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Can America Turn It Around?

History proves we can, but we are saddled by a new caveat. (This is Part One of a three-part series.)

by
Matt Patterson

Bio

January 20, 2012 - 12:00 am

Pessimism is permeating our national atmosphere. Newsweek may as well publish an article titled “We Are All Declinists Now,” for if there is one thing the left and the right, from Occupy Wall Street to the Tea Party, seem to agree on, it is that things are not going well in this country and appear to be getting worse.

This crisis of confidence is not unique to America, of course — across what was once quaintly referred to as “Western Civilization,” economies of entire nations are either suffering in stagnation or teetering near total collapse. Falling or stagnating living standards and birthrates portend a considerably older and poorer West in the not-so-distant future.

The reasons for this unfortunate state of affairs are many and varied, and not yet fully understood. But let us put aside the question of causation for a moment and ask instead: Can we in the West — and in the United States in particular — turn this boat around? Must we accept decline as inevitable?

Two phenomena in particular give cause for hope. One is applicable specifically to the United States: the presidency of Ronald Reagan. The other applies to the West as a whole — the Renaissance.

The decade from 1970-1979 was certainly a bad time for America: A president resigned in disgrace, a war was lost, an economy was bruised and bloodied; life was already miserable when Jimmy Carter arrived and made things worse.

But then Ronald Reagan came along, and something remarkable happened. Reagan was able to tap into the deep reservoir of optimism in the American psyche, a reservoir many feared had long since dried up. You don’t have to accept this, Reagan said. Americans believed him, and rewarded him for his faith with a landslide victory. Then they proved him right when his pro-growth, low-tax policies unleashed their pent-up productive might. By the end of the 1980s, the American economy was once again the envy of humanity, and the Free World’s existential adversary the Soviet Union was on its knees.

We can say from the example of Ronald Reagan that one person can make a tremendous difference and that economies can turn around, dramatically and for the better. However, two things must be remembered:

1. Reagan was an exceptional leader, the kind that comes around once a century, if that. He uniquely combined an optimistic temperament with a deep understanding of the defining issue of his day (communism). His policies, both economic and military, were philosophically sound and competently executed.

It would be an understatement to say that there is no one of such caliber among our political class today — left or right — nor does there appear to be one waiting in the wings.

2. The American people were a different breed back in 1980. Since that time, three decades of liberal assault on American traditions — in our schools and media — combined with wave after wave of illegal immigration have eroded the common bonds of affection among our citizenry, what Thomas Jefferson referred to as “consanguinity” in the Declaration of Independence.

Can America turn it around? Yes. Does the nation possess the requisite will and unity of purpose that would allow an effective and sagacious leader to make the tough decisions necessary to pull us from the brink?

We shall examine this question in part 2.

Matt Patterson is the Warren Brookes Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and senior editor at the Capital Research Center.
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