In the summer of 1776, as the Continental Congress prepared to sign the Declaration of Independence, Ben Franklin famously warned: “We must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
Franklin’s words were never more true than they are today. Not only are politics more divided than at any other time in recent history, but studies also show that increasingly, conservatives and liberals cannot tolerate one another sufficiently to work through thorny problems, as they could in the past. I remember well my days as a Senate staffer back in the late 70s and early 80s when “compromise” was not considered a synonym for failure, and civility across political divides was expected. Pew Research Center describes today’s new era of intolerance well: “To be sure, disliking the other party is nothing new in politics. But today, these sentiments are broader and deeper than in the recent past.”
This new intolerance doesn’t auger well for America at a critical crossroads in the country’s future. Will continued hyper-partisanship hijack the “American Dream,” the guiding beacon that has fueled American ambition and can-do optimism since the founding of the Republic? In the summer of 2026, when America celebrates its 250th birthday, will the nation be stable, confident, united and prosperous? This question has implications not only for leaders across all sectors of society, from government to business and academia, but also, and perhaps more importantly, for every citizen. In order to open a dialogue between all stakeholders in the country’s future, A.T. Kearney, my firm for 25 years and its Global Business Policy Council (which I chair) have conducted extensive research about attitudes and trends shaping the national zeitgeist. The effort has culminated in four alternative visions of how the country might evolve, depending on the decisions and choices made by the American people and its leaders now. The forthcoming initiative, dubbed America@250, is based on the fundamental premise that in order to enable a strong and prosperous future, citizens must understand the future implications of the choices they make today.
To develop the Four Visions of the future, which I will briefly outline below, we used a scenario-planning methodology that I have found indispensable throughout a career of providing strategic advice to companies and governments around the world. Scenario-planning helps leaders to think beyond the inevitable and step into the world of alternative possibilities, hopefully inspiring choices of what is desirable. It helps to spark discussion and debate and ultimately align individuals around the critical dimensions driving their future.
There is no better time than the present for the United States to focus on aligning around a common vision built on the development of common ground among parties. In our research for America@250, we kept coming back to three underlying themes that we believe drive today’s national narrative: geopolitically, the world is more volatile; technologically, the playing field is changing exponentially; and generationally, the tides have shifted.
- We are now in a new era of geopolitical instability that some experts compare to the tinderbox of Europe, just before the First World War. Tensions are rising between America and other major powers. The global economy remains dangerously fragile. Terrorism is a constant and growing threat, and in the growing world of cyber, many question whether cybersecurity capabilities can catch up to and anticipate the next threat.
- The relentless disruption technology creates across industries and in our daily lives pressures leaders to adapt and respond before truly understanding the consequences of their actions. Will leaders harness the power of technology to unite and solve the country’s problems, or will advances in tech drive them further apart?
- Millennials, aged 18-34 in 2015, are perhaps the most studied and least understood generation. As the largest U.S. adult cohort, will they step up and lead in a political environment that has largely alienated them with its inability to solve problems?
To be sure, there are many powerful drivers shaping the nation’s future, and the lack of consensus among government leaders is proof that the political environment we face today is more complex than ever before. There are more choices, more voices, more variables, more data, and more pressure coming at our leaders faster now than at any other time in recent memory. And by every reasonable technological forecast, the volume and velocity of “inputs” coming at us will only multiply, compounding this complexity.
Beyond the drivers outlined here, the U.S. faces even more tangible threats and opportunities in the years ahead: from decaying infrastructure, to educational reform, ballooning healthcare costs, low energy prices, shifting demographics and daunting geopolitics, to cite a few. America’s future is currently as uncertain as at any time since the historic inflection points of the Great Depression, the Cold War, and even the American Civil War. From our extensive research, enriched by scores of candid conversations, interviews and focus groups around the country, it is clear, if not obvious, that the most desirable outcomes for our nation’s future involve high national alignment and an end to hyper-partisanship. The following four different snapshots reflect what America realistically might look like in 2026, with “So Gallantly Streaming” and “Dawn’s Early Light” capturing a world of renewed national cohesion. Each possible future is identified by a phrase borrowed from America’s national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner”:
- So Gallantly Streaming. America is lifted to new heights by a renewed spirit of bipartisan shared purpose, breathtaking technological advances, and a diversely vibrant economy.
- Twilight’s Last Gleaming. America is in deep decline, paralyzed by political polarization, low economic growth, infrastructure degradation, declining education and healthcare, and eroding global competitiveness.
- The Perilous Fight. Technological innovation powers pockets of the American economy, but widening income inequality and scarcity of opportunity tear at the fabric of society.
- Dawn’s Early Light. Politically awakened Millennials reshape American policy, slashing defense spending and increasing investments in education and human services. Millennial consumers pursue a less materialistic American Dream, slowing economic growth.
Multiple combinations of these futures are plausible. The choices America’s government officials, business leaders and average citizens make now will determine which vision of America@250 becomes reality.
Benjamin Franklin also said, “Energy and persistence conquer all things.” It took both for the United States to become what it is today, and it will take much more of each if the country wants to sustain its leadership position into the future. Strong national alignment around a shared vision and purpose have been possible before, and are possible again—if we start making the right choices today.
This article was written by Paul Laudicina from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.