The way we judge winning and losing is usually pretty simple. In political campaigns, we add up the votes on Election Day, and whoever has the most wins. (Unless, of course, you are Al Gore and the Electoral College comes into play, but let’s leave that discussion for another day.) In most sports, we add up the points or runs and whoever is ahead at the end of the game wins. In track, the stopwatch is king, and whoever has the best time at the end of the race is the winner.
In life, it’s more complicated: Some people think that winning is the accumulation of money or possessions or fame, but the real test is how much we are loved and how much we love.
As you can see, we declare winners at the end of an election, a game, or life. Before the final bell, we can read the polls or count the runs or look at our lives and try to make adjustments if we’re not where we want to be; maybe we can go from being behind to winning.
So let’s look at another situation and see who is winning or losing. In September 2001, Osama bin Laden masterminded a horrific attack that killed thousands of innocent people on our shores. His goal wasn’t just to hurt us; it was to undermine our society. Now nearly 10 years later, bin Laden has been killed in a lethal operation that was executed brilliantly by the military. It was cause for spontaneous celebration, and many Americans viewed bin Laden’s death as a final victory. But as we all know from history, the death of one person, even a key leader, doesn’t always determine success or failure. Let’s take a closer look and add up the “points” to better determine the tally.
We are less united in a common set of values and visions than ever before.
One page in the scorebook shows we have a dead terrorist who seems to have been living a lonely, narcissistic life. What’s on the other page? Let’s see how much America has changed in the past 10 years. Keep in mind I am not saying this is all cause and effect; it’s just an assessment of the game score. I see six categories where we’re losing. (Remember that during this time we have had one Republican president, one Democratic president, and Congresses where Democrats and Republicans were variously in the majority in the House or Senate.)
1) Our economy is stagnant at best and is declining in many ways. Compared with 10 years ago, unemployment, the price of food, and the price of gasoline are higher, while a new generation of Americans lacks optimism that it will be as well off as preceding generations.
2) Our federal government is less trusted, and is viewed as inefficient and ineffective. Our government’s finances are a mess—we have gone from large surpluses to trillion-dollar deficits.
3) America has young men and women in harm’s way fighting two wars (three, if you count Libya) in places far away from home, with little public support. The U.S. presence is generally not welcomed in those countries.
4) Laws and governmental action have curtailed our liberties and freedoms, including the loss of certain legal protections and privacy rights. When I flew out of Los Angeles three days after bin Laden’s death, airport security was tighter, not looser, and the lines were longer, not shorter.
5) In the midst of the country’s war on terrorism, Americans do not feel safer. Citizens are more anxious, insecure, and lost than they were 10 years ago.
6) The country is more bitterly divided and polarized. We are less united in a common set of values and visions than ever before, and leaders of both political parties and certain television shows exacerbate our differences in ever-increasing emotional and judgmental ways.
Pretty depressing situation, right? But this “race” isn’t over, and we aren’t in the final lap. Bin Laden’s death doesn’t signify the checkered flag but rather a lifting of the yellow flag of caution that will allow us to regain our footing and pick up the pace. This process isn’t going to involve troops, security cameras, patdowns, or increased surveillance. Our opponent is not actually terrorism but the divisions between us.
One way to show that the United States can win is for both political parties to come together to fix the budget by asking the country for shared sacrifice involving tax increases and spending cuts. We also should stay out of food fights on cable television; withdraw from the three wars so that families can be reunited; run the political campaigns in 2012 more ethically and not as personal attacks questioning opponents’ intentions; and walk out our front doors and show each other we care and we can do this.
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This article appears in the May 14, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.