Ethics & Public Policy Center

Optimistic or Pessimistic About America

Published in Commentary Magazine



The following is from Commentary magazine’s 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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In 1993 I helped William J. Bennett assemble The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators, which provided an empirical assessment of the social condition of American society. It provided a comprehensive statistical portrait of behavioral trends over the previous 30 years, and the results were alarming: a 500 percent increase in violent crime; more than a 400 percent increase in out-of-wedlock births; a tripling of the percentage of children living in single-parent homes; a doubling in the divorce rate; and a drop of almost 75 points in SAT scores.

I believed at the time that these exploding social pathologies might lead to the decline and even the collapse of our republic.

It was right about that time that the United States, as if at once, began to turn things around. And within a decade and a half, significant improvements were visible in the vast majority of social indicators, with progress in some areas, such as crime and welfare, taking on the dimensions of a sea change.

It was a stunning, encouraging, and wholly unexpected recovery. And I learned my lesson: do not underestimate the recuperative and regenerative powers of America.

This does not mean that success is preordained or that optimism is always warranted. And we shouldn’t for a moment downplay the challenges we face, which include reforming public institutions that were designed for the needs of the mid-20th century. Our health-care and entitlement system, tax code, schools, infrastructure, immigration policies, and regulatory regime are outdated, worn down, and insanely out of touch with the needs of our time. This has impeded economic growth, impaired the creation of human capital, and put us on the path toward an unprecedented fiscal crisis. Each of these public institutions needs to be improved and modernized, requiring structural reforms on a scale that right now seems nearly impossible to achieve.

It’s not. The necessary first step toward reform and renewal is a massive ballot-box repudiation of President Obama, his progressive agenda, and those who have supported it. That needs to be followed by the emergence of political leaders with concrete plans to replace the liberal welfare state and who possess the skill to rally the public to their cause. “Public sentiment is everything,” Abraham Lincoln said. “With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed.”

This is no easy task. Fundamental reforms, especially when it comes to entitlement programs, will require (carefully) changing settled ways and settled assumptions. On top of that, right now Americans are anxious, unnerved, and unusually pessimistic. A recession and a failed presidency will do that to a nation. But we also continue to possess enormous strengths, economic as well as military, and great resiliency. We can take some comfort in the fact that at every important moment in American history—our founding, the Civil War, the Great Depression and World War II, the civil-rights struggle, the wreckage of the Carter years—America has produced political leaders who were up to the challenge. I’m betting it shall again.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a managing director of e21.

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