2010: The Futurist Weighs In (Part 1)

This article is republished from Campaign for America’s Future.

It’s the New Year, and I’m celebrating by coming back to work after a three-month sabbatical from CAF. After four years of pretty consistent blogging, I needed some distance, some time to pursue a few errant passions, and the chance to recover my focus. As of this week, I’m back on the job with a fistful of new insights and research, and a head full of fresh things to blog about. It’s genuinely good to be back, which is a clear sign that the break was a) needed and b) long enough.

For the last couple of weeks, the blogs and papers have been full of pieces about the turn of the decade, with due regard to signs and portents for what the last decade’s disasters all meant, and what glories and horrors await us in the one now ahead. Since this kind of navel-gazing about change and meaning and the future are what I do, I suppose it’s incumbent on me to devote my first couple of homecoming posts to this topic. Given that it’s now January 13 and the prognostication rush is mostly over, I might even claim to be the final word on the subject.

So, here it is, in two parts. This week: A look back. Next week: A look ahead.

The specific events that made the Uh-Ohs a pluperfect catastrophe have already been well-covered by able commentators (some at this very blog), so I’m going to sidestep any attempt to catalogue them further. (No doubt you can sing them all, anyway, verse and chorus, in four-part harmony.) What interests me now is what this decade of social, economic, and political abuse — really, there’s no other word for it — did to us psychologically.

We Americans are not the same people we were when we triumphantly celebrated the Millennium back on New Year’s Eve in 2000. And the trauma wrought by this past decade is going to have a decidedly sobering impact on our attitude and choices as we confront the next one. More than anything, this decade disabused us of many long-held, deeply-cherished illusions about what America is, and who we are, and what that all means.

A very incomplete list of happy delusions that came up for a serious reality check this past decade might include:

We’re number one! America is the world’s sole superpower. We have the highest standard of living, the best schools and health care, the strongest military, the healthiest food and water, and the most stable financial system on earth.

There’s no problem the free market can’t handle better than government does. Just cut taxes, eliminate pesky regulations, and get out of the way — and watch that magic happen!

However: No matter how much we cut taxes and regulations, the water will be safe to drink, the schools will be world-class, and FEMA will show up within hours to rescue you if something truly catastrophic happens.

What’s good for Wall Street is good for Main Street. We don’t need a manufacturing base; the new information economy will take us to even greater heights. If we just help the rich get richer, they’ll make the rest of us richer, too.

Debt creates wealth. From individuals to families to the biggest banks, the more money we borrow and the more debt we create, the higher our standard of living and the wealthier we will be. There is no end to where this might take us.

We can do anything we want in the world, and other countries will go along with us. They trust us; they admire us; and darn it, they like us!

However: We are also inviolable, uninvadable, forever safe on our shores. No one can reach us; thus, no one can harm us. We aren’t really connected to or responsible for anything that goes on beyond our borders.

Likewise: there is no such thing as the common good. There are only individuals, acting in their individual interest. People cannot, and should not, organize through their governments to improve their lives; this is an inappropriate use of government power.

Climate change is only a problem for poor brown people living a long way away…and owners of beachfront property. It’s not something most Americans have any stake in, or need to do anything about.

Our military strength is sufficient to solve any problem we have. Diplomacy, negotiation, and respect for the law are the last refuge of cowards and sissies.

We can trust our media to identify factual reality, and tell us what we need to know.

In 2000, most Americans believed these statements, at least to some degree (though folks on the progressive side already had serious doubts about several of them).

In 2010, almost nobody does. Even the rage of the teabaggers is being fueled by their realization that America isn’t what it used to be (though they still think tax cuts and deregulation are the answer. Denial abides).

Most of us are familiar with the five stages of grief first identified back in the 70s by Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. She found that people facing death — their own, or someone else’s — go through a predictable progression of feelings: first denial, then anger, the later on to bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The thing is: this progression doesn’t just describe our feelings about death. You can almost always see some variation of this pattern at work wherever people are confronting difficult, large-scale changes in how they think and live. Job loss, divorce, moving house, kids leaving home — it’s always the same. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.

The grief pattern is so universal because big changes always involve big losses; and those losses need to be deeply, thoroughly grieved before you can really integrate them, let go, and move on toward the future. You can’t skip this step — there’s no way through it but through it. Grieving forces you back to your first principles, to question who you are and what it all really means. It demands that you re-assess your priorities and values. It requires that you give up things about your current way of life that you find comforting and pleasurable. It brings you up hard against the vicissitudes of an unyielding fate: going back to the way it was is simply no longer an option. And it shoves you up face-to-face with the unknown future, which is terrifying enough if you have good skills to deal with it — and can create absolutely mind-numbing, crippling fear if you don’t.

The Uh-Ohs were the decade in which we began to really grieve the death of the postwar American Dream as we’ve known and cherished it since 1945. We lost our global prestige, our robust economy, our belief in our own cultural and military might and rightness, our faith in the free market, and our connections to factual reality. More than anything, we lost our innocence; and no amount of denial or delusion will be enough to bring it back.

In this decade, reality finally confronted Americans so hard and so often that the wall of denial began to crack and crumble and finally cave in on itself, revealing a whole new landscape of harsh realities that we no longer have a choice to ignore.

Now, we are forced to deal with it. That’s the work of this next decade.

With denial mostly behind us (though there will be backsliding and stragglers), we’re lined up for the second stage: Anger. If we’re really following the classic grief pattern, this could turn out to be a very angry decade. (The teabaggers could be just a preview of coming attractions.) We’re going to need to make a full reckoning of everything that’s happened to us, which is going to leave everybody with very short patience for people who try to lie, evade blame, or duck responsibility. Conversely, those who are caught lying, evading, and ducking will be outraged beyond belief that we dared to hold them accountable. It’s been loud, and it may yet get louder.

But with the denial gone, we are also recovering our taste for evidence-based truth and real accountability: common sense in service of the common good. Anger can be good and cleansing; and if we channel it constructively, it can fuel a fast acceleration into the next era. If we don’t, it could become something far darker and more dangerous — but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The anger may also mask the surface an unspeakable sense of national shame and self-disgust that we actually believed in any of that baloney. We’ll probably see the first early rounds of bargaining, too — as people, organizations, and governments try to work out how they’re going to navigate in this new, wide-open landscape, and start negotiating the solutions that will form the foundation of the next American renewal.

The fact that it took so much loss and damage to break through our impenetrable wall of denial is a testament to just how deep our delusions had become. But now, chastened by disaster and faced with the limits of our power and the consequences of our choices, more and more Americans are now looking at the world as it actually is, and not as we wish it to be. That’s the first healthy step toward recovering our national sanity — and perhaps, someday, our greatness. This new decade is a fresh chance to walk away from a lot of toxic old delusions, and set out in earnest search of what’s real and true and enduring enough to rebuild a nation on.

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Cognitive Policy Works specializes in providing organizations and individuals with frame analysis, policy briefs, strategic advising, and training.