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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Danielle Pletka

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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Americans remain intoxicated by the possibilities of the future, untrammeled by economic convulsion, and undeterred by the persistence of enemies. While indicators have declined during this corrosive recession, nonetheless, only 31 percent of Americans polled by Pew last year were pessimistic about the next 40 years. Consider that the same poll also found that most Americans believed we would face another world war in the next 40 years and that there would be a major terrorist attack on the United States involving nuclear weapons by 2050. In other words, despite bets on a probable world war or nuclear terrorist attack on our nation, most Americans think life for their family, our country, and the U.S. economy will be better. A little odd, no?

But it isn’t really odd. Too many think of the nation’s founding as a desperate escape from the onerous bonds of a greedy monarch; for the Founders, however, the notion of America was much more. Indeed, the description of America as a “shining city on a hill” did not begin with Ronald Reagan but with John Winthrop, at the founding of the Massachusetts colony. Americans have long regarded themselves as being in the vanguard of human history, destined for greatness. The Virginia colonists immodestly set their western border at the Pacific Ocean. When the White House extols the virtues of “leading from behind,” it swims against four centuries of the American tide. And most Americans still hold a firm conviction that their country is something special; that their children’s lives will be better than their own; that come what may, the country will explore new frontiers and expand what Thomas Jefferson called the “empire for liberty.”

If there is any nation that can resist the siren song of retreat and decline, it is this one. A country that continues to believe that life will be better after a nuclear attack is a country that believes in its own future. That belief remains the foundation of America’s power. To be sure, the edifice needs a little work. Our government now wastes “the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them,” as Jefferson warned it might. A political culture of exceptionalism and individual rights has given way to one of apology and group grievance. We seem embarrassed still to be the “sole superpower” and impatient for the “rise of the rest.”

Such lassitude will not last. Americans have always found within themselves the strength to rise from adversity, to take, as with Lincoln at Gettysburg, “increased devotion” to the “great task remaining before us.” America is forever “an unfinished work,” one “nobly advanced,” but with greater nobility ahead.

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Danielle Pletka is the vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.


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