The US has been introspective for as long as I can recall. It veers between not being good enough and crowing about how good it is. I’ve seen this ebb and flow over the decades.
I first saw this when my family moved back to the US at the start of the 1960s. Kennedy had alleged that there was a missile gap with the USSR when he knew there wasn’t. Good politics and a vote winner, but bad facts. However, Soviet success in space led to JFK’s pledge to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. I followed the space shots avidly – you couldn’t have avoided them if you wanted to, as the teachers brought a TV into the classroom in grade school (less structured curriculum in those days). I visited both Johnson and Kennedy Space Centers to get a first-hand feel for what I’d seen in the 1960s.
The 1960s were years of modernism and brutalist architecture – out with the old, in with the new. I was taken by the Space Needle when I visited Seattle in 1967, by the new interstate highways we travelled on family holidays, by the modern buildings such as the new Peoria courthouse – in place of that old 19th century building. However, a lot of history was lost in this race to modernise – in the US and UK – and as I travelled around the US on my road trip it was pleasing to see many of the old public buildings still present in town squares – sadly, not Peoria.
The American resurgence at the start of the 1960s under a vibrant new presidency ended with a return to introspection at the end of the decade and into the 1970s caused by Vietnam, economic travails, and international competition. It was at this time that I chose to leave the US, but I found that the problems in the UK paralleled those in America – below-par products, tired governments, imbalance in union power. Added to this mix was the 1973 energy crisis, which sent inflation soaring and economies tumbling. Mortgage interest rates at over 10% were normal.
Visiting the Reagan Presidential Library showed how persuasive was the message of small government – indeed, some liberals I’ve talked to voted for Reagan, who by today’s standard would be a centerist. The Republicans attracted a whole generation to the Reagan message about the role of government – and in the process making America feel good about itself again. It was the same in the UK with Thatcherism. I bookended the start of liberalism with the FDR Presidential Library and end of it with a visit to the Reagan Library.
I began travelling back to the US more frequently in the late 1980s and into the 1990s as parents aged and kids grew, and as business sent me around America. It was a halcyon time, the Berlin Wall coming down, the end of the Cold War, and the end of history. The US could do no wrong, the stock market boomed, and democracy was spread around the world – to countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. In the midst of this was the tragedy of 9/11, and in the UK 7/7. But you can trace the travails that the US now experiences to decisions taken at the turn of the century – globalisation decimating communities, the assumption that trading with Russia and China would make them ‘more like us’, and political and military over-reach. W library, HW Library, vote republican
Hence, the US is in the midst of another period of introspection. Some feel the country is going backwards – such as with abortion and voting rights – while some stockpile guns and ammo under Second Amendment rights to protect themselves and what they consider important.
This introspection benefits America – it always seems like it’s falling, which is why it succeeds. The US over- then under-compensates, but plays to its strengths. It’s transparent, which leads to an open economy – but, sadly, benefitting the few, not the many. The tech revolution had its roots in Silicon Valley and, irrespective of the critique about the quality of education in the US, the output of patents and Nobel Prizes is world leading – many also won by immigrants to the US.
Americans are currently having a hard time communicating, but maybe they ought to turn politics into a sport, and mix with each other like they do in the stands. In all the stadia I visited, the rival fans intermingled and got along just fine. There are still winners and losers, but it’s a whole lot more fun.