institute, an Israeli think tank focused on societal innovation, and the author of Flexigidity: The Secret of Jewish Adaptability.