The Future of America: Is the Prevailing Pessimism Warranted?

By: Guest Authors

By: Ron Lipsman

There is no denying the heightened level of concern among the public for the future of our nation. Polls consistently reveal that optimism among American adults about the future welfare of their children and grandchildren is plummeting. Angry town hall meetings, anti-incumbent sentiment and the rapid growth of the Tea Party movement all reflect the deep misgivings that increasing numbers of Americans feel about what’s in store for our country. Another manifestation: there is no shortage of doom and gloom books that give vent to these concerns. Although these books have a common theme – namely, America is in trouble and if we don’t reverse course, the nation may cease to exist in the form that we have known it for more than two centuries – both the root cause of the malady and the remedies prescribed to fix it vary from book to book.

Most lay the blame squarely at the feet of the Leftist regime that has come to rule over America during the last 75-100 years. The common theme is that we have lost our way as a Constitutional Republic founded on individual liberty, limited government and a traditional culture based on the tenets of Western Civilization and replaced it with a Euro-style, social welfare state that prizes equality of outcome, massive government control of all aspects of society and a secular creed steeped in multiculturalism.

Two representative examples that I read recently are: The Tyranny of Liberalism, by James Kalb (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2008) and The Struggle to Limit Government by John Samples (Cato Institute, 2010). I single these out not because they are the best of the genre – in fact, I think they are among the least attractive of the lot – but because each makes a critically important observation that is worth emphasizing.

Kalb’s book is really an exercise in political philosophy and psychology. His subtitle: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command is a giveaway to what the reader may expect to find in his tome. It is a treatise in behavioral psychology, seeking to explain what motivates liberals to believe and behave as they do, how their increasing dominance affects the members of society and why – in Kalb’s belief – what they have created is ultimately unstable and will eventually cause the collapse of society. It is a book that could easily serve as a text in a graduate school psychology or sociology course, which explains why it has not topped the best seller’s list.

But it does have one remarkably redeeming feature. In Chapter 5, entitled “Are Objections to Liberalism Overstated?”, Kalb presents one of the most compelling litanies of the perverse accomplishments of American liberalism that I have ever read. If I may be permitted several trenchant quotes:

Continued faith in liberalism is supported by the common view that whatever its flaws, American society today is much more fair and decent than in the past. The correctness of that view is quite doubtful. Past discriminations led to many evils, but the triumph of advanced liberalism in the sixties has meant worse. Recent social changes have taken mothers away from their children; forced children to grow up without fathers; led women to destroy their children before or during birth; taught boys there is nothing specifically good about manhood or respectable about women; told girls that they are victims, predators, and commodities; destroyed common culture and common sense; multiplied crimes and prisons; increased economic disparities and the working week; imposed pervasive bureaucracies of racial preference and thought control; and led to rabid and mindless political partisanship, a radical decline in intellectual and cultural standards, and the degrading entertainment now seen on television and in theaters. There is nothing fair or decent about forcing people to live, and young people to grow up, in such a setting.

The welfare state makes us clients rather than actors. It makes us useless to each other. It separates conduct from consequences and undermines personal responsibility. It weakens connections between the sexes and generations by insisting that dependence on particular persons is wrong. It deprives personal loyalty and integrity of their place and function by making us rely on the system as a whole rather than on ourselves and each other. The result is that people feel alienated and lack civility, couples do not stay together or have children, the ones they do have are badly brought up, and men and women do not know how to treat each other. In the long run—with the growth of crime, corruption, abusiveness, and other social disorders—costs soar, efficiency drops, dependency outruns productivity, and the system loses the ability to achieve its basic end of securing a reliable minimum of security and well-being.

The changes brought about by the radicalization of liberalism in the sixties and thereafter have hurt the weak and marginalized more than anybody. The liberation of women and of sex has deprived women of masculine support, feminized poverty, and turned girls into sexual commodities…Gay lib has liberated conduct that destroys lives by glamorizing acting on weaknesses and facilitating preying on the confused. Black progress slowed or reversed in most ways for most blacks after the sixties, the period that was supposedly a new dawn in fairness and decency on racial issues. None of that is progress, any more than it is progress to make people generally worse—less social, loyal, and disciplined, and more grasping, cynical, and self-involved—and to deprive them of concrete models and standards for a good life. All those conditions have been consequences of a post-sixties order emphasizing social justice and consequently downplaying the need for people to keep their own lives in order and to treat each other well in daily life.

