Robert Kagan can’t understand why declinists, such as Fareed Zakaria and Francis Fukuyama, assume Barack Obama shares their pessimism about America. He writes of Obama: “His view of America’s future, at least as expressed in this campaign, has been appropriately optimistic, which is why he is doing well in the polls.”
It’s an interesting point. But Obama’s message is only optimistic in that it takes for granted that the U.S. has already hit rock bottom. You can pick an Obama stump speech at random and find multiple references to America’s broken promises, failed ideals, dejected citizens, and disappointed friends. Obama’s optimism is predicated on this:
. . . for the last eight years, we’ve failed to keep the fundamental promise that if you work hard you can live your own version of the American dream. Instead, folks are working harder for less. The cost of everything from gas, to groceries to tuition is skyrocketing. It’s harder to save, and harder to retire. At kitchen tables like Ryan and Jenny’s, it’s easy to feel like that dream of opportunity that should be the right of all Americans is slipping away.
This troubling story is written into communities across the country. It’s the story of empty factories shut down forever because the jobs were shipped overseas and nothing took their place. It’s the story of a mother who can’t afford health care for her sick child; a father who lost his job and can’t afford a tank of gas to look for another; a child facing a future where they’ll have to pay off hundreds of billions of dollars in debt to pay for George Bush’s tax cuts.
Kagan is right: That’s not declinism. It’s victimhood, the outgrowths of which have led to the true decline of one great power after another. When citizens start complaining that they’re not getting enough from their government without doing more for themselves, it means they’re done contributing to the dynamism of the state. Obama’s danger lies not in any conviction that America is on the way down, but in his apparent belief that its people can’t fend for themselves. In his estimation, American borrowers cannot read fine print, American business owners cannot be trusted to feed the economy, and American workers cannot find a way to improve their lots.
But there is a further reason declinists feel a kinship with Obama. His idea of national ascendancy is really a matter of the U.S.’s being accepted back into the international community. He believes a big-government, Euro-socialist approach will yield the double benefit of aiding America’s hapless citizens and creating harmony with other already-nationalized countries. To the extent that Obama is ready to snuff out individual pursuits in favor of government prescriptions, he is endorsing the end of America’s unique conception of liberty and industry. To the extent to which he will be able to mimic the failed political structures of other Western powers, he will effect the end of American exceptionalism. And there’s not much optimism in that.