The American Dream Unwound! and Restored?

by Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

There’s nothing like six to nine inches of snow piling up on the Connecticut hills, with 40 mile per hour winds and temperatures of five  below, to take the starch out of you — unless you live in Minneapolis, in which case it’s like a day at a balmy winter spa.

So, faced with the prospect of venturing outside and chilling my body to the bone, I decided to catch up on some books I’ve had on my reading list for a while. Curled up in an armchair, what I encountered was just as chilling. But evident in these gloomy snapshots of today were rays of hope for the future, especially for science.

I started with Joe Scarborough’s beautifully written new book, The Right Path: From Ike to Reagan, How Republicans Once Mastered Politics — And Can Again. I’m a “Morning Joe” junky and rarely miss the MSNBC show that Scarborough, a former conservative Republican House member, hosts on weekdays along with Mika Brzezinski, who provides a Democratic counterpoint.

Scarborough’s message simply distilled is that Republicans have lost their way. The party of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan has strayed from purposeful pragmatism to ideological intransigence, so much so that it is marginalizing its national appeal and prospects. That party once had a tent large enough to attract moderates like Nelson Rockefeller and conservatives like Robert Taft, but Scarborough asserts it has now become so intolerant of moderation that it is ceding the future of the nation to liberalism embodied by an ascendant Democratic left.

A one-party polity, which he sees as a serious possibility absent Republican redirection, poses an existential threat to American democracy in his view. And in a not-so-veiled warning to Tea Partisans, Scarborough exhorts the GOP leadership to push back against the inflammatory rhetoric of the far right and embrace pragmatic conservative accommodation. And if Republican poobahs take his advice, I believe science — historically a bipartisan venture — could provide them with an ideal opening gambit.

Saving an ailing Republican Party is a serious matter. But saving an ailing nation is even more crucial. And that is what Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum address in their 2011 book, That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back.

It’s hard to summarize 356 pages in just a few sentences, but here is the essence of their analysis and prescription for national recovery. American exceptionalism–a term that finds its roots in Alexis de Toqueville’s 19th century two-volume treatise, Democracy in America  — is not immutable, Friedman and Mandelbaum assert. And without addressing four major challenges — globalization, the IT revolution, deficits and debt, and energy and the environment — they say the United States is in the process of ceding its unique status in the world — a bad outcome for all nations, in their view.

To recapture its exceptional position, they argue, America will have to draw on its historical capacity that de Toqueville termed exceptional and sharply focus policies and spending on three categories: education, infrastructure, and research and development. They could not have connected American science to American success more vividly.

Of course, to see that our nation and our political democracy are in trouble, you don’t have to read Scarborough, or Friedman and Mandelbaum. You simply have to look around you. And that is what George Packer helps you do with a series of gripping narratives of contemporary American life in his recently published book, The Unwinding. It is eerily reminiscent in style and substance of John Dos Passos’ Depression era trilogy, U.S.A., which occupied a prominent place in my parents’ extensive library, and which I remember reading when I was still in high school.

Packer, whom I first met several years ago and saw again recently, is an extraordinarily talented writer with progressive leanings. His book, as New York Times columnist David Brooks, a Republican, pointed out in a largely positive review, is really about three unwindings: “the stagnation of middle-class wages and widening inequality…the crushing recession that began in 2008…[and] the unraveling of the national fabric.”

Although Packer doesn’t say so explicitly, science and technology played a role in all three of those unwindings. Technology-enabled globalization and IT-driven workforce reductions helped produce the first. Complex mathematical algorithms known as derivatives helped bring Wall Street to its knees and led to Main Street’s great recession. And the average person’s inability to prosper in the modern technological world helped fray the traditional American fabric.

But if you think about it, as Friedman and Mandelbaum have done, investments in research, education and infrastructure — along with the 21st-century policies they require — can spawn a new era of American exceptionalism. The result won’t be a complete rewinding, but in the end, it could provide a renascence of the American dream.

As the second session of the 113th Congress begins its work, I only hope that at least a few members took some time during their holiday break to reflect on the issues Scarborough, Friedman, Mandelbaum, and Packer have illuminated so poignantly.

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Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Michael Lucibella
Art Director and Special Publications Manager: Kerry G. Johnson
Publication Designer and Production: Nancy Bennett-Karasik

February 2014 (Volume 23, Number 2)

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Articles in this Issue
APS Membership Boosted by Student Sign-ups
Bouchet Award Winner Followed a Parental Path to Science
New APS Education Fellow Goes to Washington
In Memoriam: Fred Kavli (1927–2013)
Goeppert-Mayer Awardee Loved High School Physics
Nuclear Physics Prize Reaches Fundraising Goal
Historic Site: IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center
All Sorted Out
Letters to the Editor
The Back Page
Physics Newsmakers of 2013
Members in the Media
This Month in Physics History
Diversity Corner
Profiles In Versatility
Zero Gravity: The Lighter Side of Science
Education Corner
Inside the Beltway