Before school began, I took my younger children to visit western Nebraska. Near Valentine, water from the Ogallala Aquifer seeps out of the ground and falls dramatically over rock formations into a stream that feeds into the Niobrara River. The area is called Fort Falls and is part of the Fort Niobrara Wildlife Refuge. The stream’s icy cold water flows like a ribbon into the shallow warm running water of the Niobrara River. What’s even more interesting is to ponder the steep slopes on each side of the river. On the north bank, rocky hill formations are covered with pines. On the south bank, the trees are much different – you see the last reach of the eastern deciduous forest with a mixed variety of plants and hardwood trees. It’s like looking at California on one side and Virginia on the other. Right here in Nebraska we are the geographic center, where east meets west. We also took a drive northward into the Black Hills to Mount Rushmore, along with two million bikers who happened to be in Sturgis that weekend!

Everyone knows the four faces on Mount Rushmore. Each of the four American presidents embodied great qualities and faced significant challenges. George Washington was a transcendent leader who purposefully walked away from power, giving the early Republic a chance to grow into a vibrant democracy. Thomas Jefferson’s life was seemingly full of conflicts and contradictions, but his efforts gave rise to the Declaration of Independence, which poetically expressed an understanding of the dignity and rights of all persons.

Abraham Lincoln made a midcourse correction in his life, rejecting an early snarky political antagonism, and turned toward a vision of what is noble and good. His reputation as a skillful and humble leader extended well beyond the Civil War to many important endeavors, including the development of land grant institutions like the University of Nebraska. Theodore Roosevelt had to rebuild his life after his wife died at a young age; his boundless energy translating into multiple accomplishments, perhaps helping him outpace a haunting melancholy. As an avid hunter, he grew to recognize the importance of wildlife preservation. Beyond the natural places he preserved, perhaps Roosevelt’s greatest legacy was one of trust busting: breaking up concentrations of economic power that locked many Americans out of a fair shot at economic opportunity.   

Today, many people in our country are experiencing disquiet in the face of new challenges. They feel disconnected from the ability to control their own wellbeing. Concentrations of power are overwhelming the capacity of individuals to shape their own environment. Political, economic, and cultural cartels are growing more powerful—and in some ways more hidden and destructive than in Roosevelt’s time.

Political problems are on everyone’s mind. The concentration of power in Washington stifles innovation and creativity. As money floods the political system, paid for polarization hinders constructive solutions. Our increasingly interconnected world offers significant benefits, but globalization also introduces forces that can leave people feeling helpless. Transnational corporate conglomerates, often buttressed by oligarchic political systems, are shrinking the space for genuine choice and competition in the private sphere. This concentration of economic power endangers the free market, which should work for the many.  

On a deeper level, America’s political disrepair and economic malaise signal an underlying brokenness in our society. As humans we thrive in relationships with our families and communities—in a healthy civil society, which creates the preconditions for human flourishing. Cultural consolidation and social discord have left more and more people feeling directionless and alone. Weakening relationships and social institutions foreshadow and prefigure political and economic decline. Ultimately, renewing America’s government and economy requires reclaiming a vibrant civil society—the true source of our nation’s strength.

If you’ve ever driven through the Black Hills, the one lane tunnels and winding hairpin turns form a beautiful but arduous journey—even without bikers all around you. As you continue the journey, looking for something, an opening appears in the trees, and then you see it: that magnificent piece of art, carved in stone, with the images of four great American presidents. Their likenesses are in rock, timeless and unchanging, but the ideals they represent must be reestablished for each generation. The renewal of America will depend in part on whether we can grasp what these leaders stood for—and whether we can make the necessary sacrifices to reclaim our country’s potential for our time.