We are, according to our president, facing a “Sputnik moment,” a crisis in which we are not yet playing from a position of strength; we are at a juncture, it is said, where our response to a variety of difficulties will define us for a generation, or more.
This moment is complex, more so than that which Americans faced when they were suddenly confronted with the fact the Soviet Union had leaped ahead in the space race, in the fields of science and technology. Back in the ’50s, the crisis did not endure once this nation put itself on track to overcome the adversary. Now, however, the crisis that brings us this Sputnik moment has many aspects, takes many turns: it is economic, with the problem of employment and the creation of new industry; it involves education, as well as questions about our country’s role and standing in the world; it requires an alteration in many of the ways we do business, literally and culturally. It will not end as quickly as the last Sputnik moment, when the turnaround was rapid and triumph was manifest in the next decade, when Americans stood on the surface of the moon.
The problems that exist now are, in so many ways bigger, more difficult, and in order to confront those problems, to overcome them, we need to do some groundwork first.
Succeeding in our Sputnik moment has, at first, to do with attitude and the kind of discourse that takes place between parties with differing ideas and interests, with the fact that we must somehow avoid the nonsense that has increasingly dominated not only our capitols but political communication in the society at large. We have to find a way to work together without the useless weight of rancor that has eradicated civility in too many quarters. We have to find a way to repair a tainted partisan politics that has restrained our progress for at least 20 years. To realize any of the leaps and achievements that must take place in the economy, in education, in the rehabilitation of infrastructure, we need to shed the knee-jerk antagonisms perpetrated by well-paid media stars, a vile politics that has become the norm, at all levels. We need to rid ourselves of nasty discourse, of the opinion that disagreement is the signal of irreparable division — that disagreement creates enemies. We need to move to a nameless centrism that reconciles divisions with continual compromise, the kind of compromise that moves us forward to, among other things, reform the tax code and lower corporate taxes; continue the trend to higher private employment and lower government employment; bring substantial changes to the standards and effectiveness of public education; deal with entitlements in a fair and responsible manner; rid our legislative process of the corrupt, arbitrary nonsense that enthralls politicians and harms citizens; end quagmire wars and their extraordinary costs; deal with the question of illegal immigration in a reasonable way, sealing borders, allowing skilled workers to easily obtain visas while lowering the population of unskilled individuals who become a drain on government services; do away with earmarks and pork, utilize revenues wisely and, ultimately, through cuts and the legitimate addition of revenues, rid us of our enormous debt.
Our Sputnik moment must begin with a radical alteration of the way we conduct our political and cultural business. And it begins with each American. It is time to reject unproductive and extreme rhetoric — enough of labels, enough of pathetic, ego-boosting agitation and name-calling. We need to reject extremes and extremists, roll up our sleeves, work together on a foundation of effective compromise and win this moment. Should we not, the cost is too great to contemplate.