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Looking for Leverage: Moving America Forward

The country is long on problems but short on levers that might help lift it out of a quagmire of its own making.

You can listen to the companion audio version of this and other essays using the player below or on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsStitcher or Audible.

In a week’s time I will be attending a retreat in the badlands to talk about the future. The organizer, a close friend of mine, invited me to participate, along with several dozen others, perhaps because I have a new book on North Dakota and the Great Plains, The Language of Cottonwoods. He called to talk logistics yesterday. As the call was winding down, he said that he and the other organizers are really worried about “the situation.”

“The Situation” and Its Complexities

Now I had thought the retreat was going to be about the future of the Little Missouri River valley and the badlands of North Dakota. That alone would give us a lot to talk about. The Bakken Oil Boom is soon likely to bring fracking to the most beautiful and fragile landscapes of North Dakota. Almost every ranch in the district faces a succession crisis: the younger generation is not at all sure it wants to work so hard in a raw landscape so far from the expected amenities of our time. The ranchers’ uneasy relationship with the U.S. Forest Service, whose grazing lands they lease, is likely to become more frustrating as global climate change adjusts the carrying capacity of the Little Missouri National Grasslands (1.2 million acres of commons in the heart of the badlands). Etc.

But after I hung up, I began to wonder if we are gathering to talk not about the future of the North Dakota badlands but about “the situation.”

For the rest of the evening, I tried to determine what might be meant by “the situation.” I know, I could simply have picked up the phone and asked a few questions, but I thought it was an interesting exercise. It’s easy enough to get started. America seems to be disintegrating. Our national political system seems to be paralyzed. There is a great deal of anger and distrust awash in the land. Each of the two main tribes (the Right and the Left) declares that the other one is a clear and present danger to the future of civilization. Some tens of millions of people continue to argue, and perhaps believe, that the 2020 election was stolen. We cannot even agree on basic public health measures in the face of the worst global pandemic in more than 100 years.
Three Presidents.jpg
Imagining a composite leader, perhaps with equal parts Obama, Roosevelt and Johnson, who might get us out of "the situation."
That is certainly part of “the situation.” If we met for a weekend and only talked about that, it would make for some interesting conversation, but my fear is that it would be pretty predictable. My host said he is hoping that the retreat would produce some “original thoughts.” Really? It’s so much easier to diagnose the situation than to imagine a path forward. More civility? A great and inspiring leader with the idealism of Barack Obama and the oomph of Theodore Roosevelt? Some self-restraint by the 24-7 cable media? A return to the Fairness Doctrine? I can hear one participant saying we’d be just fine if we could only get back to the intentions of the Founding Fathers; and another urging the progressives to terminate the filibuster and pass rafts of reform legislation along the lines of the New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. One person would argue that we must abolish the Electoral College, another that we should pack the Supreme Court. Probably after two full days of earnest and intense dialogue, someone would say, “What’s next? What now?” And probably we would make vague plans to meet again soon.

I don’t mean to be cynical, but that does not sound very promising.

Where to Place the Lever

Archimedes Lever
Archimedes' lever came with the promise that, if placed correctly, it would move the world. (Source: New York University

The Greek scientist Archimedes (287-212 BCE) said, “show me where to put the lever and I will move the world.” I regard that as one of the greatest insights in the history of western civilization. The question is, where to put the lever? Where to start?

Portrait of Archimedes
Archimedes, painted in 1620 CE by Domenico Fetti (Public Domain/ Wikipedia)

Someone at the retreat would be likely to say the reform should begin with public education. At most colleges and universities, at least 20 percent of incoming students now need at least one remedial course in math or English. At community colleges the percentage is 60 percent. The latest studies indicate that 43 million Americans (about one in nine) are illiterate. The late-night talk shows like to take to the streets to prove how ignorant most citizens are about such basic questions as “Who is the Vice President of the United States?” “What is the term length for a U.S. Senator?” “Name one member of the Supreme Court?” “Who won the Civil War?” but the problem is much graver than that.

If American citizens don’t know the difference between an impeachment and an impeachment trial, if they don’t know the difference between an emolument and an embolism, if they don’t understand the constitutional function of the Supreme Court, if they think Obamacare is socialism but Medicare a sacred American right, how can we expect to keep the republic alive? In a letter to Charles Yancey in 1816, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “if a nation expects to be ignorant & free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was & never will be.”

Former NBC Tonight Show host Jay Leno often took to the streets to ask everyday Americans about things they should know.
Hard not to think we are testing that proposition. It’s unclear what exactly transpires during the twelve or thirteen years of a young person’s formal education, but the answer seems to be, not enough.
We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both.
Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis
Books Clay has been reading
Clay has been reading these books by Evan Osnos and Hedrick Smith to think through the question, what happened?
What about the problem of the few and the many, the maldistribution of wealth and the fruits of life in the third decade of the twenty first century? I’m reading several books about “the situation” now, including Evan Osnos’ Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury and Hedrick Smith’s Who Stole the American Dream?, and they all are suddenly quoting former Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis, “We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both.” If Brandeis was right, we are in a heap of trouble. Osnos reminds us that Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Jeff Bezos together possess more wealth than the entire bottom half of the American population.

