Purifying Democracy with Great Ideas

“What has happened to America?” This is the question I am often asked by Europeans. It is not a question asked with satisfaction or gloating. It is asked with concern that the symbol of individual freedom and hope is fading.

American foreign policy has become reactionary and naive. American domestic policy has stepped backwards 100 years to the era when politicians were administrators for the wealthy.

Alexis de Tocqueville prophetically saw the extraordinary potential in America when he wrote “Democracy in America” in the 1840’s. He also saw the Achilles’ heal of this new form of government when he wrote “Democracy must be continually purified with Great Ideas or it will degenerate into a milieu of material self-interests and a few large corporate interests”.

Reflecting on this thought, I can remember three Great Ideas that reinforced America’s moral authority in world affairs. The Civil Rights movement, the Apollo moon landings, and Cold War fight against Communist tyranny. In each case, America assumed leadership for a virtue that inspired hope in the world.


Since 1990, America is primarily associated with “get rich, make money”. The image of America is now Wall Street, not the Statue of Liberty. The virtues of economic growth and efficiency (lifting a billion people out of poverty is a good thing) do not stir the heart and are counterbalanced by the pervasive anxiety of job losses and degradation in the quality of air, water and food that sustain us.

The American Empire began in 1919 (after WW1) and I believe it still has two or three centuries to run its course. America’s greatest strength does not lie in making money, it lies in the power of the Great Idea “that all men are created equal and entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. This hope is needed more now than ever.


Drones, insurgencies, toppled dictatorships, and multi-billion government aid packages are not empowering citizens in Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East with equal rights. Often these are the shortsighted instrumentalities that destroy the education, healthcare and infrastructure systems that offer people a better life.

So I asked myself “If America could invest in one Great Idea, what would it be?” The answer became clear when I stumbled upon a World Justice Project report that drew a high statistical correlation between education and corruption. There is less corruption in autocracies with high education, than in democracies with poor education. Precisely why the post-communist governments in Romania destroyed the public education system.

What if America led a global “Every Child Reads” initiative just as America invested in the “Man on the Moon” program in the 1960’s?


I can think of at least five good reasons for a global reading initiative. First, American foreign policy will always be stymied if local citizens are held hostage to propaganda fed by government leaders using every possible means to sustain their political power and corruption. Secondly, smart phones, tablets, and satellite technology provide very low cost means of bringing education to children and teachers. Third, some of the most powerful private foundations (Gates, Zuckerberg, IFC) are already deploying low cost education solutions in Africa and India. Fourth, whatever America spent on “Every Child Reads” would be matched in decreased military spending and increased economic growth. Finally, America would regain moral leadership authority in the world.

All the Great Ideas of prior generations were a reaction to a problem. Illiteracy and  poor education are the greatest roadblocks to the confounding problems of our time.

Ronald Reagan was right when said America is too great for small ideas.

It is time for a Great Idea.


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