Can America Reinvent Itself?

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

Thomas Jefferson called them “an assembly of demigods.” Quite a compliment this is, coming as it does from this extraordinary man, the paragon of an eighteenth-century enlightenment thinker. Whether one agrees with Jefferson’s assessment, those 55 men who gathered in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 to draft a new charter for their new nation were indeed exceptional men of foresight, prudence, and wisdom. And the document they drafted, the Constitution of the United States, was a remarkable work of human intellect.

Exceptional as the Founding Fathers may have been, they could hardly have anticipated the kind of adventurous life the product of their intellectual labor would lead. Remarkable as the Constitution they drafted may have been, there is no denying the fact that it was, after all, a product of human intellect. In fact, what the Framers of the Constitution did during that hot summer of 1787 was to “invent a nation.” First and foremost, they invented a national government that would transcend the sovereignty of state governments whose conflicting interests the Articles of Confederation had failed to resolve. They also invented a political system of checks and balances that, they hoped, would prevent this national government from evolving into a monarchy. Most important of all, the Founding Fathers invented a nation independent of the realities of a social system that are to be found only in the context of a concrete historical environment.

The fact that America was invented as an a-historical entity has been, at the same time, a blessing and a curse in the subsequent development of America on the stage of world history. The very abstract nature of the Constitution, which broadly outlines a “model” of a democratic society, has proved to be a flexible guide for running the nation as evidenced by the fact that the document is still retained in its original form with a minimal number of amendments. On the other hand, the same abstract nature of the Constitution has turned out to be the source of confusion and controversy in dealing with the concrete realities of social life. While the Constitution speaks of a “model” of a democratic society, the real America has had to lead a turbulent life in a concrete, historical environment, in the space of complex interactions among nations in the world.

It was Alexis de Tocqueville, an astute observer of American society in the first half of the nineteenth century, who remarked: “a new science of politics is needed for a new world.” Today America is no longer that new world. Indeed, America today is part of the new world of global interdependence. This fact alone suggests a need for a new science of politics—and a new science of economics as well, for an important aspect of this global interdependence has to do with an expanded network of economic transactions among nations.

The fact that America had to be invented as an a-historical entity means that America started out as, and continues to be, a social experiment. As history offered no guidance, America’s progress as a nation could only be judged against its own blueprint, against its own image of “a more perfect union” as outlined in the Constitution. This explains why America has been a nation always inclined to action and not to reflection.

America’s propensity to action has been, at the same time, a source of inspiration and a cause for alarm for other nations. When things were going well for America, America served as the model of how a nation can prosper when the people are given full opportunity to exploit their creativity, inventiveness, and originality in the pursuit of happiness. When things were going well for America, America was a living proof that peoples with different historical heritages and from different cultural backgrounds can coexist with what Frederick Jackson Turner called “the frontier experience” as the only shared experience in their life. And life in America was a life of unending search for the new and the unconventional, of unbridled passion for fads and gadgets. The rest of the world merely tried to keep up with America in this “bootless chase of perfect felicity,” though that perfect felicity, as Alexis de Tocqueville had already realized, may forever escape Americans. Indeed, when things were going well for America, there was something exhilarating about America’s naïve belief in its manifest destiny, even though that meant America’s propensity to impose its ways of doing things upon other nations.

Looking at the realities America faces today, it is obvious that something has gone wrong. What has gone wrong? The short answer is that history has caught up with America. History has caught up with America, first of all, in the sense that America’s innocence as a young nation is now lost forever. America’s records as a nation are no longer untainted; nor can they be defended as acts of immaturity. America’s political leadership no longer embodies the foresight, prudence, and wisdom of the Founding Fathers. History has caught up with America, secondly, in the sense that America’s economy has gone almost full circle from “rags to riches to borrowed prosperity,” thus foreshadowing the arrival of “hard times” for future generations. America has now learned the lesson about the price of complacency in its leadership role in the world economy, the lesson that no nation can afford the luxury of being complacent if it wants to keep its competitive advantage over other nations. History has caught up with America, thirdly, in the sense that America has now gone through enough life-events to define its own unique history. America may still be the land of opportunity, but it is no longer a melting pot of different cultures but a curious kaleidoscope of diverse special interest groups, with each group trying its best to retain and expand its share in the society with the use of ever-combative tactics.

The two hundred years of its turbulent history has turned America into a nation full of contradictions. While the equal protection of the law applies to all people in writing, discrimination of minority groups still persists in real life in subtle—sometimes not so subtle—forms. While Americans are still by far the among the most spirited and imaginative, they are sadly lacking in the sense of civic responsibility which, among other things, leads to the poverty of their public programs. While America’s artists and scientists are among the most brilliant in the world, its political leaders and public officials are mediocre at best. While America boasts the highest achievement in science and technology, it also has a large population of religious fundamentalists who refuse to accept some of the basic findings of modern science. While America is supposedly run by the impassionate exercise of human reason, its social life is filled with ghastly stories of human emotions and passions.

Today America exists in the space of interaction among these contradictory social forces. Although no nation is exempt from contradictions, America suffers most from societal contradictions simply because it was a nation destined to be an unfinished product of a social experiment from its very beginning. Paradoxical as it may sound, America derives its vitality from its contradictions. It is because of this vitality as a nation that America still offers hope for its people who are trying to “make it,” as citizens or as immigrants—something worth pondering about as America celebrates another Independence Day.