Yesterday David Brooks wrote a cheerful column on why the United States, despite everything, remains in a strong position heading into the mid-twenty-first century. Sometime yesterday afternoon, I was struck when I noticed that Brooks's column had received more than 500 comments. Apparently pointing out the good news is controversial!
Here's Brooks's argument: "The U.S. is on the verge of a demographic, economic and social revival, built on its historic strengths. The U.S. has always been good at disruptive change. It’s always excelled at decentralized community-building. It’s always had that moral materialism that creates meaning-rich products. Surely a country with this much going for it is not going to wait around passively and let a rotten political culture drag it down."
For evidence, Brooks draws on the new Joel Kotkin book and a forthcoming book from Stephen J. Rose. I'd note that Gregg Easterbrook's new book makes similar points (you can read my review of Sonic Boom here), as does George Friedman's latest, which is now in paperback. The preponderance of evidence is that America is in pretty good shape, or at least in better shape than other countries, and with the right policies the United States will flourish in a rapidly changing world. The one exception is the state of America's public finances. If nothing is done -- and done soon -- a fiscal crisis along the lines of what Greece is experiencing now will happen sometime in the next twenty to thirty years.
Why does spreading the good news provoke such a reaction? The media condition us to think negatively. The economy is bad and the wreckage from the financial crisis has not been picked up. The American political class is profligate, self-interested, out of touch, and often corrupt. What do you know, rogue states have not followed our president's example and stopped their pursuit of the world's deadliest weapons.
The sense that America is changing, and not for the better, is profound. The things that make this country exceptional and its future bright -- our smaller than average government, our dynamic and effervescent market economy, our religiosity, our policy of building "situations of strength" throughout the globe and maintaining American primacy as the guarantor of an international order conducive to peace and trade -- all seem to be slipping away. The chief executive has said he believes in American exceptionalism in the same way that Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism -- which is to say, he doesn't believe in it, because there is no such thing as "Greek exceptionalism." Public policy seems bent on making the United States, in Dylan Matthews's phrase, a "normal developed country," as though our uniqueness is a problem to be solved and not a strength to be emulated.
Brooks is right that America is resilient and our best days are ahead of us. But will that still be true when the Niehbur-reading, Burkean, pragmatic Leviathan leaves office?