A More Perfect Union

Ted Halstead, the founder and CEO of the New America Foundation, argues that the time has come for Americans to devise a new social contract

When President Bush delivers his State of the Union address later this month, there will likely be few surprises. He will undoubtedly pronounce the state of the union under his stewardship to be sound. And as he offers his speechwriter-penned rundown of predictable policies and programs, members of Congress will stand up or sit down, ostentatiously clap or keep their hands to themselves in ritualistic displays of partisan solidarity.

Clearly, this is not a real opportunity for Americans to inform themselves about the state of our nation. But a clear-sighted understanding of how the nation is currently faring is essential if we are to steer a wise course for our future. With a view to this fact, The Atlantic Monthly—with the help of the New America Foundation, a non-partisan, non-profit think tank in Washington, D.C.—is offering its own assessment of the state of the union. At the behest of The Atlantic, fifteen writers, all but one of them associated with the New America Foundation, have written articles on thirteen domestic issues selected by The Atlantic's editors. Introduced by James Fallows, and with a concluding essay by Ted Halstead (the New America Foundation's CEO), the package of essays offers insight into everything from civic trust to the black gender gap to U.S. oil dependency.

Each essay addresses its subject in a determinedly non-partisan manner—taking into account available public-policy research and offering innovative, practical recommendations on the basis of hard data. Some of the research findings presented here, such as the discovery described by Shannon Brownlee that too much access to health care can actually be damaging to Americans' health, may strike readers as surprising. And some of the policy suggestions, such as Michael Lind's proposal that the federal government redress inequality by relocating struggling families to the nation's depopulated heartland, may seem unorthodox. But, as Halstead argues in his concluding essay, it is an openness to this kind of large-scale creative thinking that the nation now sorely needs. Rather than merely "tinkering at the margins of existing institutions," he writes, we should be envisioning "bold new programs.... Our elected officials must dare to think big once more."

After all, he argues, we have entered a new era. In a post-industrial world, Americans' lives are structured differently from the way they were in the past, and it is only fitting that a new government framework should evolve to accomodate those new realities. During previous times of major change, he points out (both after the Civil War and during the Depression), new social contracts were worked out to reflect new situations. Given not only the significant transformations brought about by the information age but also the fact that despite its economic and military strength, America is currently faltering with respect to many social measures, the time has come, Halstead argues, for our next social contract. Taking an honest look at the true state of our union, he believes, may be the best place to start.

Ted Halstead is the author of a 1999 Atlantic cover story, "A Politics for Generation X," and the co-author of a 1995 cover story, "If the GDP Is Up, Why Is America Down?" He is also the co-author, with Michael Lind, of The Radical Center: The Future of American Politics (2001). He founded the New America Foundation in 1999 as a platform for "promising new voices and new ideas."

He spoke with me recently by telephone.

—Sage Stossel

In your view, which issues covered by the State of the Union package should be considered highest priority?

What we tried to do in selecting these thirteen issues was to look at the main measures of well-being for our country. All of these issues are very important, but not all of them lend themselves to straightforward solutions. The decline of interpersonal trust, for example, is not something that's particularly easy to remedy. But the problems we face in our systems of education, health care, and criminal-justice, as well as our dependence on oil and the fact that we have worrisomely low savings in this country all lend themselves to concrete solutions. Unfortunately, with respect to twelve of the thirteen issues we examined, the country is heading in the wrong direction. So what we've tried to do is put forth innovative real-world solutions that show how we can reverse the situation and pave the way forward.

In your essay you assert that America's next social contract should be characterized above all by flexibility and fairness. Could you elaborate on what you mean by those two terms?

