We Have Everything We Need
In recent years, many things have gotten worse. But America’s liberal values and the constitutional order they birthed should give us cause for optimism about the future
When Discourse magazine launched three years ago, I penned an inaugural essay entitled “A New Magazine for Turbulent Times.” Now, as we begin our fourth year of publication, the times have, if anything, become even more turbulent. From COVID and Jan. 6 to Afghanistan and Ukraine, instability both at home and abroad has increased. What’s more, the next few years could bring even greater volatility.
Soon we’ll confront what’s shaping up to be a tempestuous presidential election between two men who, each in his own special way, are unsuitable for high office. Add to this the very real chance of a global economic recession, the possibility of a great power conflict in the Indo-Pacific over Taiwan, and the always-present threat of a black swan beyond our wildest imaginings, and you have the potential makings of a very, very bumpy ride.
In the here and now, many of the problems we already face continue to fester or get worse. With a few exceptions, we seem increasingly immune to making good policy decisions. For instance, amid higher borrowing costs, Congress and the White House continue their reckless spending binge, ignoring the reality of an approaching fiscal cataclysm. Our legal immigration system has been broken for decades, while what order there was at our southern border has in recent years largely evaporated. Crime, until lately a public policy success story, has spiked in the past few years, particularly in big blue-state cities such as Chicago, New York and San Francisco. And after shamefully long shutdowns during COVID, evidence suggests that public schools continue their long track record of utterly failing to properly educate many if not most young people, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
We also face deeper structural problems. Setting aside a pandemic-related drop, the labor force participation rate remains at near-historic lows, and labor productivity growth has been anemic for decades. And while the birth rate is dropping, adult deaths by suicide and overdose, the so-called deaths of despair, continue at or near record numbers. Meanwhile, shockingly large numbers of teens and young adults report that they struggle with anxiety and depression.
Given this litany of bad news, it shouldn’t be surprising that more than two-thirds of Americans say the country is on the wrong track. This has been accompanied by a collapse in public trust in many of our bedrock institutions, from the political and the public, such as the presidency and the criminal justice system, to important private actors including big business, the media and organized religion. Indeed, according to Gallup, overall institutional trust has dropped from 48% in 1979 to 26% today. As any sociologist will tell you, low-trust societies tend to become highly dysfunctional.
Finally, there is the coarsening of our culture at virtually every level. In the name of authenticity, few public taboos remain. Not surprisingly, our political class reflects all this back to us: A growing number of leaders behave badly and, more often than not, are rewarded for doing so. Meanwhile, like trust, civility may not be dead, but it is certainly on the wane. The small but gracious gestures that used to routinely accompany our interactions have given way to indifference. And as with lack of trust, lack of civility has broader social consequences. Civility is not only a social lubricant, it is the gateway to empathy.
The Case for Optimism
Amid this gloom and existential angst, it may surprise you to learn that I believe there is cause for hope and even optimism about the future. The biggest reason is that we have everything we need. By that, I mean that we have all the tools, right here and right now, not only to solve our current problems but to build a better, healthier and more prosperous future.
But before I go deeper into why we shouldn’t give up on the future, let me briefly detour to the past, which offers us something that is also in short supply these days: perspective.
I am just old enough to remember the late 1960s and 1970s, when, believe it or not, things seemed as bad as—if not worse than—they do today. During 1968 alone, the country endured the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, which led to rioting and destruction in more than 100 cities. That year also witnessed the most raucous and violent presidential nominating convention in modern American history, when the Democrats met in Chicago, as well as the Tet offensive, which soured Americans on the war in Vietnam. The years that followed would bring runaway inflation, oil shocks, Watergate, the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon and the fall of Saigon. By the early 1980s, however, the turbulence had subsided, and the country went on to enjoy two decades of stability and prosperity.
So, it’s important to understand that we’ve been here before and, just as important, that we’ve come through and become stronger. Fifty years ago, our fundamental liberal values, and the system that is built upon them and underpins them, ultimately enabled us to respond effectively to many of these challenges I just outlined and set us on a better course. Nixon left office after it became clear Congress would impeach him. The American people and their leaders began to have a national debate about the proper role of government. The U.S. withdrew from Vietnam; but instead of withdrawing from the world, the country recommitted itself soon after to winning the Cold War—something it achieved a little more than a decade later.
These changes came in large part because those liberal values and the constitutional order that they gave birth to offered us repeated opportunities to self-correct. Even in those chaotic and difficult days, our commitment to open debate, to free and fair elections, and to open markets helped us rethink, reset and move forward. Throughout our history, these powerful self-correcting mechanisms have saved the U.S. from many of the calamities that have befallen other countries. They are the secret sauce of liberal democracies and the reason, in spite of our recent setbacks, we should still feel optimistic about the future.
