Radical vision means insight that goes to the root of the matter. Will we find leaders who have it? We need leaders who have this kind of vision, and who have energy, time, courage and perseverance to bring a substantial portion of the country with them.We look to the president for leadership that sets a direction for the entire country, but other leaders can do the same. We have to look beyond the political leaders close by: we cannot expect a new or compelling vision for the country from the Republicans or the Democrats, given the direction they currently favor. I agree with people who say the major parties are beyond saving at this point. They can’t develop radical vision because they don’t recruit and develop leaders who want to lead that way. The people they recruit may think they lead because it’s part of a politician’s job description, but in fact they don’t see past the next election.
That’s another argument, though. The conviction grows that if our so-called leaders do not formulate this vision, then we citizens have to do it. We have a public square now that enables citizens to communicate without interference or mediation. The public square may look fragmented now, but of such discord are revolutions born. The revolution will not be televised.
Formulating a vision for the country might appear difficult, but we needn’t start from scratch. We can start with President Reagan. He gathered scattered stories, ideas, and traditions, re-imagined them to reformulate and recreate the founders’ vision expressed in the Declaration and the Constitution. He began with a lot of material from classical liberalism, ideas that did not cohere well in American political thought during the years following World War II. After 9/11, we may feel more fearful and intellectually unsettled than Americans did during the McCarthy era, but we do have Reagan’s vision of only a generation ago to start with. Our job is to update our traditions of freedom and civic responsibility for our own generation – to adapt them for the world as it exists after September 11.
The differences between the world of September 10 and that of September 12 are big, so we have a big job ahead of us. I don’t want to dwell on the size of the differences, though, or they will daunt us. We just want to note them, and move confidently into the realm of imagination where we ask two questions: where do we want to go, and how do we want to get there? When we have answered those questions, we’ll have a vision that is useful to leaders who want to lead. We’ll have a vision for leaders who want to serve our republic – the whole republic and not one party. That’s hard to do, but that’s what motivated patriots like Jefferson, Lincoln, and Reagan. They were divisive figures, to be sure, but the vision that moved them comprehended the entire republic, not narrower party interest.
So, what is the most obvious difference now? We have a different enemy in the twenty-first century. Reagan identified our enemies in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, and they lived in the Soviet Union. They ruled the Soviet Union and they meant us harm. His strategy in our struggle with the Soviet Union was simple, he said: “We win and they lose.” His strategy for victory had more to it than that, of course, but Reagan’s vision was the first to conceive of victory as something that could happen soon, even during his watch. At the time, critics worried that Reagan entertained imprudent fantasies. In retrospect, his visions appear more like bold proposals that others were too timid to think.
We have a different enemy now, and a different set of constraints make us timid in our thinking. We say that our enemies are terrorists, and the most prominent terrorist organization is called al Qaeda. It’s the most prominent because it carried out the 9/11 attacks against the United States. This organization, a network of networks, is a lot different from the Soviet Union. Its goals are different, and its methods of operating are different. Its vision of the world should they prevail in their struggle with the West is different from the vision the Soviet Union would have imposed had they prevailed in their struggle with West. The methods we have to use to defeat this enemy are far different from the methods we had to use to defeat the Soviet Union.
Where is the George F. Kennan of our generation? Where is the person who accurately describes our enemy, then draws from the description the proper conclusions about the best way to defeat it? We flounder somewhat aimlessly in the bush right now, and I don’t see wise individuals guide us back to the right road. We have to use some self-help then, to chart a path with our collective resources. Let’s imagine for a time that we are George Kennan’s daughters and sons. Going farther back, let’s imagine that we belong to Jefferson and Lincoln. There we find thoughts rooted in our beginnings.