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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Jonah Goldberg

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?

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Example is the school of mankind,” Edmund Burke counseled, “and they will learn at no other.” By that standard, America has undergone quite a schooling in the last few years.

In 2008, the assembled forces of liberalism—and not only the pundit classes, but academia, business elites, and, of course, Hollywood—were convinced that America was not only on the cusp of a transformative and realigning liberal-left presidency, but also at the dawn of a new New Deal. Perhaps even a generation-spanning new Progressive Era. More than a few conservatives felt the tectonic plates moving and repositioned themselves accordingly.

Across the liberal firmament, those inflated expectations have been lowered like a Thanksgiving Day parade float put back in the box. It’s safe to say that no serious-minded liberal anywhere still holds out hope for any of that, at least not in the near term (and many of those migrating conservatives have quietly trudged back home, refugees from a lost cause).

Obviously, liberals are right to chalk up some of their problems to mere human error, as it were. Had President Obama and the Democratic leadership pursued different tactics in 2009—a different kind of stimulus, a smarter approach on health care—liberalism’s fortunes might be a bit rosier now. But his supporters would go further, arguing that the evidence against Obama’s core philosophy is entirely circumstantial. Keynesianism, like liberalism proper, never fails; it’s simply never fully tried. But as David Thoreau said, “Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.”

Simply put, Europe’s financial calamities combined with the failures of America’s efforts to import the European model have had a profound teaching effect. No, the country hasn’t been converted wholesale to the Church of Milton Friedman, but Obama’s bromidic “Yes, we can” and “Sputnik moment” rhetoric has next to no purchase with the American people today.

This creates a moment for optimism that did not seem nearly so plausible in 2008. America is poised to deal with its myriad problems in ways we haven’t seen since 1981.

What about the “big issues”: China, globalization, climate change, and the other grotesques in the usual parade of horribles? Some are very serious, others not so much. China will get old before it gets rich. The entry of hundreds of millions of inexpensive workers into the global labor force is a short-term challenge, but the massive growth of the global middle class is a long-term opportunity. Climate change may indeed be a threat, but the greater danger lies in how we respond to it. A few years ago, it looked like the generations-old Malthusian effort to manage scarcity had finally got from climate change what it always wanted from other scares like overpopulation. Now, around the globe, that approach is a nonstarter.

Yes, America faces grave challenges, but it always has. I was more pessimistic three years ago when it seemed Americans had given up on themselves, preferring a long self-indulgent slide into European social democracy. Now, with the power of example guiding us, there’s reason for hope.

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Jonah Goldberg, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is editor-at-large of National Review Online.



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