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Cry the Benighted Country: What's Gone Wrong in America

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[This is the op/ed piece of mine I've chosen for launching my new book, , WHAT WE'RE UP AGAINST: The Destructive Force at Work in Our World--and How We Can Defeat It.

"Make America great again," Trump says. Not a bad idea, but first we need to understand what's gone wrong.

In every society, both constructive and destructive forces are always at work. But the balance of power between those forces is not constant. Such factors as the quality of its leadership and the impact of its national experience can strengthen either the best or the worst in a society.

Consider, for example, the peoples of Great Britain and Germany at two points in the twentieth century.

In 1910, a time of relative stability before the outbreak of World War I, British society and culture might have been judged moderately healthier than the German -- as a result of a somewhat more orderly history over the previous several centuries and of the more democratic structure of power in Britain. But the difference between them was not dramatic.

Thirty years later, the balance of power between the forces of light and darkness in the two nations had become starkly different. In Britain, the words of a new leader, Winston Churchill, summoned forth the best in the British people -- their courage and their commitment to defend humane values.

In Germany, against which those values then needed to be defended, the leadership of Adolf Hitler was bringing forth the worst elements of German culture. While Churchill was inspiring the heroics in his people (in "their finest hour"), Hitler was turning many of his people into moral monsters -- his "willing executioners."

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Many of us in America today sense an adverse shift in the balance of power between the elements that have made our nation great, and those that tear down what's best about our nation. Some dimensions of this shift can be seen in three key elements of the American body politic.

First, Liberal America: taken as a whole, does it convey its values in an inspiring way? If one compares what we have heard from recent Democratic leaders with the words FDR spoke to the nation -- words captured in his great 1940 "I see an America" speech, and those engraved in the granite of the FDR memorial in Washington -- the change seems unmistakable. The moral and spiritual passion has largely been drained from Liberal America, weakening the power of its values to shape our society.

(The Pope's recent speech to Congress provides another demonstration of how liberal values -- compassionate concern for the well-being of all, and cooperation for the common good -- can be articulated with power and resonance.)

When it comes to the political right, who among us -- not captive inside its propaganda bubble -- can fail to see what a destructive force has taken over the once-honorable Republican Party?

One would be hard put to find, from the past 15 years, instances of that party's actions that have improved rather than damaged America. Among the hundreds of talking points that Republicans have injected into our national conversation, one would also be hard put to find many that have been more truthful than deceptive.

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It is here we have paid the greatest price for Liberal America's loss of moral and spiritual passion. The response from the liberal quarter to the rise of this destructive force on the right has been woefully inadequate.

This combination of the destructiveness of the right and the weakness of the left has resulted in one of the most profound crises in American history. It is a time when, as the poet Yeats said, "the best lack all conviction, while the worst / are filled with a passionate intensity." A time when, as a result, the lie has too often defeated the truth.

This bring us to the press, whose essential job is to tell us the truths we need to know in order to function as competent citizens.

For more than a decade, we have been living through of one of the most politically dangerous periods in American history:

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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)

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