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?
Optimists foresee a future that brings Americans better options, while pessimists insist we will use those options to make worse choices.
Hope merchants assume that the relentless pace of technological advancement and globalization will inexorably foster more opportunities for entertainment, education, and employment, while gloom peddlers worry that the new possibilities will paralyze the populace or else appeal to destructive instincts that send society toward a downward death spiral.
Consider, for example, recent developments in the elemental area of fast-food cuisine: last-generation greasy hamburgers and watery milkshakes used to be the only options, and now shopping-center food courts provide a constellation of exotic offerings, including Thai, Indian, Mediterranean, Cajun, and aromatic coffee from multiple sources. Awash in these appetizing alternatives, consumers show an unfailing preference for unhealthy food, fueling an “obesity epidemic” that alarms public-health authorities.
Or review trends in electronic entertainment, where the iron tyranny of the three broadcast networks gave way to a dazzling array of enriching selections on cable, the Internet, and in educational video games. A disproportionate segment of the audience nonetheless spends leisure time in regular communion with The Jersey Shore or Dancing with the Stars. Meanwhile, young adults confront a titillating menu of intimate arrangements, including blended families, same-sex marriage, single parenting, and premarital, postmarital, or extramarital cohabitation. In response to these novel choices, at least one-third of American children grow up in unstable living arrangements with predictably bad consequences for the kids and society. As the great philosopher Janis Joplin once warbled, “freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.”
In the long run, however, good news will overwhelm the bad because new opportunities inevitably influence everyone, while destructive or beneficial choices vary according to the segment of society or moment in history. My son, for instance, recently made a sound selection for his first car: an inexpensive, fuel-efficient, safely engineered marvel from the Hyundai Motors of South Korea. The very idea of top-flight automotive production in Korea remains an amazement, considering the utter devastation in that formerly underdeveloped country after Japanese occupation and an unspeakably bloody civil war.
And the Korean miracle, like most other positive developments of the last hundred years, stemmed from American sacrifice (39,000 of our finest young men) and imported American ideals to such an extent that skeptics now see countries we once rescued as outdoing us in virtues traditionally associated with the United States: entrepreneurial energy, social mobility, technological and cultural innovation.
This rise of formerly blighted societies in Asia and Latin America may indeed produce new competitors and a far more multipolar world (especially in comparison with the near universal devastation that surrounded us after World War II), but there’s no evidence of a looming replacement for America’s role as international leader and the planet’s single indispensable power. Visions of Chinese dominance ignore inherent instabilities in Beijing’s authoritarian government and contradictions within their economic model. Fifty years ago, Americans worried about being displaced by Khrushchev’s “We will bury you!” Soviet Union, and 30 years ago prophets of doom anticipated the global supremacy of “Rising Sun” Japan. More recently, serious observers saw united Europe as the coming global superpower, but European unity today looks not only like a dubious blessing but also a questionable reality.
For all our problems, America retains more sources of national resilience than any potential rivals do: a growing population, continuing attraction for immigrants, natural resources, a durable sense of mission, and robust political institutions. Even the much-derided gridlock in Washington provides an example of American vigor rather than decadence: the emphatic push-back against Barack Obama’s desired transition toward a European-style welfare state shows our system operating in the way our founders intended, and avoiding sudden, wrenching change in either a leftward or rightward direction.
The best news about America over the past decade involves what didn’t happen, rather than what did. In the decade following the September 11 attacks, we experienced neither a major terror assault nor a meaningful loss of civil liberties. The Christian right’s theocratic takeover, so widely feared by some, never materialized; nor did the collapse of religious faith, as secularists ardently desired. The United States defies conventional logic by remaining both the most religiously engaged society of the West (2011 figures suggest 40 percent still attend services weekly) and the most accepting of even novel and exotic forms of faith. Most notably, surveys show that ordinary citizens maintain a hearty sense of American exceptionalism and cherish their country’s distinctive blessings and positive role, despite several decades of political correctness meant to foster national guilt.
The case for American optimism remains unshakable, because worldwide multiplication of personal possibilities remains unstoppable. Yes, many people will elect to abuse new chances by making foolish choices, but freedom and opportunity represent important values in and of themselves, and Americans will almost certainly continue making better choices than most.
Michael Medved hosts a nationally syndicated radio talk show and is the author, most recently, of The 5 Big Lies About American Business (Crown Forum).