Somewhere in the world, as you’re reading these words, a group is meeting to discuss how to win their economic competition with America and take your job. They might be government officials collaborating with businesses. Or workers offering suggestions about how to be more efficient. Someone is hurrying into the office with a new idea or invention. Others are loading goods for shipment to your local Wal-mart or boutique store.

These competitors are hungry and determined to win the 21st century economic competition for middle-class jobs. They may be behind us now, but they’ve been gaining steadily. As hard as we work, most of them work harder and get paid less for it. And their kids spend a lot more time at school learning mathematics and science than ours do.

They represent the most serious challenge to America since World War II. But look at how different our response is to today’s challenge than it was in 1941. During WWII, the country united in a way that had never happened before and hasn’t since. Most every American was connected and organized as one team with one cause. That brief period of unity had an astonishing effect on the country that reverberated for decades.

Now we face a new kind of threat that is equally dangerous to our way of life — the threat of economic decline. How are we responding? At exactly the moment when we most need to pull together — to create a kind of Team America or Team Maine — we’re pulling apart, consumed with partisanship, pessimism, anger and excuses.

Instead of focusing on the big changes we need to make — in education and training, public-private partnerships, rebuilding infrastructure and opportunity and rewarding success — we argue about small things such as welfare reform and immigration, which are on the margins of the urgent work that needs to be done.

Politics only makes matters worse. Saying dumb things now produces loud applause. Facts matter less than playing to voter’s fears and prejudices. A recent analysis of statements by this year’s presidential candidates showed that most are now speaking at a sixth- to eighth-grade level. Donald Trump, who is the winner-for-the-moment in this new game, is speaking at a fourth-grade level. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy, it should be noted, all spoke to Americans as adults.

Do we really think that fourth-grade ideas are the solution to our problems? Or that further dividing us by region, race or party affiliation are a winning formula against economic competition? It seems clear now that pettiness and the pessimism are making it impossible for us to confront today’s greatest challenges. The only answer: more adults and less division.

Here’s an illustration from our history on how to win. During the Great Depression, in the 1930s, President Roosevelt experimented with any idea that might pull us from the brink of financial and political disintegration. He also made hundreds of speeches to get the economy going again.

Of all the things that Roosevelt did or said, none was more powerful than a few simple words that focused on America’s drift toward despair and resignation. He didn’t speak about policies or programs, or who was to blame. Instead, he talked about confidence and hope, which were then under a withering strain.

In his first inaugural address to Congress, in 1933, Roosevelt said; “The only thing we have to fear … is fear itself.” FDR knew, at a deeply personal level, the dangers of defeatism and pessimism and how they can block recovery and renewal. Struck down by polio when he was 39, at what was then the peak of his physical and political power, Roosevelt was never again able to walk unaided.

Over a two-year period, he fought the degeneration of his muscles, exercising constantly. Within a year, he was able to walk again, with help. Ten years later, he was the president of the United States. Throughout that two-year struggle, Roosevelt insisted that only optimistic and hopeful people could be around him.

Roosevelt literally lifted himself up with the strength of his personal determination, willing himself back into public life and into our history books. And then he helped a nation lift itself up.

What Roosevelt understood, for himself and for the country, was that without a positive attitude and effective teamwork, no great victories can be achieved. Today, we could use more Roosevelts and a lot fewer Trumps.

(Part of this column is excerpted from an upcoming book, “Maine’s Next Economy,” which is scheduled for release on Nov. 20.)

Alan Caron, a Waterville native, is a partner in the Caron and Egan consulting group, which is active in growing Maine’s next economy. Email at [email protected]

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