A phenomenon that preoccupied Whitehead was the life and death of civilizations. He believed that a particular type of civilization had only a limited life-span. It could repeat itself only for a restricted period of time before facing decline. Only a rapid transition to a new “ideal” can save a civilization from decay. My gut feeling is that for the United States the 2008 elections will be that kind of moment. We stand at a historic turning point, where “stale repetition” of worn-out ideas (and practices) will hasten America’s decline, or reinvigoration with new ideas and a new sensibility will allow its rebirth.
I worry because the leading candidates of both parties seem to offer us government-as-usual at a time when continuity could not be more problematic. Sen. Hillary Clinton refuses to put any meaningful distance between herself and the hostile foreign policies of the Bush administration; and Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, threatens to be even more bellicose than the incumbent, if such a thing is possible. Even the Democratic Congress, elected in the hope of effective opposition, seems captive to the same mentality, unable even to put itself on record against the disastrous policies of the White House. Their calculation seems to be, as James Traub suggested in the New York Times Magazine for Nov. 4, that Americans are neither ready nor able to relinquish their fear.
The public’s thralldom to fear is certainly a consideration for any politician. The times, however, call for extraordinary leadership. The miscalculations and the obstinacy of the administration have bequeathed a Pandora’s box of troubles, not just to the next president but to the next generation: restoring the constitutional balance between civil rights and security, respecting the rights of foreign nationals, reinstituting checks and balances in government, reviving the nation’s standing in world affairs and righting the imbalances in the national economy. In addition, health care needs a real fix, and Social Security needs a plan for sustaining its long-term viability.
Correcting the failed policies of the past seven years would be a daunting agenda for any politician, but the next president will also face an array of global challenges that will not wait. Not to address them is to court disaster or, at best, rapid decline. Above all, a new international regime to curb global warming and reduce its worst effects needs to be worked out. Just as important is re-establishing a system for nuclear nonproliferation. Tensions with Russia, expansion of the terrorist threat and instability in Pakistan, not to mention the Iranian nuclear program, all heighten the risk of nuclear catastrophe. As globalization advances, devising systems for managing the world economy will be a challenge; and outfitting the American economy for the global marketplace will likewise be a formidable test.
None of these challenges are susceptible to the solutions of conventional wisdom. They all require imaginative thinking and inspiring, resolute leadership. This is an epochal election, in which what passes for “experience” in American politics will count for very little. Yes, powers of persuasion, coalition-building skills and old-time charisma will be enormous assets in addressing so large an agenda; but catering to the party base, “triangulation,” the Christmas-stocking approach to legislative initiatives with a small gift for everyone and tough talk to assuage the ill-defined fears of the masses, while they may win elections, will set the nation on a downward slope of decline and the world spinning into greater instability. America’s renewal and the future of a globalized world depend on the advent of a new generation of American leadership that understands the future belongs to those who will guide the public on a historic “adventure of ideas.”