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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Challenges of the next decade

If the past is a guide, then in the years ahead, Americans will once again look beyond both government and business to build their communities

Issue: "Realities: 2011-2020," Jan. 15, 2011

Where are we going? Let's start with a quick look at where we've come from.

Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s wrote about the American genius for creating associations, groups of like-minded citizens with a common purpose to advance neither through government power nor market forces, but through voluntary participation. American churches, created and financed through non-compulsory offerings, impressed him, as did civic, fraternal, and educational organizations.

These non-business, non-governmental groups received a variety of labels in recent decades: third sector, independent sector, mediating structures, or civil society. Over the past 50 years government and business Goliaths have fought for ascendency and often ignored the voluntary associations that had an independent voice, only to turn back to them in times of desperate need.

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Government expanded rapidly in the 1960s, but 1970s discontent with the results found its intellectual voice in To Empower People: The Role of Mediating Structures in Public Policy, by Peter Berger and Richard John Neuhaus. The 1980s was a time of business ascendency that the political left labeled "a decade of greed," so in the 1990s "compassionate conservatism" once again emphasized the role of the third sector.

Throughout those decades big government and big business often rode a seesaw, so that when one was down the other was up. The first decade of this century, though, brought something new: Big government (which hitched a ride on compassionate conservatism and stole the truck during the Obama/Pelosi regime) and big business-which started the decade with a dot.com bubble and ended it with bailouts-both lost favor, particularly among Americans in their 20s and 30s.

What comes next? Here's some analysis from one young Christian, Alissa Wilkinson, who writes WORLD's tech page but also tracks cultural changes. She starts with the idea that to her generation the Goliaths of both government and business are morally and financially bankrupt. Her fellow "millennials" are so disillusioned that they don't allow any institutions to define what is good. Instead, they take as their role models those who sell products without seeming to sell out-U2's Bono or Hollywood's Angelina Jolie.

I'd add to that list Chicago's Barack Obama. Marshall Ganz, the union organizer who trained Obama volunteers, sold Barack Obama as community organizer-in-chief, the pure alternative to Washington horse-trading. The 2008 election, driven by pessimism about both business and government, swung on the hinges of emotion, with young people at the "Camp Obamas" that trained multitudes of election volunteers told to offer up not policy analysis but testimonies of political conversion.

We all remember 2008's gauzy focus on "hope," "change," and the United Farm Workers' old slogan of "Si, Se Puede," translated as "Yes, We Can." It was never clear how this would translate into effective government, but the rough idea was that when Obama needed congressional votes to warm the economy, cool the planet, and freeze healthcare costs while giving everyone virtually free medical care, he could activate MyBarackObama.com and unleash millions of volunteer lobbyists who would force Congress to bow to the popular will.

We saw last year how the popular will became a Tea Party tsunami, but there's more than politics here. Is our culture such that the next decade will feature a competition of cult-of-personality mass cheerleading squads, with both left and right putting up their men or women of the hour, before discarding them the next year?

One way to do better is to take to heart the lessons of the '60s, the '80s, and the '00s, when big government and big business both came up short. In the '70s and the '90s many conservatives returned to Tocqueville's observations about the way voluntary associations encourage people to build community without building government structures that always seem to descend into command-and-control regulation. Given the historical patterns, a similar movement is likely in the '10s.

Several articles that follow go beyond politics in assessing this change and noting some of the coming decade's emerging realities. Only one thing is certain: Once again we will walk through the valley of the shadow of death, knowing that God prepares before us a table laden with food but also with challenges. This world remains a classroom and a theater.
Challenges of the next decade
The mule and the lamb | by Marvin Olasky
Not getting any younger | by Timothy Lamer
Haves vs. have-nots | by Mindy Belz
Red tide rising | by Dan Reed
Mass exodus | by Alisa Harris

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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