The PJ Tatler

Hope in the Midst of American Decline

More and more I’m convinced that America right now isn’t a country dealing with a mere dip in its mood and might. It’s a country surrendering to a new identity and era, in which optimism is quaint and the frontier anything but endless. 

— Frank Bruni, NY Times, Lost in America, 8/27/2014

Drawing on a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, Times columnist Frank Bruni paints a picture of a nation on the down slope, with no end in sight. He notes that 60 percent of those polled feel America is “in decline.” 

But if you dig into the data you find that, while the depressing number has indeed climbed to 60 from 54 percent in January 2011, in five of the last eight times the pollsters asked this question (going back to October ’91) the readout was higher than 60, peaking at 69 percent in June 2008. 

So, you might say, cheer up, Frank Bruni, it could be worse. 

However, the next question in the survey brings a chilling context to that 60-percent figure. The question: “Do you feel confident that life for our children’s generation will be better than it has been for us?”

Only 21 percent said they do. Back in the dog days of decline in summer 2008, that number was 31. During a declension nearly as severe, in 1991-92, around 41 percent still felt confident their kids would have a better life. 

We Are Dissatisfied

Americans have always been a dissatisfied lot — we wouldn’t have come here if we were not. But we’ve always coupled that dissatisfaction with a belief in a better tomorrow. We’ve backed that belief with a determination to make it so, and a bone-deep conviction that we lived in a land where anything is possible.  We’re all about “the pursuit of happiness.”

This is what seems to have slipped…or rather, to have been tripped.

You see, it’s not that a Jimmy Carter-esque malaise has fallen across the fruited plain, but rather that malaise has been spread like mayonnaise across the amber waves of grain by people who seem determined to share the gloom of their own existential angst with the rest of us.

I, for one, will have none of it.

America still offers the greatest franchise opportunity on earth, available with no money down, to anyone willing to invest his sweat equity. In fact, that opportunity now exceeds the wildest dreams of our Fathers, as the internet has dried up the ocean and we can cross it barefoot in a moment. Global markets lay beneath our feet like Russell H. Conwell’s proverbial “Acres of Diamonds.” 

That doesn’t mean careful plans can’t collapse in the face of unforeseen obstacles. They quite likely will, and perhaps should, since passionate dreamers tend to lose touch with marketplace reality and must run headlong into an obsidian wall from time to time, to jar us into exploring other options. 

This opportunity also doesn’t excuse us from competition, both legitimate and nefarious. Some of your opponents will see your presence as healthy inspiration for their own innovations. Others will work tirelessly and deceitfully to ensure that you’re bankrupted and living under a bridge in a cardboard box. But the alternative to the exhilarating roller coaster of competition is the mundane merry-go-round of corporate wage-slavery, or government-subsidized bondage. The merry-go-round thrills only those who have never ventured beyond the painted pony.

Just a year and six weeks before he was elected president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln gave a speech at the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society in Milwaukee, in which he succinctly outlined the pathway of the American dream (though he didn’t call it that).

The prudent, penniless beginner in the world, labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land, for himself; then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him. This, say its advocates, is free labor — the just and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way for all — gives hope to all, and energy, and progress, and improvement of condition to all. If any continue through life in the condition of the hired laborer, it is not the fault of the system, but because of either a dependent nature which prefers it, or improvidence, folly, or singular misfortune. — Abraham Lincoln, Sept. 30, 1859

Lincoln wound up his remarks by noting that his audience of farmers may have tired of his talk, eager to get to the awarding of ribbons in the sundry competitions of botany and husbandry. In what could be read as a throw-away line of encouragement and consolation to opponents in the biggest-pumpkin contest, the future president encapsulates the attitude of the American entrepreneur.

And by the successful, and the unsuccessful, let it be remembered, that while occasions like the present, bring their sober and durable benefits, the exultations and mortifictions of them, are but temporary; that the victor shall soon be the vanquished, if he relax in his exertion; and that the vanquished this year, may be victor the next, in spite of all competition. — Abraham Lincoln, Sept. 30, 1859

Perhaps the reason for the current vacuum of hope is that we’ve bought a cheap plastic imported version of the American Dream.

After all, the actual dream was never a promise of reward, but an opportunity to strive, and to fall, and to start again, in a land without genetically entitled gentry or nobility, nor class barriers — where a man’s property is his and where the law sees all before it alike.

Now, one may ask: “But what about the gigantic, bureaucratic, cash-sucking, productivity-cramping, market-meddling, currency-debasing federal government?”

As long as sinful man treads this mortal coil, government impediments to success will abound. (I’ll devote another little essay to hope in this area soon.) In the meantime, government botherism cannot serve as the excuse for your failure.

I once heard that there are “problems” and then there are “facts of life.” Only the former can be fixed.

Another helpful axiom I frequently recall is this:

“There are two things you should never worry about:

  1. Things you can change, and
  2. things you can’t change.”

For Americans with this attitude, this country still offers “the just and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way for all — gives hope to all, and energy, and progress, and improvement of condition to all.