America has entered a very new world—the information age—characterized by significant job mobility, profound changes in the nature of work and family, and high levels of uncertainty. Yet our nation remains very much mired in industrial-era institutions, ideologies, and political parties. The question is how to catch our political system, our public policies, our institutions, and our ideologies up with the sweep of history. In forming a new framework for the twenty-first century, companies, individuals, and the government will all require new levels of flexibility to accomodate the requirements of rapid job mobility and just-in-time manufacturing. I think it's clear that the American people can handle that kind of flexibility. They're more sophisticated than they used to be. The majority own their own homes, have credit cards, and have money invested in financial markets. As a result, they should be able to deal with more choices and responsibilities.

The other side of the equation is fairness. Since the beginning, the goal of the United States has been to build a society based on equal opportunity and meritocracy. The way it's supposed to work is, You work hard, you play by the rules, you get ahead. That's still the dream of America—upward mobility for all and a mass middle-class society. But the worrisome thing is that since the 1970s, the middle class has been shrinking. We've got growing levels of inequality and frightening levels of poverty in the richest country in the world.

Many of the essays in this series provide concrete ways to merge flexibility and fairness in the context of the twenty-first century—giving people more choices and more responsibilities while also making sure that our society is moving toward shared prosperity.

If a new social contract were to begin to take shape, how do you envision that it would be conceived and implemented—and by whom?

There are essentially three actors in any social contract: the government, the private sector, and the citizenry. There's no set formula for how a new social contract takes shape, but there is a clear historical pattern showing that major periods of reinvention have tended to follow a series of destabilizing crises—wars, periods of mounting economic inequality, periods of significant technological change. The reinvention of America at the time of post-Civil War Reconstruction, for example, occurred during the birth of the first Industrial Revolution. The next reinvention, the New Deal era, was sparked at the birth of the second Industrial Revolution. Now we've entered a post-industrial age, so once again there's major technological and economic innovation.

Another major factor is partisan dealignment. Before periods of mass change, you see political alliances essentially falling apart. That's very much what we've seen in recent years; nowadays far more Americans self-identify as Independents than as Democrats or Republicans, meaning that we're witnessing a mass political dealignment. All of these factors—the threat of war, massive technological change, new levels of inequality, and partisan dealignment—sooner or later will lead to the next fundamental remaking of the American nation.

Often that kind of change comes about during presidential elections, when one party or candidate starts putting forth a big new set of ideas. I don't think that either party right now is particularly well poised to lead the way for the next reinvention of America, but the public is very eager to find candidates who will have more forward-looking and pragmatic solutions.

The approach taken by the authors of the State of the Union package is very pragmatic. Their role seems almost akin to that of consultants hired to assess the status of a corporation and make recommendations for innovative new ways of doing things. Does this approach reflect a view on the part of the New America Foundation that it's intelligent management (more than ideology) that's of primary importance to national well-being?

Absolutely. I think that much of what's wrong with our current politics is that it's too trapped in old ideologies, old rigidities, and special interests. What we've tried to do with this package is to look at the country much the way you would look at a business— as you said. In most of these articles, you'll see clear graphics and charts showing what the best empirical data tells us about the direction that we're heading in as a nation in each particular area. Next, we try to give a dispassionate and honest assessment of what's at the root of the problem, and then put forth the most pragmatic, innovative solutions. These solutions don't fit in the old boxes of left and right, because we're looking at problems purely from a perspective of what works. Some of these solutions will seem to be more conservative, some will seem more liberal, and some will be impossible to position on any particular point on the political spectrum.

Doesn't the premise behind most of these articles—that government manipulation can improve the lives of citizens and the nation—itself constitute an ideology? It seems that Libertarians, at least, would argue that it does. Many of these articles in fact seem to advocate some form of social engineering—government-mandated universal childcare, government-mandated training for unemployed fathers, government-created universal high-speed Internet access, government funding for prisoner rehabilitation, and so on. Mightn't some readers even perceive a liberal bias here?

It's true that there is a premise here that the government can play a useful role in improving certain spheres of society. That's a premise that I believe is shared by most Americans, though not by Libertarians. But there is a very healthy respect here for the free market. For example, one of our authors recommends a way to privatize social security, and another suggests a way to achieve universal health insurance through mandatory self-insurance for all Americans rather than through a single-payer sytem. Anybody trying to pigeonhole the articles in one camp or the other will have their work cut out for them.

