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America used to be great. I mean, really great. Immigrants flocked by the boatload to be welcomed in her open arms, whether they were huddled, tired, poor or disenfranchised. They came for the abundant resources and the free society which made those resources widely available. They brought their vigor, their ambition, their creativity and the necessary skills to make something for themselves in this rich land of opportunity. And make something they did.

Centuries advanced and times changed, but America today is still pretty great. As far as hegemonic superpowers to dominate the landscape of global politics, the world could do much much worse. One needn’t look far through the pages of history to see that.

But as time marches on, the great American pie gets divided into more and more slices, as more and more people gather around the table to claim their share. So the chances of staking a claim, and the opportunities for really making something, grow smaller and smaller. And the further this pie is partitioned, the deeper the divisions run, and the less benevolent this world superpower will become.

On the face of American politics, we can see the furled brows, the clenched jaws, the deep divisions. One side wants to restore that lost past, revive that land of opportunity, and make the country great again. Another side maintains that no restoration is necessary, that thanks to recent health care reforms and the expansion of free trade, America is now as great as ever. Rather than looking back to a more glorious yesterday, these partisans can’t stop thinking about tomorrow, just like they did 20 years ago.

Even if you’ve spent the last two or three decades sequestered in a bubble—whether it’s a financially-induced bubble of complaisant detachment or a confirmation biased bubble of one-sided news consumption—you’ve probably been aware of the economic strains associated with the shrinking pie described above. The world’s seemingly inexhaustible store of resources turns out to be precariously finite. And for the first time in history, broad majorities of Americans are facing the real prospect of living in a less prosperous society than their parents. The opportunity curve has peaked, and the view from the top is horribly unsettling.

In this state of collective vertigo, we need someone to blame, because the thought of failure is anathema to the America psyche. The idea that you could work hard, do your best, and end up empty-handed is unthinkable. For hundreds of years, America enjoyed a uniquely privileged position, with all the bounty of the New World ripe for the plunder. And consequently they have no strong tradition of the noble peasant, the wise hermit or the tragic hero, that you find in every other world culture.

In “Death of a Salesman”, the singular literary example of a national tragedy, Willy Loman, at the end of his long career, laments not having made something of himself. A fantastic play, to be sure, but do we really identify with Loman, the way we can empathize with a despondent serf in a short story from Tolstoy, for example? Or do we merely pity him, because he lacked ambition, amounted to nothing, and then lived to regret it?

The story of someone with a vision, who tries to accomplish something great, but fails, does not jive with American mythology. And the national psyche is not equipped to deal with it. We grew up with Oliver Twist, Little Orphan Annie and Elvis Presley. So we look around today and see all the signs of a psychological breakdown in a society that just doesn’t know how to cope. On the right we see anger and denial, on the left we see denial and depression. And if anyone speaks rationally of acceptance, their voice is all but silenced.

In spite all this, I still recommend acceptance. Meanwhile, America elects people to the highest office who kick and scream like bad-mannered toddlers when things don’t go their way. When the going gets tough, the country chooses a loud-mouthed bully to represent them, while generosity and benevolence fall out of fashion. And as we saw last week in Montana, body-slamming the opposition now meets with greater public approval than the weak policy of tolerance.

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