“Notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented, of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country.” — Frederick Douglass
If the United States still exists in five years, our country will have existed for 250 years. If we make it 18 more years, we’ll have lasted longer than China’s Qing Dynasty, and eight years after that, longer than the Ming. We are a young country no longer.
Wait…“if”?!! The fact that it’s even possible to ask whether we’ll make it 31 more years — a question most people would have probably laughed at in 1999 — is itself indicative of the deep unease of the current national mood. But consider the list of disasters and upheavals, self-inflicted and otherwise, that America has suffered since 1999:
A disputed election in 2000
The bursting of the tech bubble and a wave of accounting scandals
9/11, and the creation of the post-9/11 surveillance/security state
The Iraq War, which permanently degraded and discredited our global leadership
Hurricane Katrina, which killed 1800 Americans and devastated a major city
A housing crash that robbed the middle class of much of its wealth
The Great Recession, the longest and most severe downturn since the Depression
A multi-year era of social unrest culminating in the nation’s largest wave of protests ever
COVID-19, the worst pandemic in a century, which has killed over 600,000 and counting
An attempt to overturn the 2020 election, followed by a coup attempt
We’ve really been through a lot. If you’re into America/Rome analogies, you could worry that this is our Crisis of the Third Century. Rome held on for a while after that, but it was never really the same.
Nor are our challenges over. Our economy is recovering from Covid, but in the long term the deep forces of economic agglomeration are against us as industry continues to shift to Asia. An increasingly bellicose China is the most formidable competitor we’ve ever faced; already they export more than we do, and manufacture more, and their huge population size advantage means that they’ll almost certainly pull further ahead. It will be especially hard to compete when we pay twice as much as we should for infrastructure and health care. Meanwhile, our country remains deeply divided, to the point where a substantial faction of the GOP has soured on democracy itself. And over this all looms the menace of climate change, which is already contributing to unprecedented heat waves, wildfires, hurricanes, and floods in practically every region of the country.
Perhaps this litany of disasters, challenges, and weaknesses has contributed to the mood of anti-Americanism that has seemingly pervaded much of the populace. Though liberal politicians still declare that “there is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America,” on the ground they are more likely to lecture you about the country’s history of slavery and genocide. Leftists, still smarting from the Cold War, are pretty open in their identification of the U.S. with all the things they don’t like. And while the Right might still fly American flags, they show open contempt both for the country’s institutions and for the multicultural society it has become. JFK once said that “victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan”; maybe the surge of popular contempt for the U.S.A. is due to the perception that it’s on the way down.
If that’s the case, there’s only one option if America is going to survive as a country: To dig ourselves out. Waiting for the storm to pass is no longer a viable option. We must become a more effective nation if our people are going to believe that the nation is worth saving.
Note that we’ve done this before. The New Deal wasn’t perfect, but it built the economic structures that would see us through the rest of the 20th century. The Depression was far worse in terms of human costs than anything we’ve suffered in the entire litany of disasters above, but we were up to the job. We must be up to it again.
There are some encouraging signs. The U.S.’ economic response to Covid surpassed most of the rich world in its boldness and generosity, raising consumption and income even as the pandemic crushed output. Moreover, it was bipartisan — though McConnell did force some benefits to lapse in the fall of 2020, the original CARES Act was designed by Steve Mnuchin and passed by a Republican-controlled Congress, was was the follow-up bill in December. The U.S.’ vaccine development was world-beating, as was its initial rollout (until it was ultimately hamstrung by politicized refusal). Our economy is bouncing back relatively quickly, and there are glimmers of bipartisanship beginning to show on issues like infrastructure and science funding. And the U.S. is focusing on gathering Asian allies to stand against Chinese aggression, instead of going it alone.
But it’s just not enough, yet. Our health care system is still a hellishly expensive shambles, and no one is really talking about fixing this (Bernie Sanders, who focused on health care much more than any other major politician, had a plan that would have increased spending but left the cost problem mostly untouched). There is no national plan to reduce our ruinous construction costs, and as far as I can see only a few journalists and think tankers are even talking about this problem yet. We’re not yet doing nearly enough on science funding or building new housing, etc.
If we want to make it through this era of crisis, we’re going to need a greater sense of urgency.
But I also think we’re going to need something else: Optimism. When FDR and the New Deal dragged America out of its last existential crisis, his attitude wasn’t dire or dark, but confident and unafraid. This is what they call “optimism of the will” — not a blithe reassurance that it’s “morning in America”, but a faith that if we keep digging our way out, we’ll come out on the other side stronger than we were before.
And in addition to a belief that America can persevere and win, we need a conviction that it should. The bipartisan anti-Americanism that has characterized the recent era of unrest is simply not conducive to our success as a nation or as a society. The idea that America can or should be abolished and replaced with some other nation or collection of nations — either some retrograde white-supremacist entity or an imaginary new state somehow cleansed of the historical stains of racism — should have died on January 6th. It is not yet dead, but let us not delay in abandoning it.
This is our country, and our country it must and will remain. It will keep being everything it is — a multiracial, multicultural society with a checkered past and a set of high ideals that we occasionally manage to live up to. Your job, and mine, is to fight for that country to succeed — not just in terms of being a better country, but a stronger and more effective one as well.
I’m looking forward to celebrating America’s 250th birthday with you all. Don’t let me down.