I hear it everywhere: Is it over? Do we still have time? When prospective candidates are parading their virtues and inadvertently showing their faults, when every big city has its incoherent "occupy" crowd, when incomes are falling and budgets rising, what kind of future does the USA have?
This month's Commentary magazine features a symposium of 41 "thinkers and writers," mostly right-of-center, who were asked, "Are you optimistic or pessimistic about America?" Writing the anchor piece for optimism is John Podhoretz, a grandson of socialists, whose father Norman gravitated from left to right. In the pessimist corner is Mark Steyn, transplanted Canadian, who kept our own Marvin Olasky up too late one night with his latest book, After America (see WORLD, Oct. 8). It took a whole book to get Marvin depressed; I managed in a 10-minute article.
We've been through worse years. "Remember the Seventies," I tell myself: college kids wrecking campuses, an ignominious end to a bitter war, gasoline shortages, double-digit inflation and interest loans, a scandal-ridden president, an ineffective president, a general collapse of self-confidence. But actually, I don't remember the Seventies that well, as most of it happened when I was distracted by babies and toddlers.
I suspect a lot of Americans are like that now: Beyond a vague sense of "the system is broken," their attention is swamped with family demands or unemployment anxieties or stacks of unpaid bills they don't know who to blame for.
Steyn's argument for pessimism is the sense of unreality infecting modern culture. Catchphrases spouted by the leader of the free world neither inspire nor convict-they only get him to the next campaign stop. Last summer's epochal debt-ceiling battle eventually coughed up savings of possibly $1 billion-just before President Obama's jobs bill proposed to shove almost $500 billion back in. The bureaucratic monster grows and grows and seems impossible even to curb gently. "The evil of big government is not that it is a waste of money, but that it lays waste to people," writes Steyn. The only remotely encouraging sign is the rise of constitutional activists like the Tea Party.
John Podhoretz sees more sunshine. The wild mood swings of the electorate over the last 10 years, from conservative to moderate to liberal and back again, are to him a sign of health. People are paying attention; they're fighting back. Proposals that would have been laughed off the stage even three years ago-such as restructuring Medicare and opening Social Security up to privatization-are getting attention. Radical change is always accompanied by radical action and reaction; even if we're going downhill, at least we're not going quietly.
I think they're both right, in that it all comes down to individuals. Democracy is only as good as the demos. I believe people are waking up-but they're waking up on opposite sides of the bed and there may not be enough of them on our side. The political whipsawing that encourages John Podhoretz confounds me. Are we principled and determined, or muddled and confused? As long as there's an American center, a historical sense of who we are and what we stand for, I think we can recover. But what if we've lost our center? What if there's only left and right, and nothing to come together around?
Big government isn't entirely to blame for laying waste to people; we deserve a lot of that blame ourselves. But are we entirely wasted yet?
Thanksgiving arrives not a moment too soon. "Give thanks in all circumstances," even in anxiety. One thing to be thankful for is that Americans of the past thought to set aside a day of gratitude to God that we still honor. Another is that believers always have an alternative way of seeing: our view, or God's view. But what I'm most thankful for is an unshakable center. We are not like those who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13), whose spirits rise and fall with polling data. Optimistic is not something I feel; at my best, it's what I am.