My fellow Americans, the state of our union is strong.” So every president over the past several decades has declared in his annual address to Congress. This is a half-truth in the best of times. Because a new president will be inaugurated in January 2017, there will likely be no formal State of the Union speech next year. Just as well, because it is hard to imagine anyone saying with a straight face that our union is strong.
This is not the first time America has faced daunting internal tensions and external threats. But during this year’s presidential primaries, fear, despair, and dissatisfaction have drawn Americans to would-be leaders who promise radical change to restore our country’s strength.
Yet strength is only one part of real health for nations. All truly flourishing communities must also embrace vulnerability. They accept and even seek out meaningful risk for the sake of growth. Great leaders do not just promise strength: they call people to risk as well.
But around the world today we see the rise of leaders who offer various forms of authority without vulnerability—strength without risk. This is the promise of every authoritarian government and every dictator, and it is increasingly the currency of American political campaigns. One candidate promised to build a wall to keep out illegal immigrants from Mexico—and to make Mexico pay for it. Another promised free tuition at public universities—and to make “Wall Street” pay for it.
These promises have several things in common, and not just that they are entirely unfeasible. They promise goods without a price, protection without effort, and benefits without costs—at least to people like us. They depend on extracting ...1