As the first decade of the new century ends and the second begins, it is easy to embrace a Declinist vision for the United States. A decrepit infrastructure, gaping inequality (one in five children live in poverty), bleeding overseas war, spreading Know-Nothingism, rising China, and partisan political rancor make for a dour view of the nation's future. Yet I believe we are actually entering the Twilight of Pessimism for America. We are, in part, confusing temporary noise in Washington and the economy for deeper, truer social and economic signals that are actually marking America's comeback.
First, some personal context. I remember the weekly public school drills in the late '50s when we had to hide under our desks in case the Russians launched their ICBMs into our cities. Krushchov, after all, publicly threatened to "bury" America. Sputnik went up in 1957 and Gargarin, the first man in space, in 1961. We built bomb shelters in our backyards through the '60s, huddled there in the Cuban Missile Crisis and fought proxy wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan in '70s and '80s. And then... the Soviet Union was gone and the Russian threat ended.
I remember also the '70s as the decade when OPEC quadrupled oil prices and I wrote my first cover story for BusinessWeek — "The Decline of U.S. Power" — in 1979. And then... the real price of oil plummeted and the OPEC threat was gone.
There is something about being a "Comeback Kid" that is deep in American culture.
In the '80s, "Japan as No. 1" was a vision accepted by virtually all of America's business, intellectual and political elites. It had a better work ethic, higher quality manufacturing, smarter consumer electronics, and superior education. And then... Japan's threat was gone.
In just the half century that marked the first half of my life (we don't need to deal with the two earlier world wars), the U.S. has faced three major competitive threats to its global position and economic prosperity — and came back from all of them. There is something about being a "Comeback Kid" that is deep in American culture, something about needing a challenge to make it rise to its best again and again. You see it in sports, in business and, of course, in politics. You can feel it when it begins to gel and when a movement picks up momentum. I feel it today.
I spend most of my time in New York City, Portland, Oregon, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, and teach at the Parsons School of Design at The New School. The world I live in is a world of possibility, where entrepreneurs start up new companies, mayors and governors build energy-saving public transportation and improve schools and students learn to design sustainable products, new health experiences, and better business models. I live in a world of inclusion, surrounded by people having babies with a rainbow of skin colors, buying their food from local farmers, using social media technology to create, innovate and build new businesses and organizations.
Beneath the noise of politics, the Know-Nothingism, the anger, the arrogance of belief and the corruption masquerading as lobbying, another culture is being built in cities where the future is more evenly distributed an far more optimistic. It is where political leaders really lead, Gen Yers build their lives on their own platforms and people wait for the bad movie that is Washington to end. I?m betting that in the decade ahead, the signal that is America's comeback will grow stronger and replace the current noise. And no, it's no the eggnogg hangover speaking, but the context of history.
[Top image by Zen Shooter]