The Road Ahead?

Last week, Ezra Klein wrote an interesting column for Bloomberg News in which he argued American national politics is entering a relatively “dull” era, at least compared to the past thirteen years (since 9/11/2001). He argues that this most recent era in which the “federal government mattered more than at any time since at least the 1960s — perhaps the 1930s” is giving way to one in which Washington D.C. “just isn’t where the action is.”

Klein may or many not be correct in this assessment — and he admits that an unforeseen event could “upend the country” and bring the federal government back to center stage — but what I found most intriguing in his article was his concise but powerful overview of several interesting and important developments around the world in which the U.S. national government currently does not play a prominent role. Since most of these are of great import from a broader civic education point of view (regardless of the U.S. federal government’s centrality to them), I highly recommend reading the entire column. Here are the highlights:

The country is changing even if Washington’s laws are not. In 2004, a spate of anti-gay-marriage amendments on the ballot in swing states was considered — perhaps incorrectly — to have turned out enough conservative voters to re-elect President George W. Bush. Today, same-sex marriage is legal in 16 states, and a 17th — Illinois — will legalize it in June. Marijuana is now legal in Colorado and Washington. In 2011, single mothers accounted for 48 percent of first births, meaning we’re near the point — or perhaps past it — at which the majority of first births occur outside marriage. In 2012, a majority of children in the U.S. under the age of 1 were nonwhite. The velocity of demographic and cultural change borders on breathtaking.

Then there’s technology. It has become almost cliché to say, “The phones we carry in our pockets are more powerful than the supercomputers we had in the 1990s” or “An inner-city teenager today has access to more information than the president of the U.S. did 20 years ago.” It’s also true. And we have little idea what it means. . . .

In terms of human welfare, the most important changes are happening outside our borders. More people have seen their lives improve more quickly in the past few decades than perhaps at any time in human history. In 1990, more than 40 percent of the world lived in extreme poverty. By 2015, the World Bank predicts, the figure will be just 16 percent. Among people who work in global development, the goal of eradicating extreme poverty by 2030 is now controversial because it’s not considered ambitious enough.

As extreme poverty has fallen, so too has child mortality. The number of children dying before their fifth birthday has declined by about a third since 1990. This is in part because of extraordinary progress in fighting diseases that prey on the young. India, for instance, just celebrated its third year without a single case of polio.

Rapid development in China, and India is among the best news in the history of the human race. It will also profoundly alter the U.S. role in the world — and its sense of mission and place — as the century wears on. The U.S. will not be, and should not be, the world’s largest economy for long. That shift will be accompanied by loss of the pre-eminence in global affairs that the U.S. has known — and exploited — since World War II.

. . . The rising power of autocratic governments is a real concern. But we have even greater cause to be thrilled that billions of people will be better able to develop and use their talents as economic demand increases and technology advances.

Even we optimists have to admit that the rise of the rest will be a seismic change. The question, then, is whether the U.S. will accept that shift, or try, somehow, to fight it, alienating or even fighting some of the world’s most populous and powerful countries along the way. . . .

I have to say, while all this might make for relatively “dull” D.C. reporting, it is, from any other point of view, nothing less than exhilarating.

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