Given your view that partisan battles between Democrats and Republicans keeps the work of what really needs to get done in this country from taking place, do you feel that it might be a good thing if the two-party system were to fade out?

I don't think that you necessarily need that. But looking back at the times when American government has had its greatest accomplishments and passed the most important pieces of legislation, these were periods when there was a lot of cross-partisan collaboration. In the last two decades, though, we've seen the ascendancy of party-line voting and constant skirmishing between the two parties as if they were rival sports teams. We need politicians to return to an attitude of let's just roll up our sleeves and do the best job we can for the nation.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashbacks: "Ousider Politics" (November 1, 2000)
La Follette in '24, Wallace in '48, Anderson in '80. Atlantic articles on three third-party campaigns from the past century.

As I see it, the parties are just shells. Their agendas and their constituencies change significantly over time. And in the recent past both parties have failed to build a new majoritarian coalition. I happen to believe that whichever party is the first to provide the new combination of flexibility and fairness I described will be the party that's most likely to dominate American politics in the coming decade. My hope, though, is that there will be not only a new direction for both parties, but also a new period of cross-partisan collaboration. Cross-partisan collaboration tends to occur in moments of national crisis, when we don't have the luxury of tolerating partisan infighting. America is entering a period when sooner or later the people will demand and politicians will provide a new can-do spirit.

The goal of this country, after all, is to be a beacon for the world—to create a more perfect union and a model for other nations. In significant respects, we are failing in that job. We need to reinvent ourselves, to reclaim that position at the forefront of world leadership. It's not enough to have the strongest military or the most dynamic economy in the world; we also should have the best social conditions, the best education system, the best environmental programs, the best health care. As a country, we could be doing so much better. Our political leaders in both parties are failing the American people because they are not providing the type of leadership we need.

In his introduction, James Fallows posits that the ideal leader for America is high-minded but realistic—like Benjamin Franklin or Abraham Lincoln. In your view are there any leaders or candidates today who come close to that description?

I think what we need now is a set of leaders who are willing to lose on principle instead of doing whatever it takes to stay in power. Our politicians these days are so eager to please and to raise money and to stay in power that they'll often sell their souls. What we want and need is a set of politicians who will stand by their principles no matter the consequences. One modern day example, at least on some issues, is Senator John McCain. He took on his whole party on the issue of campaign-finance reform. That took incredible courage and incredible persistence, and finally he prevailed, even though the McCain/Feingold bill is being challenged in the courts. That was a perfect example of a candidate willing to throw caution to the wind and fight for principle, and he proved that if you stick to it long enough, you can get there. It's one of the reasons, by the way, that McCain was so popular during the presidential primaries. People really liked his straight-talking, what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of attitude. We need a lot more leaders like that. We need leaders who are willing to take risks, roll up their sleeves, be honest with the American people, and not pretend that everything can be win, win, win with no pain involved. Sometimes it takes sacrifice in order to improve our nation. Our nation's been through a great deal. We've had periods of significant hardship, but out of each of those periods we have always managed to improve ourselves. It's time now for another push toward national improvement, and that will take a new type of leader.

In your 1999 Atlantic cover story, "The Politics of Generation X," you described some of the issues—"balanced-budget populism, social investment, no-nonsense pragmatism, and shared sacrifice"—that are especially important to young Americans. Are young Americans positioned to play a decisive role in the development of any new social contract? Do they seem to want to play such a role?