And, believe it or not, liberal ideas and the system that arose from them are still working—just not as much as we’d like or, in some cases, as much as some of us would like to admit. In recent years, for example, our political institutions have suffered some terrible shocks, but they have proven resilient enough to continue functioning effectively. In just the past few years, our courts have helped to check the worst impulses of political leaders in both parties, from Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election to Joe Biden’s overreach on evictions and student loans. Even amid the chaos of Jan. 6, our electoral system still functioned, with leaders from both political parties confirming the election’s winner, who duly took office two weeks later.
What’s more, Americans still enjoy the blessings of liberty. For all the talk of cancel culture and censorship, much of it valid, people still feel free to speak their minds and still do so largely without fear. And whatever you may think of the revolution in communications technology and its impact on our broader society, it has given many ordinary people a much greater platform to speak to the wider world. Our other foundational freedoms, such as the freedom of conscience and worship, the freedom to assemble and the freedom to be left alone, are also all still in place.
And then there is the economy. America’s market-oriented economic model, like its political institutions, has taken its share of lumps. For starters, over-regulation weighs on the private sector, which means less growth, less wealth and fewer jobs. At the same time, however, the U.S. remains not only the largest economy in the world, but the most dynamic and innovative one as well. It is still the primary home to most cutting-edge industries, from AI and quantum computing to rockets and pharmaceuticals. It’s no accident that many of the most valuable companies in the world, as well as the most innovative, are headquartered here.
Recently, I spoke with a number of entrepreneurs who were not born here, but who came because there is no better place to start a business and turn a dream into reality. This is one reason why, as I recently wrote in Discourse, the U.S. remains a magnet for immigrants from all over the world. People who have recently come here, as well as those who still want to come, definitely believe in our future, even if we always don’t.
Don’t Burn Down the House
As for everything that isn’t working or isn’t working as well as it should be—and there is a lot—we need to focus on revitalizing and repairing institutions rather than solely criticizing them, or worse, tearing them down. After all, Americans might have lost faith in the government, media, education, business and the like, but we still need these institutions. You might not like what’s happening on many college campuses, but do you really want to be treated by a doctor who hasn’t gone to medical school? Likewise, you may be unhappy with the recent actions of the police, but life without the police (or even with a lot fewer police) would be hell, particularly for the poorest and most vulnerable among us.
The answer is not to burn the house down, but to repair and rebuild it. In certain areas, that’s exactly what’s happening. Take K-12 education: While the public schools in many places remain a shambles, a parallel education system is being created—not so much to take its place (for the foreseeable future, public schools will continue to educate the vast majority of our children) but to provide alternative models and options and, ultimately, the competition and inspiration the largely monopolistic public system needs to carry out the hard process of reform.
This parallel education system has formed in a number of ways. In the past few decades, for instance, the public charter school movement has taken off, with evidence suggesting that the tens of millions of students who have at some point gone to a charter school (which traditionally lies outside the control of teachers unions) have benefited educationally. At the same time, the school choice movement goes from strength to strength.
Just last month, North Carolina became the 10th state to enact some kind of universal school choice plan, which means that all the state’s children are eligible for public scholarship money to go to the private school of their choice. As school choice has blossomed (currently, 32 states offer some kind of financial support for parents who want to send their children to private school), new private schools have opened, including a recent boom in schools that offer classical education.
This is all happening because Americans still largely have the freedom to take matters into their own hands. Whether we know it or not, the liberal values that are part of this country’s founding DNA have not only given us the right, but created the expectation, that we can speak and act to effect change. Atop these rights and the expectations they nurture lies our electoral politics, which for all its flaws and missteps, is still responsive to the citizenry.
As a result, new models and new ways of doing things are arising in many parts of our society, from higher education and housing to politics and media. America is awash in public and private experimentation. Here federalism—which, with its 50 state laboratories, is an experimentation and self-correction multiplier—helps tremendously. Many of these experiments will fail to make a dent in our problems. Others, however, will help set standards for decades to come.
I don’t want to understate the severity of our problems. As I said initially, we are living in unusually turbulent times. And it may well get worse before it gets better.
But if the past is any guide, Americans will eventually demand better—and not just from our leaders and institutions, but from ourselves. We will embrace the values and use the tools that our founders and others bequeathed us to move the country in a sounder and more sober direction. Getting there won’t be easy, but we’ve done it before, and we can do it again. After all, we have everything we need.