Longtime readers may recall that I wrote a column six years ago about New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas L. Friedman in which I found that he had, among many other curious things, quoted Johns Hopkins academic Michael Mandelbaum in more than 65 separate pieces of writing. Well, they've now eliminated the middle man and co-authored a new book called That Used To Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World it Invented and How We Can Come Back. I have a review essay coming in a forthcoming issue of Reason (though I highly recommend Andrew Ferguson's effort in The Wall Street Journal), but there is a recurring theme in this look-out-China's-comin' book that's worth drawing attention to. You can see it on pages 278-79:
The second change [away from our previously well-functioning political system] is the loss of confidence in our institutions and in the authority of their leaders across the society. Related to this is a shift in how the society sees people in authority, whether politicians or scientific experts–a shift from healthy skepticism to cynical suspicion of everything and everyone. This shift makes generating the kind of collective action we need to solve our big problems […] that much more difficult.
The third shift in values is a weakening of our sense of shared national purpose, which propelled us in–and was reinforced by–the struggle against fascism in World War II and against communism in the Cold War. […] [A]lthough the Cold War had its dangers and excesses, and although no one should wish for its return, it did bring one benefit, whose importance becomes all the clearer in hindsight: It fostered a feeling of American solidarity, a shared sense of the national interest, as well as a seriousness about governance, which could rally the country to do important and constructive things at home and abroad.
And on page 287:
It isn't just scientists and those regarded as experts who suffer from a lack of credibility. People in positions of authority everywhere have less influence than in the past. […]
This augurs badly for the task of meeting the major challenges our country faces because our institiutions, including but not limited to the federal government, are crucial for the collective action that is required in each case. If the public doesn't trust these institutions, they can't be effective. Where the nation's institutions are concerened–especially government–a healthy, necessary skepticism has given way to corrosive cynicism.
And on 290-91:
[I]n the past we also thought of ourselves as, first and foremost, citizens of the United States. Americans: That used to be us.
The new information technology has helped to erode this particular value. With hundreds of television channels in every cable package and millions of websites that anyone with an Internet connection can visit, our national attention is far more fragmented than it once was. In today's media world we have far more choices than ever before, but also much less common information. And with the new electronic technology that we all use, while communication is much easier, we spend more time alone–texting while walking down the street, eyes down, and listening to an iPod all the while.
During the Cold War era, especially in its early years when memories of World War II were fresh, national unity and the readiness to make sacrifices when and where necessary seemed to most everyone to be matters of national survival.
It is striking to me how much these concepts, and the rhetoric they're clothed in, resemble that of John McCain and David Brooks-style "National Greatness Conservatism" (in addition to the type of Matt Miller "radical centrism" that Lucy Steigerwald blogged about earlier this week). And I really thought I'd never see the day when the deep Cold War political divisions that defined the first 21 years of my life would be treated like a much-lamented era of bygone unity, but there we are.
Let's see, the exaltation of "authority" and "national unity" and "sacrifice" over the messy independence of individuals…isn't there a word for that?