Something’s going on in this country. Something dark. Something cancerous and destructive. No single media is reporting it. But it’s our media that carries the message. It’s continuous. All around us. Yet appearing nowhere as a warning of danger.

I’ve had thoughts of serious concern for this country for some time. But it took an opinion piece by David Gergen of Harvard’s Kennedy School to help me focus. His bottom line: “By a number of objective measures, America is not No. 1. We lead in some things, but, as a nation “America is not No. 1.”

That was followed a day or so later by an interview of Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz at the end of his first year in that job. Speaking of conditions in America, Schultz said a lack of political leadership, incivility and gridlock have made things worse – not better – during his tenure. He talked of a downward drift toward mediocrity. Schultz took care to say he was not criticizing the President or the Republican Party. But if not, why did he feel it necessary to qualify his statement?

The fact is, this country is NOT #1 in many ways. Quoting his talks on the subject with academics, politicians and business leaders, Gergen said “Acknowledging flaws is not the same as acknowledging failure.” Citing a number of familiar business names now gone (Atari, Pan Am, Woolworth) his point was if government doesn’t emulate successful businesses by adapting, changing, using new technologies and keeping up with events and times, it will diminish in stature and former leader nations will become followers.

After reading Gergen’s piece and the Schultz interview, they confirmed what I’d been thinking. I asked myself how we got into this mess. How did we become 27th in math, 22nd in science, 178th in infant mortality, 49th in life expectancy and more? We no longer even have the top national credit worthiness we’ve always had. What happened to all that national pride of country and our world leadership we learned about in school? Why is it so easy to summarize a long list of current American failings that have cost us our position as the country all others have traditionally looked up to?

There are many factors: social, educational, economic. And political. Unlike Schultz, I have no problem blaming the actions of political parties in Congress and some of the inactions of the President. Any unbiased observer – reviewing the last 20 months of conduct by Republican “leadership” in Congress – could only conclude there has been no leadership and such actions as there have been were simply to stall, defeat or delay any steps to solve our national dilemmas. The evidence is overwhelming. Both in what has been done – and what hasn’t.

As for the President – who has been subjected to more anger, vilification, blame and lies than any in our country’s history – he has often not taken charge when he should have. Blessed with a fine intellect and superb education, his desired approach to confrontation is too often that of a conciliator. He has not practiced – if even learned – the one trait common to all successful presidents: the ability to painfully twist arms, kick some congressional ass and unilaterally lay down the law. As a constitutional lawyer and a trained negotiator, he too often opts for lengthy efforts to move people in the same direction as opposed to taking a stand and bringing others to his side. Good practice for making friends. Lousy practice to be a successful leader.

Adding to the constitutional failure has been another cancer: hate media. Whether it’s blatantly racist anonymous Internet traffic – coupled with other anonymous lies created to sow distrust and hatred – or the continual deliberate attempts by hate radio to foster confusion, stimulate anger and spread outright lies, a phony but destructive climate has been manufactured. Rather than focusing on the absolute necessity for a bipartisan political atmosphere to accomplish what a democracy can do when all work toward a common end, millions of Americans are being fed a constant broadcast and Internet diet of misinformation and deceit to drive us apart.

These and other factors have nearly brought this nation to a point of being totally ineffective in anything we attempt. Pick a public issue – pick one of dozens – and you’ll find citizenry polling split right down the middle. We live in a deliberately manufactured climate of stalemate. If one side can’t have it’s way, rather than compromise to make progress, our current national trend is to obstruct and delay. We will “cut the baby in two” before we try to find common ground. King Solomon would be ashamed.

All of our institutions – all of them – are under attack or failing their tasks. Teachers, fire and police personnel are being vilified. Many churches have crossed the line from doing Christ’s work for all to promoting political positions and candidates while condemning those who disagree. Banks have come to represent greed, self-service and dishonest practices at the expense of trust and reliance. Hundreds of millions of Americans have turned off politics and political parties rather than getting involved to help shape national change. The parties, themselves, must share a good portion of blame for that by taking positions far outside the mainstream and for electing people ignorant of their responsibilities and being obstructionist ideologues in a system of democracy that requires compromise and conciliation to be effective.

We’ve become a nation politically obsessed with social issues while ignoring obviously critical tasks of shoring up our economy and fulfilling the American dreams for fellow citizens. Digging out from under our national burden of debt, creating jobs for people who are floundering through no fault of their own, getting people back into productive lives by which we all profit – these have been swept aside while our politics are filled with forcing government into matters of abortion, trying to limit access to the guaranteed American franchise of voting, blocking efforts to expand health care access to millions who need it and trying to margainalize anyone who doesn’t agree with us on every issue.

Imagine this. Look at our national government as a business. Simply as a well-run, successful corporation. Is it functioning? Is it operating as though it will survive changing economic times? Is it efficient? Technologically up to date? Is the board of directors involved and promoting innovation that guarantees a successful future? Is the corporation operating in such a way that it will thrive and provide security for all?

Now, look at Congress and our current political climate. Anybody got a single “yes” answer to those questions?

Well, as David Gergen has effectively pointed out, we’re not No. 1. And we’ve got to get over the hubris and phony “patriotism” that keeps us from saying so. Because that’s the reality. In many things, we’re No. 25 or 30. We are divided, stymied and – at the moment – seemingly incapable of doing the work that must be done to get ourselves and this nation back on a productive track. It’s doubtful November elections will improve that.

I don’t mean to sound like a pessimist. But – as a nation – we’ve much that needs to be done and we’re not doing it. We’re faced with huge tasks that need to be addressed and we’re avoiding them. We’ve allowed ourselves to be divided when our strength is in our unity. We’ve let extreme minority thinking replace majority collective wisdom that’s always served us well. We’ve allowed our collective purpose to be diverted by self-interest and a minority that does not reflect our best.

As a nation, we cannot afford to go back a single step. But – at the moment – that’s what’s happening.

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