Excerpted from America Ascendant: An Ascendant Nation's Struggle to Overcome its Paradoxes. Copyright © 2015 by Stanley B. Greenberg. Reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books and St. Martin's Press. All Rights Reserved.
Excerpted from Chapter 1: America at a Tipping Point
America is poised to lead the twenty-first century, as it led the twentieth. That will happen because America is at a tipping point in its own renewal, a renewal that will allow it to be the exceptional nation again.
America led the Industrial Revolution that changed human history, produced once-in-a-century disruptive changes in where and how families lived and worked, and created a rising prosperity unheard of before the late nineteenth century. It was made possible by the steam engine, the railways built coast to coast, the massive immigration, the concentration of populations in burgeoning cities, and the governments that supported the new industrial monopolies. America became a magnet to the world and was poised to be the leading economic, cultural, and military power of the twentieth century.
But those revolutionary changes left a lot of blood, and they came with a high social cost. The desperate working conditions and teeming tenements, exploitation of women, government corruption, and the inequality of the Gilded Age put it all at risk. It was the two-decade struggle for progressive reforms and government activism to mitigate those costs and renew America that allowed the twentieth century to become America’s century.
America emerged ascendant by the turn of the twentieth century, when it became the largest industrial power. By the end of World War II, America would account for almost a half of the global economy. It became the coun- try that produced the highest per capita income and eventually the country with the largest middle class. It remained the country where people all across the globe sought to emigrate, and the country that produced the highest per capita income and largest middle class by 1980. Starting with Presidents Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman, America invested in U.S. military defenses and technology and projected a global presence in support of American interests and values. And America emerged exceptional because of what Joseph Nye called its growing “soft power”—its openness to technology and innovation and to a robust popular culture and civil society.(1) Well, America is being transformed today by revolutionary changes that
are fueling the country’s growing economic and cultural dynamism. These revolutions are producing seismic changes to our economy, culture, and politics as well as disruptive, once-in-a-century changes in where we live, our way of life, the structure of families, and what are considered the ascendant values. But those revolutionary changes come with powerful contradictions: they come with a high human cost, stark inequalities, and political dysfunction. People live the contradictions, and increasingly they insist on a bold politics that can mitigate the social costs and create human possibility. That is why reformers have the opportunity to renew America and make it possible for America to be exceptional again.
This is a very different picture than the one offered by those who are averse to government or those who think America is in decline or those who believe we are so deeply gridlocked that it cannot begin to tackle its great problems.
(1) Joseph S. Nye Jr., Is the American Century Over? (Malden: Polity Press, 2015), Kindle location 191, 871.