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How a Divided America Lost its Way

"The best way to predict the future is to create it."

-- Abraham Lincoln

In case you don't know, I am an American living in that most American of cities, Nashville. You know, country music and all. I've lived here for more than 20 years. Before that, I lived in Washington, DC, for more than 15 years. I was born in New Jersey and began my career in New York City.

My earliest memory as a child was not finding my favorite cartoons on the television for a few days. The channels were all full of the same thing: lines and lines of sad people. That was back in 1963. And people were distraught because President John Kennedy had been assassinated. This was perhaps an earlier harbinger of change.

Born in the 1950s, I grew up in an average suburban community outside of New York City. I graduated from college in 1980 – so I'm ancient. But I also remember a different America. The country always had its problems, but it somehow managed to find its way. I remember the anti-war riots of the '60s and Bobby Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King's assassinations. Which seemed to underscore that President Kennedy's assassination wasn't just a one-off thing. It was part of a pattern of hate and resentment, undercurrents that remain in American society to this day.

My parent's generation somehow survived the Great Depression and World War II. Much of that generation were either first- or second-generation immigrants. But despite the challenges faced by that generation, people worked together to solve problems – even if such efforts were imperfect. For instance, when it came to race, my country has always struggled to find a solution. Nevertheless, this was the generation that defeated Fascism, reached for the Moon, and built an economy that was the envy of the world.

But my generation has lost its way.

Welcome to the 1980s

In the early 80s, I moved to Washington, DC. So did Ronald Reagan. As president, Reagan began the process of unwinding the rules and regulations put in place by Franklin Roosevelt a generation earlier as part of the New Deal. Economic growth was the catchphrase of the time. Reagan entered office determined to shrink the government and promote policies that reduced business regulation.

More significantly, perhaps, Reagan ushed in an era of low taxes. The thinking went: if taxes were cut on the country's wealthiest members, then those savings would trickle down to the rest of us in the form of investment and creation of new businesses. This, in turn, would create more jobs for the masses.

Well, it didn't turn out quite that way as many of the wealthy simply put their tax savings into stocks and other financial instruments. The promised massive job creation only resulted in creating new jobs in the low-paying services industries. High-paying unionized jobs, such as those typically found in manufacturing, were increasingly moved offshore as corporate multinationals looked to shift production to low-cost countries.

After all, so it went—companies needed to protect their margins. The real value of a product was its brand – an idea – not a physical product. Simultaneously, technology took hold as an enabler of rapid communications and a change agent for society, setting the stage for business globalization. In turn, international institutions (such as the World Trade Organization) were formed to facilitate globalized trade. Both political parties in the United States endorsed open and free markets as the key to the global economy's expanded growth.

There was a feeling that a rising tide would lift all boats. But, as it turned out, many of these boats were poorly made and leaked. And in many cases, those left bailing water were the workers in the oldline manufacturing industries, such as textiles. As it turned out, the government did little to help such workers transition to other occupations – both political parties' failure. It helped to set the stage for growing resentment by a portion of American society.

Leaky Boats Lead to Social Discontent

Here's where a critical disconnect between the people and government began. Gone were the days of post-war prosperity, where a middle class of white- and blue-collar workers could support their families. And lost was hope for a better tomorrow. Moon shots made more sense a generation earlier; today, American society at best remains grounded, taxiing in circles.

And while stuck on the ground, society has gradually but undeniably become increasingly unequal. The pie isn't shared like it once was. Much of it is hoarded by a few at the expense of the many. Add in new technology, a pandemic, and questionable government policies, and we have a formula for a crisis. Which is where we are today.

Promises were broken; a fair deal proved elusive. The world changed. Technology only accelerated that change. The body politic has been infected by indifference, selfishness, private interests, and Covid. Tribal politics trumped common social goals. Party affiliations became more important than the country itself.

Technology helped to magnify differences between groups of people: enter social media. Traditional guideposts of media and the dissemination of information became a free for all instead of thoughtful dialogue. And kicked to the curb was tolerant social discourse. Left in its wake were pockets of self-reinforcing streams of thoughts and belief systems. Or, as many say, "echo chambers." I see it as self-perpetuating hubs of conspiracy theories.

Washington, DC – January 6th, 2021

An insurrection. All it took as an exploiter-in-chief to shatter societal norms for self-aggrandizement to bring the great republic to its knees. I speak of no other than Donald Trump. When I mention Trump, I don't speak of him in the traditional political terms of Republican or Democrat. No, what he have here is an autocrat, plain and simple. He's also a madman out to break the system and very nearly has.

When a mob stormed the Capitol building on January 6th, they did so at the direction of a sitting president. Their orders? To disrupt the ceremonial counting of electoral college votes naming the next president and vice president. Make no mistake, it was an attempted coup d’état. These were not patriots; they were insurrectionists. Fortunately, it failed. Unfortunately, there was the loss of life and destruction of public property.

Somehow, though, I don't feel this is the last gasp of the insurrection. I hope I'm wrong, but with Joe Biden's inaugural swearing-in ceremony scheduled for January 20th, anything could happen.

As I've explained above, resentment resulting in insurrection has built over many years. Feelings of resentment run deep with many people. All it took was a lightning rod to galvanize support to attempt to crush the system of government we've enjoyed for so long. Like panes of shattered glass seen in so many photos taken of the Capitol since the insurrection, democracy is a fragile thing. Easily broken.

As an American, I am embarrassed and humiliated. It will take us years to overcome the actions of January 6th.

Efforts to impeach Trump are underway, but how that plays out, mainly after he leaves office later this month, remains to be seen. Trump is a master showman and peddler of lies. He excelled at telling many, many, many small lies over the term of his office. Which in turn fed on the insecurities of a susceptible portion of the population. He successfully created a cult of personality, a demagogue – a dangerous force that the republic needs to contend with and dispel.

Oddly, when I consider that my country has so much at stake, industry issues like sustainability, sourcing strategies, and consumer attitudes towards clothing seems irrelevant. Or at least pales in comparison. Should there be a second insurrection, I fear more people will be killed. And the dead don't buy clothes.

Note: This article was originally published on on January 15, 2021. A lot has happened since then. There's a new president. The previous president was acquitted by the Senate for allegedly inciting the insurrection at the Capitol. The pandemic continues on, while politics remains complicated for many, and the economy remains mired in uncertainty. Many Americans are dubious for what the future holds. The confidence once exhibited by so many Americans years ago appears to have dissipated. It's a difficult time. Nevertheless, history suggests that the country will pull through, figure out a way to overcome its differences, and come out stronger in the end. For that, I am hopeful.

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