The following is from our November issue. Forty-one symposium contributors were asked to respond to the question: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about America’s future?
There is no sadder sight than an American pessimist. Americans—Jean de Crèvecoeur told us—are born a free and hopeful lot, “a new race of men,” blessed with a bounteous land and a moderate government. Lincoln called Americans an “almost chosen people,” a designation bound to leave many readers of this magazine wondering at the divine improbability of being selected not once, but twice. Optimism, by nearly all accounts, has been an integral part of our national DNA.
What, then, is one to think of opinion polls today showing that, by a margin of almost 4 to 1 (77 percent to 20 percent), the public considers the nation to be on the “wrong track”? Malaise of such Carteresque proportions might easily be interpreted to mean that Americans have lost faith in themselves and in the future.
I am not so sure. Contrary to initial impressions, the real pessimists today are probably to be found among the “right-trackers,” clinging stubbornly to the change they once believed in. Having put their dream team on the floor, under the leadership of one touted to be the greatest political talent of our era, these die-hards have little choice now but to put on a grim public mask of hopefulness. For two years (2009–2011), we enjoyed by their reckoning virtually unchecked government of the best, by the best, and according to the best theories.
Yet things have not panned out. The outcome is being blamed on the difficulty of the challenge, on fate, or on severe headwinds, but doubt must certainly be creeping in that the fault is theirs. Right-trackers today are a desperately dispirited group, filled with dread that their opponents will take over and fail or, much worse, succeed.
One segment alone of the right-trackers seems upbeat: the so-called foreign-policy realists. For decades, intellectuals of this persuasion have yearned for a much less assertive America on the world scene. They have a president who agrees. Now, with constraints imposed by our current indebtedness as the rationale, these thinkers insist that America has no choice but to cede leadership to others. Blessed is the nation in decline, for it shall disinherit the earth.
And what of the almost four-fifths of Americans who think the nation is on the wrong track? Many, perhaps most, in this group have not lost hope. Dismayed almost to the point of despair at where the nation is now heading, they nevertheless see a path to revival and restoration by a change of direction. They reject a no-growth economy as the “new norm,” affirm a return to more limited government, and back a vigorous foreign policy. Their rallying cry has been American exceptionalism, a concept vague in its content but expressive of a strong, almost defiant, spiritedness.
Whether optimism or pessimism prevails will not by itself determine the outcome to the crisis the nation now faces. Far more will depend on the soundness of our leadership and the wisdom of the policies it adopts. The prophet, not the prognosticator, alone can know the future. Still, only a nation that possesses an underlying confidence that it can shape its own destiny is prepared for greatness.
James W. Ceaser is professor of politics at the University of Virginia and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.