Special Project: American Renewal

February 23, 1981

The belief in anever better tomorrow, the conviction that obstacles exist to be overcome andthat the U.S. has a strong and beneficial role to play in the world—theseconstitute the American secular religion. For some time now, that religion hasbeen corroded by doubt. Intractable inflation seems to have turned the goodlife into a treadmill and has shaken our confidence in the future—America'slast frontier. Our industry appears to have lost its productive magic, itsdaring, and sometimes even its competence. Our government is intrusive,inept—and expensive. Our democracy too often produces only mediocrity anddeadlock.

Abroad, allieswhom we rescued from the shambles of World War II defy us, former enemies whomwe defeated now often outproduce and outtrade us. Our power is challenged bygrowing Soviet ambitions and military prowess; by OPEC's endless extortions; bya chaotic, largely hostile Third World. Much of this situation was symbolizedby two recent events that showed the U.S. relatively powerless: Russia'sinvasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian hostage crisis.

Is this what hasbecome of the American Century?

Not really.America's domestic and foreign crises are genuine. But they have been widelyexaggerated. The U.S. is more self-critical than any other nation; it is alsomore resilient than most. The U.S. has not suddenly turned into a second-ratepower, nor even (as is sometimes suggested) into just another big power. Itremains unique. It has immense resources—physical, intellectual, spiritual—thatare not being fully or rightly used. An American renewal is entirely possible.But it is not inevitable. It will not be accomplished by rhetoric,chest-thumping, self-hypnosis. It will take great and disciplined effort andexact a considerable price. It will also require a virtue rare in America:patience.

That is the themeof the special editorial undertaking by all of Time Inc.'s magazines thismonth: American Renewal.

The need forrenewal ranges well beyond economics, politics and defense; it encompassesethics, morale, social and spiritual values. That fact and a desire to reachthe largest possible audience are the reasons why we decided to spread thisspecial project among all our publications, including those not primarilyconcerned with public policy. In more than a score of articles altogether, eachof the magazines treats a different set of issues and offers suggestions aboutwhat should be done.

We have not triedto cover every topic worthy of attention, and we make no claims to uniqueanswers or unique wisdom. We expect disagreement and debate. But as journalistswho believe that our role should be constructive as well as critical, we havegiven the nation's problems much thought; we also have made a sizable effort tosift the thinking of others and to present what we believe to be the best andmost promising proposals. We hope that concerned citizens and experts, in manygroups, organizations, schools and colleges—possibly even in government—willconsider these issues anew. Our chief purpose is to dispel the notion thatnothing can be done. Thus we also report on many people who have in fact done agreat deal, have already begun their own American Renewal.

Work on theproject started last May, long before the outcome of the election wasdiscernible. Some of our recommendations parallel Reagan administrationpolicies or promises; many differ sharply from them. In general, we have notworried about what seems politically easy or feasible, but about what seemsright.

America's ills areattributed to changes abroad and, variously, to lack of will, failure of nerve,moral decay, selfishness and sloth, the shattering of community-feeling. Onecan find signs of all of these, but the key may be something else: the factthat Americans want just about everything, without considering or fullyunderstanding the cost. We want freedom as well as order, individual liberty aswell as equality, safety as well as the benefits of risk-taking, a wide-opensociety as well as less crime, material wealth as well as spiritualworth—without stopping to think that each of these values takes something awayfrom the other. To use an ungainly but accurate word, we have forgotten thetrade-offs.

At home, the mosturgent area of renewal is, of course, the economy: curbing inflation byrestoring productivity and by limiting government spending. The solution tothis all too familiar problem lies in politics more than in economics: CanAmerican democracy, or any modern democracy, restrain the excessive demandsmade on the society? Can the drift toward the welfare state and egalitarianismbe halted without betraying the ideal of social justice? To accomplish this—andeverything else we need and want—one thing is essential: sustained economicgrowth. This means rejecting the disastrous gospel that growth is impossible orwrong, and that small is always beautiful. Moreover, we should firmly keep inmind that socialist, rigidly planned economies are in deep trouble almosteverywhere. These matters are examined in several articles in FORTUNE and MONEYmagazines.

The second greattask of renewal involves our political system, which sometimes alarminglyrecalls the creeping paralysis of the Third and Fourth French republics. Thegoal must be once again to strengthen the presidency, to undo some of themisguided reforms that have made Congress so unmanageable, to curb themonstrous federal bureaucracy and to counter the power of single-issueconstituencies. Contrary to some critics, we believe that much of this can beaccomplished without major changes in the Constitution. We also see the needfor revitalizing the political parties and for limited changes in our electoralsystem, which has been distorted by, among other factors, the questionablenotion that the best thing for democracy is more democracy. These issues areexamined by TIME.

As for the renewalof American power in the world, a subject also treated by TIME, it will dependon certain changes in attitude. When it has not been actively intervening,America has viewed its influence abroad as somehow automatic, simply radiatingoutward through the shining example of the country's strength and goodness. Ifthis was ever true, it surely no longer is. If we Americans want to be a powerin the world, we will have to pay for it—and not only in money. For example, itis difficult for a country to be taken seriously as a world power if it refusesto have a military draft in an era of obvious crisis. The U.S. needs thedraft.

