Does America Need a Mission Statement?
As we slowly slink away from our adventures in Muslim lands and start to focus on what President Obama called “nation-building here at home,” we probably need to decide what sort of nation we’d like to be. You’d think that 230-plus years after the Declaration of Independence and 40-plus years after Woodstock, we’d already have some idea. But the United States is a perpetual work in progress, and maybe we’d all benefit from the exercise of putting our national mission down on paper.
Of course, a number of notable Dead White Males have already penned something resembling national mission statements. We can start with Jefferson’s rousing anthem to human rights:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Stirring words, though I wonder how many of us still believe that the Creator of the universe endowed us with equal gifts, rights or anything else, for that matter. Few of us among the governed have the chance to offer our consent when it comes to making policy. And most of us have never exercised our right to “alter or abolish” our government… though some of us are sorely tempted from time to time.
Lincoln added his own memorable twist with “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Sounds fitting and proper for a mission statement, but we all know that “the people” have little to do with our government except to choose the well-connected individuals who assume the power to make our laws and dictate our policies.
Doesn’t our Constitution have something to say about our national purpose?
to… establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…
Well said, gentlemen (those Founding Fathers had a way with words)… but we’re looking at little more than an eloquent boiler-plate formula for a benevolent government.
What makes the United States unique? What sets it apart from other nations with benevolent governments? What national goals and ideals do we aspire to (assuming that a nation smitten with Facebook and the Kardashian sisters is still capable of aspiring to anything so high-minded as national goals and ideals)?
Companies write mission statements all the time. A good corporate mission statement conveys the spirit and purpose of the organization in a few well-constructed sentences. It clarifies the company’s goals and briefly explains how it plans to go about fulfilling them.
For example, here’s the mission statement for the world’s most beloved entertainment company:
The Walt Disney Company’s objective is to be one of the world’s leading producers and providers of entertainment and information, using its portfolio of brands to differentiate its content, services and consumer products. The company’s primary financial goals are to maximize earnings and cash flow, and to allocate capital profitability toward growth initiatives that will drive long-term shareholder value.
I’m impressed. Negatively. That’s the sort of cold-blooded message that only a diehard, jargon-slinging, suspenders-wearing M.B.A. could love. It’s safe to say that Donald Duck had nothing to do with it, and in fact it chills me to my innards. The historic soul of the company gets lost amid all the blatant bottom-line posturing.
Now let’s look at the mission statement of the world’s foremost fast-food outfit:
McDonald’s vision is to be the world’s best quick service restaurant experience. Being the best means providing outstanding quality, service, cleanliness, and value, so that we make every customer in every restaurant smile.
That’s an admirably simple and even charming statement, but where’s the beef? Unlike Disney, McDonald’s went the warm-and-fuzzy route, but I think it could use a little more substance.
Now behold the mission statement of America’s favorite big-box hardware store:
The Home Depot is in the home improvement business and our goal is to provide the highest level of service, the broadest selection of products and the most competitive prices. We are a values-driven company and our eight core values include the following:
- Excellent customer service
- Taking care of our people
- Giving back
- Doing the “right” thing
- Creating shareholder value
- Respect for all people
- Entrepreneurial spirit
- Building strong relationships
That’s more like it. Friendly and upbeat but admirably specific. Just businesslike enough without requiring a translation from Corporatese. I say we use the Home Depot model for America’s mission statement.
There’s one problem, though: America is so splintered as a nation today — politically, culturally and economically — that we’d be more likely to add Mexico as the 51st state than to agree freely among ourselves on a common national purpose.
Here’s how conservatives might write our national mission statement:
The United States consistently aims to maintain its unique and unchallenged position as the Greatest Nation in History by virtue of its reliance on God, guns, low taxes and unregulated free-market capitalism. We assert the sovereignty of the individual over the state, though of course we recognize that some individuals — notably CEOs, investment bankers, professional athletes and tabloid celebrities — will naturally amass the lion’s share of wealth due to their superior ability to amass wealth.
And if we left it to the left, we might see a mission statement that looks something like this:
The People of the United States, representing a uniquely diverse and enlightened coalition of communities based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, linguistic preference and politically correct belief systems, seek to empower themselves and their communities, particularly at the expense of white heterosexual males. We endorse freedom of speech unless it is deemed offensive to oppressed minorities, and we embrace the struggle to return power to its rightful place among the people, with the exception of churchgoing Christians, pro-lifers, smokers, gun owners and consumers of products using high-fructose corn syrup.
Yes, my inner satirist exaggerates the particulars, but you can see the essential problem: we no longer think like a unified nation. If we’re planning to stay united, we’d better start agreeing on fundamentals.
What are some basic American principles we can all agree on regardless of race, class, sexual affiliation or personal attitude toward body-piercing? It’s safe to say that nearly all Americans appreciate our freedoms, our cultural gusto, our enthusiasm for innovation, and the remarkable fact that exceptional individuals from any background can succeed handsomely here. We probably overvalue big-time success, which tends to generate an undue amount simmering envy and head-shaking cynicism among the reflective portion of the populace. But for better or worse, the United States is an upward-aspiring, positive-thinking nation that dangles the golden carrot perpetually before its citizens and lets them snatch it when they have the moxie to grab it.
We also like to think of ourselves as a humane and morally principled nation. Are we? Of course we don’t always measure up to that ideal in practice, a flaw that leaves us open to accusations of hypocrisy. But I’d rather live in an imperfect nation with high ideals than a perfect nation without any.
Finally, we’re the first truly mongrel nation since the Roman Empire. Yes, Hapsburg Austria might have been a patchwork of nationalities, but it was just that — a patchwork: Hungarians here, Czechs there… Slovaks, Serbs and Slovenes in their own cubicles. The United States absorbed the emigres from dozens of nations, let them mingle freely and produced a vigorous hybrid creature known as an American. We can all take pride in our mongrel heritage.
So how would I write our mission statement — a statement that serves no political or special-interest agenda? How do we offer a unifying code of conduct to a fragmented nation? Here’s how I’d put it into words:
The United States is a union of free citizens in a republic that rewards individuals who achieve through their own merits and meets the needs of those who don’t… that honors those individuals without respect to their background… that places the interests of no group above those of any other group… and whose passion for liberty and decency can illuminate the world by its example.
Among our chief values are:
1. a genial tolerance of individual differences and beliefs
2. respect for individual talents and effort
3. the decency to protect those who stumble
4. freedom to voice honest opinions without fear of recrimination
5. a fine balance between individualism and community spirit
6. self-identification as Americans regardless of our individual backgrounds
7. boundless enthusiasm, humor, neighborliness and good will
Maybe we’re not there yet, but who says we can’t dream? After all, we’re Americans.
Feel free to write your own American mission statement in the comments section, though of course you’re under no obligation. Kudos to my friend Ginny Christensen for wondering aloud (in a silent online sort of way) if America could use a mission statement. She started me thinking…