I think the answer to that is absolutely yes. One of the interesting features of young people these days is that they are much more likely to volunteer than they are to vote. That's because they are interested in what works—they are interested in devoting their time if they can see a tangible result. Well, I think that, in their hearts, the vast majority of these young people are waiting for the type of leader or political program that they can really believe in. I'm confident that if and when a new set of leaders emerges and a new political program is put forth, then young people will come out and do their part. For example, young people are very committed to environmental issues. It's one of the signature features of Generations X and Y. Yet, if you look at the current Administration, we're back-pedaling on virtually every environmental measure. Young people look at problems like global warming and the looming insolvency of social security and they think, Our current leaders are refusing to do anything about these problems. They're just passing them on to the next generation. Young people don't want huge debts passed on to them. And we have to remember that Generation Xers aren't quite so young as they once were. This is a generation that is building families, having children, and ascending to positions of power. As this next generation of Americans ascends to positions of increasing power, their views—their environmentalism, their pragmatism, their fix-it attitude—will become more and more reflected in politics. We'll see more candidates coming from this demographic. I do think, as a result, that we'll see a fundamental shift in American politics.

Ann Coulter's recent book, Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right, argued that there's a liberal bias in the media. Meanwhile, a New York Times article last week explained that liberals are concerned that conservatives are better able to get their message out these days because they've cultivated popular media spokespeople such as Rush Limbaugh. Is it your sense that one side has more of a monopoly on the media than the other? What do you think could be done to help citizens make meaningful sense of the issues if the media itself is so polemical?

I don't think there's one such thing as "the media" that one can generalize about. If you want to talk about biases, it's fair to say that much of the intelligentsia, concentrated in university faculties, and so forth, tends to be more left-leaning than the rest of the country. It's also fair to say that most of the talk-radio programs tend to be more right-leaning. There are certainly examples of biases in different segments of the media. But this is an age in which good information is at everybody's disposal, whether it's on the Web, in the newspapers, or on the radio. If people care, they can get good information and educate themselves about the issues of the day. So I think that blaming the media is somewhat of a diversion when what we really ought to be doing is encouraging the American people to become more educated about their world. The only way that things are going to change is if people start reclaiming some of their collective power.

There are some frightening statistics out there. For example, on a typical election day, two-thirds of voters can't name a single candidate in their own district for any office. That's not a dysfunction of the media, that's a dysfunction of our culture; people aren't concerned enough about our national well-being to self-educate on these things. There's a lot of talk about the need for government reform and media reform and corporate reform, but there's also a need for holding all citizens to a higher standard. Is it really too much to ask that people become more informed about the issues that will shape their futures? Is it too much to ask that if the right incentives are put into place, people should start saving for their own retirements? Is it too much to ask—again if the right incentives are put in place—that all Americans should purchase their own health insurance? I think one of the trends that we need to see in the twenty-first century is to expect more of our citizens. As I mentioned earlier, we have a more sophisticated, capable, and empowered citizenry than in the past. But paradoxically, we seem to be expecting less and less of one another. Even voting, the basic act of citizenship, is increasingly seen as optional. This is a problem. It's a mistake just to blame everything on institutions. We also need to expect more of one another. The basis of any new social contract, and the basis of any society, is its citizenry.

How, specifically, do you hope that citizens and policy-makers will put the information and the recommendations contained in the State of the Union package to use?

In millions of ways, hopefully. Already we're seeing a lot of interest in this package on Capitol Hill. We're holding a kickoff event at the National Press Club on January 14 with governors, senators, major media figures, and a lot of other interested parties. The Atlantic Monthly and the New America Foundation are also hosting some members-only events in both the House and the Senate. But, really, the way we hope this will play out is that people across the country will read this material and start passing these ideas along to their elected officials and asking, Why aren't we doing this? The purpose is to ignite the collective imagination with a new set of ideas and to get people to ask new questions.

Many elected officials have already approached us, asking for briefings on a number of the ideas that we set forth in the magazine. We have significant interest from senators in both parties. My hope is that we'll see a ripple effect with citizens, companies, the media, and elected officials all taking an interest and saying, Why not step back for a minute, get out of our partisan boxes, look at these issues anew, and consider some real solutions to our biggest national problems?