Can America Turn It Around?

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.