You don’t need to be a sociologist to have noticed, in the last thirty years, the rise of the super-rich or what might be called the super duper rich. The most recent “tax reform” bill to clear Congress (December 22, 2017) actually had the effect of transferring wealth upward. And if we could agree that this is the key problem, how would we as a people address the issue?

The Fulcrum of Climate Change

climate sharply+done.jpg
Climate Change: A pending planetary nervous breakdown or the greatest hoax in human history.
(flickr/ Sharply_Done)
Maybe we should place the lever at the root of global climate change. Activists like Bill McKibben say that we have only ten years to begin to turn things around or the planet will have a nervous breakdown. A solid majority of Americans are concerned about this issue. They tell pollsters that they want their government to address climate change in a serious way and a majority of them say they would agree to modify their behavior if necessary to address the problem. But the outspoken minority who believe that global climate change is, as the late Rush Limbaugh put it, the greatest hoax in human history, are very loud and they are more likely to sneer than to formulate an argument. And they have powerful friends in Congress. It’s hard to see a working consensus on what preliminary steps to take. In fact, it seems more likely that corporate capitalism will address the problem than the American government. Perhaps there is a technofix.

The Fulcrum of Race

BLM Brittney Yzaguirre.jpg
A period of racial reckoning coincided with the global coronavirus pandemic. (Source: flickr/ Brittney Yzaguirre)
Maybe the Archimedean fulcrum should fix itself on race. We all know that there are unresolved race issues in the United States. Every time the curtain is parted by some dramatic national event—from Hurricane Katrina to the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis, or to the DAPL pipeline crisis at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota—we are shocked to learn again that all men and women are not created equal in America, not nearly so. The legacy of slavery continues to haunt us. Black Americans are incarcerated in state and federal prisons at five times the rate of white Americans. Our public schools do not provide equal education, not even close. The voting rights of African Americans and other minorities, particularly in urban America, are under assault. It’s not clear just what police reform should entail, but we all know that it is urgently needed. Civil Rights legislation can only take us so far. On March 17, 1966, Martin Luther King Jr. said, “If we are to solve the problem ultimately, every person must rise to the majestic heights of being obedient to the unenforceable.”

Were I called upon at the retreat, I might argue that what America needs most is a spiritual renaissance. The radical secularization of American (and first world) civilization in the last century has left us all feeling empty. The nearly universal vulgarization of American life gives the soul almost no matrix in which to find expression. It’s hard to think of a single social standard that has not effectively collapsed in the last half century, and whatever has been gained by that cannot balance a kind of creeping sordidness in the national character. Apparently nobody’s mouth is washed out with soap anymore, not physically, not metaphorically. The result is nearly universal incivility, the shallowing of our cultural inheritance, the breakdown of even a modest commitment to grammar and precise diction, the ubiquity of the s-word, the f-word, and increasingly the c-word, an orgy of popular culture violence, the nuclear winter of pornography on the internet, the total collapse of what used to be called the dress code, and what amounts to a license to be our worst selves whenever it suits us. The answer to our problems cannot be material. One in eleven Americans rents a storage unit across town. Saturdays where I live are a carnival of garage sales. At this point it seems unlikely that legislation can fix our problems. We are going to need a new life of the spirit; it’s unlikely that that renewal will come from any of the established religious systems.
This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children….
Perhaps President Eisenhower was right when he warned us to beware of the military industrial complex. We all know that the U.S. spends more on defense (i.e., war preparation) than the next eight (some say eleven) countries combined, and that includes China, Russia, and the United Kingdom, among others. Were it not for China, at about $300 billion per year, our spending would be greater than the next 70 countries combined. The U.S. represents 36 percent of the world’s military spending. And we sell arms to most of the rest of them. Who said, “This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat…. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron”? That, too, was Dwight David Eisenhower, April 16, 1953. Imagine what the United States could have done with the seven trillion dollars it spent fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? We are told we cannot afford paid maternity leave for our workers? Really?

All of these problems, and many more, must be addressed.

An Honorable Compromise for the Commonwealth

All of these problems, and many more, must be addressed.

Are we up to it? Can we really make any progress at a weekend badlands retreat where almost everyone will have a different nomination of where to put the lever?

The Founding Fathers did not solve all of the problems of America even in their own time. Perhaps most notoriously, they kicked the can down the road on the question of slavery. But for all of their failures, hypocrisies, and blind spots, they got one thing right. They believed in the capacity of rational men (and women) to come together to seek consensus by way of compromise. They believed in majority rule. They believed the guardrails of the Constitution would prevent power from winding up in the hands of the few or just one. They believed we were up to the challenge of self-government

The Founders believed in the commonwealth. The question we must now face unblinkingly is: do we?

You can also hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, The Thomas Jefferson Hour. He is also a frequent contributor to the Governing podcast, The Future in Context. Clay’s most recent book, The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota, is available through AmazonBarnes and Noble and your local independent book seller. Clay welcomes your comments and critiques of his essays and interviews. You can reach him directly by writing or tweeting @ClayJenkinson.
Clay S. Jenkinson is a historian and humanities scholar based in North Dakota. He is founder of both the Theodore Roosevelt Center and Listening to America. He can be reached at
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