At the same timewe must take a more balanced view of the world. We are often unrealistic inoverestimating the Soviets, who have serious troubles of their own. But we arealso unrealistic when we feel that any success anywhere in the world not onlyby the Soviets and their avowed allies but by any kind of revolutionary forceis a defeat for us that should be resisted and reversed. No empire sinceantiquity has had that kind of power. The overwhelming predominance we enjoyedfollowing World War II, with most of the industrialized world in ruins andAmerica in sole possession of the atomic bomb, can never be restored. We willhave to face choices about where we want to bring our power to bear.

We also mustrealize that military might is a necessary but not a sufficient condition forAmerican influence. It is no substitute for intelligence, sophistication,flexibility and political action, both overt and covert. Especially in theThird World, nationalism is the most potent force, and we must try to work withit rather than against it. In general we must understand that the exercise ofpower is a continuous task. On the world scene, as perhaps in life, there areno permanent solutions or victories. To win means to stay committed, and tomaneuver.

Success in allthis depends on renewal in the realm of intellect and spirit. It requiresmaintaining our already contested lead in science and technology and developinga many-sided energy policy not hampered by, among other things, hystericalfears of nuclear power. These topics are examined in DISCOVER. Success alsorequires a nation that is far better educated than we are now, a problemaddressed in LIFE. We must recover a view of education beyond a certain point,not as a right, but as a privilege. Education must no longer be regarded aspainless but as an enterprise in which intelligence, talent, effort anddiscipline are prized rather than devalued, as they are now. Examining theelusive topic of the country's moral fiber, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED looks atcompetition in America and its importance not only in sports but in all areasof life. PEOPLE takes up the forces battering the American family, as well asthe deep needs that keep it together. PEOPLE also looks at the role that can beplayed by volunteers, as shown by individuals whose unselfish work has made areal difference in their communities.

Despite theheartening example of such commitments, we face a crisis of moralresponsibility, which is considered by TIME. Many people are either unwillingto take up their responsibilities or unable to discern what they are. Oursociety as a whole is not only without an effective religious ethic; its codesof secular morality are in tatters. It is hard to imagine a plan of action, apractical program, for a moral revival. We can preach and listen to preachers;we can try to do good ourselves and organize good works; we can, and should,reexamine the philosophical source of our laxness. But in the end, we willundoubtedly find that a resurgence of values will not be brought about bymoralizing vigilantes, by legislation or constitutional amendment. A respectfor authority, a sense of duty and a degree of self-restraint—these will neverbe restored in a society that has slipped too far. But in a society like oursthat still has great reservoirs of sound moral strength, they will be restoredalmost mysteriously, through natural growth, as a result of millions ofindividual decisions and efforts. There is much evidence that, in reactionagainst the permissive excesses of the '60s and '70s, people (especially theyoung) have begun to rediscover a desperate need for standards, and that theself-worship of the "me decade" is giving way to a new sense of mutualsupport.

The problems ofrace remain a standing reproach to American morality. Tremendous progress hasbeen made during recent decades in stamping out discrimination, buteconomically troubled times always reveal its lingering presence. The fightagainst it must continue, and so must a measure of "affirmativeaction," preferably without the excesses of government bureaucracy.Anything less would badly tarnish an American Renewal.

One of thegreatest falsehoods spread in recent years is that people are powerless. Farfrom it. We have seen the advance of a breathtaking series of organized causes,from the environmental movement, which became a major force in less than ageneration, to women's rights and the anti-abortion campaign. In fact, far toomuch effort is expended on single issues. They may or may not be worthy inthemselves. The point is that these crusades downgrade or ignore overridingnational issues and ultimately the broad national interest. It happens partlybecause people are uncertain as to just what the national interest is, and sothese narrow causes become their substitute communities, their homes.

Yet the success ofthese drives has demonstrated that we have an ability unmatched in any othermodern democracy to organize for the reshaping of society. The crucial task nowis to restrain this capacity and guide it toward broader issues so as to makepossible at least a measure of consensus and unity.

The FoundingFathers recognized and denounced the "spirit of faction." That spirithas always existed in our highly contentious nation; the broad consensus thatsupposedly prevailed in earlier days is largely a nostalgic illusion. We willnever turn into a republic of virtue, animated by perfect brotherhood. We aretoo large, too varied, too free and too human for that. But in the past atleast we usually managed to rule ourselves through rough accommodation, basedon the recognition that while I may subdue my neighbor on one issue today, hemay subdue me on another tomorrow. The Founders thought of this as civicvirtue, as self-interest rightly understood. That is what we must retrieve.

To believe in anAmerican Renewal one must ultimately believe in individual Americans: thosecountless citizens who, despite all the doubts, the heedlessness, the disorderof the society, go about their lives with courage and patience, slangycompetence and cheerful persistence, with some larceny and some anger and somekindness—and above all with the odd conviction that their country is still anexperiment and that it must stand for something beyond mere survival. These arenot exclusive American virtues, but they are human virtues with a very Americanaccent, and they surely must inspire a sense of love and hope.

Henry Grunwald
Editor-in-Chief

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