The Death of the American Salesman

Time was, when we Americans could sell anything to anybody.

We made things, big things and small things, things that worked as advertised and that lasted beyond their warranties. And that goes for us as a nation, too. Admittedly, my frame of reference is limited to the last eight decades of my life, but in that time, I have noticed a marked shift in how we view ourselves as a country and a people.

We've gone from pride to prejudices, from faith to fears, and from purposeful optimism to abject pessimism. We've become a country of self-doubters, ashamed of and apologetic for our history. We hide our true opinions, justifying to ourselves that it's better to demur than to engage each other in conversation. After all, conversation could lead to disagreement and that could lead to conflict which would be unpleasant and uncomfortable. Better to step away from confrontation and live in peaceful coexistence with the forces that are working feverishly to upend all the time-honored cultural values that we hold dear, than to raise our heads above the waterline and make ourselves a target.

As a young man growing up, I listened as my grandparents told me of horrific tales of the Depression of the 1930s that robbed an entire generation of its future and slammed the door of opportunity in their faces until FDR's works programs helped lift them out of poverty and hopelessness. At the same time, I heard my parents speak proudly of how America fought the scourge of fascism and communism and helped liberate the imprisoned world of Europe and Asia as we marshaled all our efforts to tool up our war machine and supply our troops with everything from K-rations to battleships. Everybody pitched in with victory gardens and scrap metal drives. The spirit of solidarity was a thing of beauty, I was told.

Though born a few years after the war, I still felt and saw with my own eyes that powerful spirit of patriotism everywhere in our society, even with our racial minorities. We weren't Democrats or Republicans; we were Americans and we weren't embarrassed about it. Our pride was everywhere, and it didn't discriminate by bank account balances. Our factories and farms were humming with activity and we were seeking new markets for our products and our services. Americans were on the move enrolling in universities and heading for Wall Street, Main Street and Madison Avenue. We were builders, makers and sellers of everything under the sun.

We knew in our hearts that in unity there was strength. After all, didn’t we defeat Hitler and Tojo and a million other bad men along the way? Sure we celebrated diversity, but we put it into perspective. Assimilation was more important. Stressing our differences was antithetical to teamwork. We had a common purpose and that was what made us strong. We were able at long last to break down a few stubborn color barriers, most of the time without calling in the National Guard.

America had its share of domestic problems, but we had a common identity above everything else, traceable throughout history, all the way back to our founding documents and which followed the trail of blood spilled in freedom's name. We were determined not to go backwards and seek cover from our social responsibilities. During the sixties and seventies, our political tectonic plates were shifting, mightily, and we found ourselves dangerously close to coming apart at our cultural seams.

You needed to be there, at that precise moment in our history, to understand just how close we came to a total meltdown, but if you weren't there you need only look at our country today and you will get a taste of that same foreboding feeling. America is divided along gender, racial, ideological, economic and political lines and we are now experiencing a déjà vu of frightening proportions. Our fragile culture has all but forgotten what real pride - the kind that's based on actual historical accomplishments - is all about.

We have fallen into a cultural quicksand that is gradually swallowing us up and no one is on steady ground to throw us a rope. On the contrary, people are cheering for us to drown and shouting at us: "Serves you right, you white oppressor. Take your systemic racism down with you. You deserve worse, but we'll settle for your death and demise." While we have seen this 'movie' before, this is one of those rare times when polite discussion is not going to solve the problem.

We must find our way back to the path of the truth about ourselves, that we are a true work in progress. It would seem that our political, social and cultural divisions are placing us squarely on a trajectory that can only lead to our dissolution as a people unless we are able to re-ignite the fire of common purpose and replace our divisions with it. "America First" (a concept that goes back to our Revolutionary War) is not a destructive force. It is simply the recognition that our nation is sovereign and international, that we understand our place in the world of nations and we are determined to maintain both without rejecting either one.

Our country has never turned its back on progress, nor have we ever shied away from our responsibility to create a nation of opportunities where each person has a birthright to pursue happiness and prosperity. That has always been America's sales pitch, and it was always one that rang true even in the most difficult of times. This writer is not saying, "America, love it or leave it" because we need all the naysayers to stay, but if they do, they must acknowledge that while not perfect, America is still a premium 'product' worth selling and that we gain no purchase from making our American salesmen redundant.

Stephan Helgesen is a retired career U.S. diplomat who lived and worked in 30 countries for 25 years during the Reagan, G.H.W. Bush, Clinton, and G.W. Bush Administrations. He is the author of fourteen books, six of which are on American politics and has written over 1,300 articles on politics, economics and social trends. He operates a political news story aggregator website: He can be reached at:

Image: Pixabay / Pixabay License


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