The real test of a nation is what it does when it doesn’t have to do anything. A country that is facing famine, dealing with epidemic diseases or confronting a large population stuck in intergenerational poverty can focus on little else. The success of the United States of America has it positioned with both the opportunity and capacity to tackle many significant challenges. Yet, we often choose to ignore them — because we can. This is absolutely un-American.
When a country becomes so adept at solving problems and maximizing opportunities, the question of whether it can or cannot achieve something evaporates. A quick sample of America’s ability to get things done: Man on moon? Check. Cures for countless diseases? Check. Transcontinental railroad and interstate highway system? Check, check. Two world wars and a cold war? Check, check and check. The list goes on.
It is hard to think of anything a united America couldn’t get done. And therein lies the danger of every advanced civilization — the ability to ignore problems. The luxury to ignore leads to the atrophying of the problem-solving muscle that built the nation.
Sharon Lee, wife of Utah Sen. Mike Lee, accompanied him to the recent inauguration of the new Mexican president. She shared with me some of the challenges the incoming administration would face. There are countless questions about what the Mexican government can or cannot accomplish. There are legitimate question about capacity, but no question about the issues they have to address immediately.
America doesn’t have a capability problem, but it should be acutely aware that the capacity of a nation is often lost in the luxury of a never-ending debate about what should and should not be done.
Many of our nation’s problems are simple to solve. Simple, but not easy. Sadly, we don’t even make a good attempt at addressing them anymore. Few countries on earth have the luxury of debating or considering the pros and cons of building a border wall, reforming the criminal justice system, cutting or raising taxes, addressing health care costs, protecting the environment, reforming entitlement programs or reinventing an education system. It isn’t because there is a question about whether America can or cannot deal with any of these issues. Our problem is that we have become comfortable mired in the political minutia of debating if we should or should not address them.
Mrs. Lee said, “The ‘should and the should not’ exists only because we live in a nation that has already overcome and accomplished so much.” While such a debate drones on, the muscle that shaped and forged the most prosperous nation in history lies dormant and deteriorating.
This isn’t to say it is bad to have the “should or should not” debate. We should — so long as we don’t get comfortable or lulled into thinking that that debate is doing anything to move the country closer to solving the issue at hand. Eventually infrastructure will break down. Schools will become ill-equipped to meet new demands. A global crisis will threaten freedom and security.
When the moment of great challenge arrives in the life of a nation, the capacity to act swiftly, decisively, unitedly and effectively will be tested immediately. The time for preparation will have passed. The luxury of warming up or re-engaging gradually will not be an option. If a nation has gone soft or allowed its problem-solving to fall by the wayside, it will be unable to rise to meet the critical challenges of its day.
Contending with great difficulties sharpens and strengthens the capacity of the nation. As Abigail Adams wrote, “Great necessities call out great virtues.”
The American people will respond with unrivaled capacity and commitment when a leader with vision invites them to be part of a cause — not a caustic debate.
Politicians simply calling for Twitter battles and social media wars are not calling upon citizens to do some great thing. It may merely be a fundraising ploy to make Americans feel like they are part of a great battle when in fact it is only an exercise in the kind of “should or should not,” frustration-inducing routine that continues to fray the fabric of the nation.
The harder causes are those that can be put off for another day or postponed for future consideration without immediate consequence. No nation has more capacity and capability to solve problems than the United States. We are a can-do country. The discipline to deal with the difficult without delay will define America’s future.
We no longer have the luxury of procrastinating our pressing problems. Leaders should call on citizens and citizens must call on leaders to exercise the most American of all attributes — our ability to tackle big issues, solve great problems and create a better future.
This article first appeared in The Deseret News.