Posted at Americas Quarterly on November 3, 2011
In 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama spoke a lot about hope, and his book The Audacity of Hope became a best-seller. His campaign later was all about hopes and dreams. But times have changed. Today we have the Tea Party from the Right, active and influencing the mainstream GOP. The Occupy Wall Street movement from the Left is still very much in the news offering a different assessment of what ails America. This is a time where the outer edges of the political spectrum are dominating the news and affecting the mood of the country.
The 2008 recession continues to leave its mark on families and the social fabric of the nation. This goes a long way in explaining the emergence of populist movements: high unemployment, huge deficits, increasing debt, and income disparity make the general population more concerned about the direction of the country than at any time in recent memory. Is the country on an inevitable decline? Are hopes and dreams just part of the political rhetoric spewed by politicians on the hustings? Has America seen its best days?
Last week I had the honour to give talks to two different groups of young people: students from Québec and from the Harvard Kennedy School. Each group came from a different place, geographically and culturally. But saw their individual futures with optimism. The Quebecers continue to view the U.S. as a land of opportunity and creativity but were cognizant of the current hard times and the possible impact on its future. The Harvard students are hopeful of better days ahead but also conscious that the economy could worsen in the short term.
Granted, this is not a scientific survey, but it is significant. Young people, wherever they are, are not prisoners of despair and dreams are a part of youth. For this reason, I believe history will be on the side of America. The new generation will not succumb to a pessimistic view of the world.
Political observers might also wonder about the polarization in politics and conclude that political dysfunction has become the new norm of the American political system. On the eve of the next presidential election, it is unlikely this conclusion will be challenged. But the course of history is not just a political cycle. It is governed by events over time, changing circumstances, individuals who can make a difference, and unforeseen opportunities. America has seen hard days in the past but if one trait surpasses all in the American character, it is endurance.
It was Winston Churchill who once said that America will try everything until they find the right solution. A country, shedding its colonial past through revolution, embracing freedom and democracy as the basic tenet of governance, surviving multiple wars, abolishing slavery and segregation, and representing a beacon of hope to the enslaved world cannot be a country subject to despair and inevitable decline for very long.
This upcoming political cycle will once again present a test for Americans. Polls indicate that the large majority of Americans believe that issues – whether unemployment, government dysfunction, debt, war, immigration reform or access to health care - will have to be addressed beyond the partisan divide of competing ideological philosophies, remembering that the American dream is neither liberal nor conservative. It is unlikely that all can be settled in this cycle but it must be a beginning.
A Pew poll conducted last summer indicated that 57 percent of Americans believed that their fellow countrymen could always find ways to solve the nation’s problems. This is most revealing and should be encouraging to those who believe that hopes and dreams can still prevail in America.