These powerful remarks are backed up by numerous illustrations throughout the book. They are representative of Kalb’s basic thesis, which can be summarized in these bullets:
• Liberalism preaches tolerance, but is famously intolerant of those who don’t subscribe to its preachings.
• Liberalism advocates inclusiveness, but excludes from the mainstream any who disagree with its premises.
• Liberalism celebrates diversity, but crushes any whose views diverge from standard liberal thought or dogma.
• Liberals profess to be non-judgmental, but they judge as unworthy any and all conservative thought or opinion.

Kalb goes to great lengths to explain why liberals must behave in this fashion. His explanations are, as I said, rooted in psychology, sociology and philosophy. His arguments are dense and at times impenetrable. Thus I fear that his book will not be widely read. That is perhaps unfortunate since his Chapter 5 contains many insightful and well-stated arguments. So if a copy falls into your hands, turn to Chapter 5, and then turn to something more readable and optimistic like the recent books by Gingrich (To Save America: Stopping Obama’s Secular-Socialist Machine) or Tyrrell (After the Hangover: The Conservatives’ Road to Recovery).

An equally dense, yet valuable critique of liberalism may be found in Samples’ book. The reader will not find much psychology there, but instead the most intense political science, political history and political minutiae imaginable. As the author says in the Preface, “This book concerns the political [emphasis added] struggle to constrain the activities of the federal government.” The work is an incredibly detailed look at the political machinations of the federal government over the last 30 years. The author explores in the greatest detail the strategies, motivations and actions of myriad federal officials (elected and appointed), especially with an eye toward evaluating the effects of any action that influenced the size and scope of the federal government. There is a tremendous amount of nuanced information, some of it quite interesting. But far from all of it! Like Kalb’s, I fear that Samples’ book is a sleep inducer. It is too dense, with too many asides and far too many statistics.

But Samples’ book, like Kalb’s, has a strongly redeeming quality – it effectively makes a point that transcends the otherwise laborious chore of slogging through the manuscript. The point is this. Reagan was a singular President in the last 80 years – the only true conservative elected to the White House. Reagan was the unique President since Coolidge who actually believed – as he said – that government is the problem, not the solution and that he intended to address the problem by shrinking the size of government. The book makes a persuasive case that he did not succeed. He did succeed in reducing taxes, jump staring the economy and initiating 25 years of growth and increased prosperity. He did revitalize the nation’s defenses and defeated the Soviet Union to win the Cold War. But he utterly failed to win the ‘struggle to limit government.’ Once again, some relevant quotes:

Reagan sought to control spending later by cutting taxes first. The prospect of substantial deficits would force Congress to choose cutting programs, a choice members did not like but would have seen as better than deficit spending. This strategy did…not work.

Overall, the Reagan years saw neither growth nor reduction of domestic discretionary spending. … Hence the period 1981-1989 is more appropriately characterized as one year of deep budget cuts, 1982, followed by rapid budget growth. … Between 1980 and 1987, the three largest social welfare programs (Social Security, Medicare, and other health care spending) increased their spending by 84 percent. … Even in the discretionary domestic budget, a relatively small part of overall spending, the Reagan administration produced only minor absolute cuts in spending. … The Reagan years did not see … a significant reduction in the size of government…

Did Reagan change the political culture of the United States? … Polling responses indicate that the number of people who wanted more government spending grew with each passing year in the Reagan presidency. A similar result marked ideological self-identification among Americans. During most of the Reagan years, the number of people claiming to be liberals rose and the number identifying as conservatives fell.

What explains Reagan’s limited success at limiting government? The …answer may be found in Reagan’s 1980 election campaign. Candidate Reagan promised to restrain the growth of government, not roll back the state. But candidate Reagan also promised to enact reforms that would constrain government spending and taxing. These changes did not happen. Year after year, the Reagan administration proposed cutting or eliminating spending on everything from small programs … to large programs… Yet after 1981, these budgets and their cuts were considered “dead on arrival” on Capitol Hill. … [One explanation:] There turn[ed] out to be relatively few fiscal conservatives in the administration or in either party in Congress… conservatives in both parties were more protective of programs that served their own states and favored constituencies than of their commitment to a responsible fiscal policy.

The old regime was built on entitlement expectations and concomitant spending. Reagan did not eliminate or significantly restrain major entitlement programs. Reagan did attempt, more than once, to constrain Social Security spending, and each time was met by an overwhelming political reaction that cowed most congressional republicans almost immediately…. Reagan did not come close to overturning the old regime. