© Damon Winter/The New York Times
Turning Point: President Trump issues a travel ban that would preclude travelers from North Korea, Syria, Iran, Chad, Libya, Somalia, Yemen and Venezuela from entering the United States.
America has a lot going for it.
We are in the second year of rising incomes across all income groups. Our work force is relatively young, hardworking and productive. America’s universities and other research institutions are strong in areas like materials science, software development, nanotechnology, biotechnology, genomics and many other fields that are important to our future economic growth and employment. We continue to move toward more energy independence and cleaner energy, with advances in battery storage for solar and wind power and vast untapped capacity to generate electricity from both.
We also face serious economic challenges: severe inequalities in income and wealth; low workforce participation by adults without college degrees, especially white men; dramatic differences in growth between prosperous urban and suburban regions and counties full of small towns and rural areas; gaping shortfalls in our national infrastructure, from inadequate roads and bridges, to rusty, dangerous water pipes, to an electrical grid incapable of moving the cleanest, cheapest energy from where it can be produced most efficiently to where it is most needed, to the absence of affordable, rapid broadband internet in areas that desperately need to be included in the national economy.
There are human resource challenges, too. Our K-12 education system includes some of the world’s best schools, but that excellence has been hard to replicate across districts and states with widely varying conditions. Our higher education system remains the world’s best, but costs and student debt are big problems. Health care reform has brought millions of people affordable, quality medical insurance for the first time, but we have wasted too much time fighting over efforts to repeal that progress when we should be fixing the problems that remain and preparing for the aging of our population. The future of undocumented immigrants — including the “Dreamers” and millions of people who are working hard and paying taxes — is uncertain at a time when our work force cannot grow without them; the birth rate among native-born Americans is barely at replacement levels. From Charleston to Charlottesville, we are reminded that the racial divide remains a curse that can be revived with devastating consequences. And the opioid crisis and its progeny, heroin and fentanyl, are killing and disabling Americans at a staggering rate. For several years we’ve known it’s a huge public health challenge, yet almost nowhere do we have the resources and organization necessary to turn the tide.
Finally, we have a serious set of security challenges, from nuclear proliferation, to terrorism, to climate change, to cybersecurity, the last of which may prove the most daunting because it puts all the systems we need to deal with the other problems, and our very democracy, at risk.
In spite of our overall economic progress since the 2008 crash, all these challenges have contributed to declining economic mobility, increasing political and social alienation and more personal insecurity for millions of our fellow citizens. These forces have increased our divisions, and make it even harder to recover our sense of common purpose.
The good news is that an aggressive effort to address our problems with known and affordable responses would bolster the strength of our economy and our communities through higher incomes, more upward mobility and greater security. Many cities and several states are proving it every day.
But as a nation, we’re on a very different path. All too often, tribalism based on race, religion, sexual identity and place of birth has replaced inclusive nationalism, in which you can be proud of your tribe and still embrace the larger American community. And too often resentment conquers reason, anger blinds us to answers and sanctimony passes for authenticity. These trends are fueled by our Snapchat, Twitter and Facebook world, in which the attention span for issues on television news is only a few seconds, and the very survival of newspapers depends upon retweets of headlines from their online editions. Too many social media sites are fever swamps of extremist foreign and domestic invaders. Such resolute efforts to abolish the line between fact and fiction, truth and lies, can offset all the benefits of our interconnectedness. When trust vanishes and knowledge is devalued as an establishment defense of the status quo, anything can happen. We already see citizens being disenfranchised by the millions, targeted by race, ethnicity and age not because they are ineligible to vote, but because they favor inclusive, not tribal, nationalism.
Who wins in this kind of environment? Those who already have it made; they’ll make more. The least responsible members of the political media, who will prosper covering each new controversy and outrage. And the enemies of democracy, who feed the discord and hope that Americans will finally concede that informed self-government no longer works — and perhaps is no longer even possible — in the modern world.
Twenty-five years ago, when I was elected president, I said that every American should follow our Constitutional framers’ command to form a more perfect union, to constantly expand the definition of “us” and shrink the definition of “them.” I still believe that. Because I do, I favor policies that promote cooperation over conflict and build an economy, a society and a politics of addition not subtraction, multiplication not division. Unfortunately, too many people in power across the world seem determined to do the reverse. If we do that here, we will miss this moment to build our brightest days. Therefore our most important challenge is deciding who we Americans really are — as citizens, communities and a nation. On that, all else depends.
Bill Clinton was the 42nd president of the United States.
© 2017 Bill Clinton