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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Wilfred M. McClay

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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The answer can’t be arrived at by reason alone, for there are always as many reasons for pessimism as for optimism. In addition, history is full of surprises and unexpected potentialities, like a board game in which new pieces are constantly introduced. What gives one heart, though, is the recognition that challenging events have in the past called forth unsuspected strengths in the American people, a lesson that both Imperial Japan and Osama bin Laden learned to their dismay.

In the end, everything depends on the character of the American people. About that, one simply can’t be sure, although one’s faith is better placed in the people than the elites. One can be encouraged by the astounding upsurge of sheer dogged resistance from ordinary Americans to the statist agenda of the Obama administration. No one would ever have predicted such a thing in 2007 or 2008. Yet one also can be appalled by the foolishness and gullibility of the American people in electing such an unknown and ill-prepared man to the presidency, and investing such preposterous hopes in him. Which qualities of character will predominate at the polls when the question is something difficult but essential, such as the dramatic reform of Medicare and other entitlements?

There is one tectonic shift, however, that may make a positive response more likely than anyone might have thought possible even five years ago. For most of my lifetime, advanced minds have tended to advertise themselves in the United States by delivering national chastisements beginning with the following words: “The United States is the only major nation in the developed industrialized world that does not have…” The relevant noun was always some feature of the all-embracing social-welfare state that so many European nations adopted over the course of the 20th century. Universal health care, generous paid maternity leave, indexed pensions: the list went on and on. The blood and treasure of the United States may have saved European democracy, but, as the tut-tutting admonishment was meant to remind us, Americans remained seriously backward in comparison with the European social-democratic model.

Well, given the highly visible and accelerating problems of what has now proven to be an unsustainable model, there is a new way to complete the sentence. The United States is now the only major nation in the developed industrialized world that does not face inevitable decline, caused by the enormous and insuperable barriers to growth and prosperity imposed by an impossibly expensive social-welfare apparatus saddled on feeble economies supported by ever-diminishing populations. America has a chance to avoid this fate. And if we do survive and thrive, it will be because of our resistance to the very advanced ideas that have condemned our cousins in the United Kingdom and elsewhere to a future of steady, grinding diminishment.

Obama was educated by those who have lived according to the motto “America is the only developed industrialized country that does not have…” and he was their dream candidate. With his ascent to the presidency, and his muscling-through of cardinal pieces of state-aggrandizing legislation, it seemed that America was finally on the verge of shedding its unwanted exceptionalism. Yet world-historical timing has worked against Obama, and his moment has already passed. It has never been clearer, thanks to the inescapable empirical examples across the Atlantic, that America should not go that route. Far from being the heralded prophet of a new America, Obama represents yesterday’s visionary of tomorrow, the last gasp of dated and fatally flawed ideas.

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Wilfred M. McClay is the SunTrust Chair of Excellence in Humanities at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga.


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