(Denver Post, Sept. 21) It’s false to say you can’t turn back the clock, C. S. Lewis observed. We do it all the time when the clock is wrong. That’s the way, at least, with people who care; and most people do. For three decades now, the United States has been resetting history by the same logic. Predictions of national decline, abounding in the 1970s from groups like the Club of Rome and leaders like Jimmy Carter, didn’t daunt the American spirit. We’ve gone about proving that our best days are still ahead, and I believe election 2008 should be viewed in that context. Historians suggest there’s a cycle by which nations rise and fall. Any generation or person supposedly can do little to prevent the clock running out. Bondage, faith, courage, and liberty are the upward stages, says an essay doubtfully attributed to Alexander Tytler, a Scots philosopher of the 1776 era. Abundance, complacency, apathy, and dependence mark the downward path to bondage again. Goodbye, Rome.
Sir John Glubb, the late British soldier and author, traced many examples of this pattern across 3000 years in his little book, “The Fate of Empires.” The rise to greatness begins with what he called an age of pioneers. Conquest, commerce, affluence, intellectualism, and decadence characterize successive ages, ending in ruin after about 250 years. So long, Uncle Sam.
Grim stuff; except Americans are having none of it. Sure, there are symptoms that warn we might be on the downhill side of the graph. But against these, there is a growing determination to avert dependence and decadence by acting as responsible individuals in responsible communities. It is deeper than politics and will outlast this campaign.
I wrote about this nonpartisan responsibility movement in a couple of columns last year, naming it Element R. Responsibility really is like a natural element or force, inescapable and always there. Think of oxygen, or gravity. We can ignore it at our peril or embrace it to our profit. This element is our antidote for Glubb’s diagnosis – and it’s working.
Responsibility means doing your duty, fulfilling your trust, expecting more of yourself than others. It is a prior condition for both the freedom conservatives cherish and the equality liberals exalt. It is indeed the essence of being human. At some point around the U.S. Bicentennial, a realization dawned that we were losing this distinctively American virtue. That’s when Element R began to stir.
Irresponsible indulgence infects both Republicans and Democrats. Yet we the people find ways of working through or around the parties to fulfill our trust. One result was victory in the Cold War, the Gulf, and now Iraq. Another has been reduction of pathologies like crime, drugs, abortion, racism. Others: welfare reform, long booms and shallow recessions, spectacular environmental gains.
Michael Barone tells the story well in “Hard America, Soft America.” The responsibility movement believes being hard on themselves will pay a dividend of kindness to their neighbor. Element R is about vertebrae, backbone. Uncle Spineless is not for them.
Tytler and Glubb contend a great nation’s lease on life is about ten generations; then comes sundown. It’s a competitive world, and ours is the ninth generation since Independence Hall. Islam is aflame. China is rising. My middle name didn’t suddenly become Pollyanna.
But America isn’t just another statistic of history. If any nation can beat the odds, we will. A burnt-out country wouldn’t elevate an iron man like McCain to the threshold of power. Nor would it consider for the highest offices an African immigrant’s son like Obama or a frontier woman like Palin, mother of five. Makes you darn proud, doesn’t it?
No matter who’s on top after November, the bottom-up responsibility movement of this generation will continue summoning the almost-chosen people to their duty. Our best days ARE still ahead.