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Commentary: Three steps toward pragmatic survival

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 19, 2012 - I have developed a plan to save the union. There are a few constitutional hurdles to negotiate; but once in place, I believe my proposal offers the surest course to return the nation to greatness. The credit — or blame — for this accomplishment properly falls to Will McAvoy because he’s the guy who got me thinking about the problem.

As you probably know, McAvoy is the fictional newscaster portrayed by Jeff Daniels in the new HBO series, “The Newsroom.” Though I’ve never seen the program, I’m familiar with its protagonist because of a scene in its initial episode that made him instantly famous among viewers and non-viewers alike.

McAvoy is asked by an earnest young co-ed at a journalism forum why he considers America to be the greatest nation on earth. After some hesitation, he tells her he does not consider the U.S. to be the gemstone of the planet. Citing student test scores, life expectancy, per-capita income and a host of other objective criteria, he launches into a diatribe about the fallen state of the country that echoed beyond the confines of the show’s immediate audience.

Syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts responded by penning a typically thoughtful and well-written piece on the topic. After exploring McAvoy’s thesis and its implications, Pitts ultimately concluded that the source of America’s greatness lies in its seemingly endless capacity for self-reinvention. Perhaps he felt obligated to dissent from McAvoy’s pessimistic verdict, fearing that his readers wouldn’t tolerate yet another unflattering assessment of their collective worth.

Pitts is not the first author to name our protean capabilities as a source of national pride, but his conclusion left me unsatisfied. After all, how can you claim to be great when your signature virtue is the ability to become something other than that which you are?

Of course, reinvention is all about the future and we’ve always been a forward-looking people. The theme of Ronald Reagan’s 1984 re-election campaign, for instance, was “Morning in America.” At the time, Mr. Reagan was 73 years old. Dutch was admittedly an upbeat personality blessed with infectious charm, but by the time one enters his eighth decade, even an incurable optimist should be ready to concede that it’s at least, say, mid-afternoon.

Besides, emphasizing gaudy potential over substantial progress is the ruse of con men. In the 20th century alone, the United States won two world wars, split the atom, cured polio, rebuilt Europe and Japan, sent men to the moon and vanquished communism. When not otherwise engaged, Americans also managed to take home a lion’s share of Nobel Prizes and Olympic gold. These are not the accomplishments of a bunch of bullshit artists.

If I were to identify one quality that has propelled the country to the vanguard of human progress, I would cite our history of pragmatism. Once the Founders shed the stultifying bonds of colonialism, they were able to form a remarkably non-ideological civil society in which what worked prospered and what failed perished. Thus were our ancestors able to tame the frontier and establish a continental nation. Differences of opinion were resolved in the laboratory of results.

Contrast that happy state of affairs with the outcome of the Russian Revolution. There, Marxist ideology had all the answers. Because the plan could never be wrong, failure had to be the fault of those charged with implementing it. Enter the reign of secret police, purges and gulag.

Unfortunately, we seem to have become victims of our own success. As the world’s oldest surviving republic, we’ve been around long enough to form our own version of Old World aristocracy: vested interests who view their own tendentious concerns as superior to, or synonymous with, the common good.

As interest groups flock to ideological fortresses of their own construction, pragmatic action becomes difficult, if not impossible. Item: As of this writing, a bill to extend flood insurance coverage beyond the end of the month is stalemated on Capitol Hill because Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., wants to amend it with a provision stipulating that life begins at conception.

Because desperate times call for desperate measures, I’ll unveil my pragmatic three-step plan to save the nation:

1. Disband California and Illinois. The former state’s government seems to be the product of collective psychosis, while the latter is so fundamentally corrupt that the terms “public service” and “serving time” are often used interchangeably. Both states are hopelessly in debt.

2. Repeal the 22nd Amendment. If long-serving presidents are so deleterious to our political well-being, why did we just build a monument to commemorate FDR?

3. Appoint Bill Clinton to be “President for Life.” He’ll serve until 60 percent of voters want to replace him.

Bill will feel your pain but still balance the budget. And what, exactly, didn’t you like about the Clinton years — was it the peace or the prosperity?

Of course, some may wonder what we’d do if my fanciful plan were actually adopted and we found it didn’t work. For a true American, the solution to that problem is a no-brainer: scrap it and try something new.

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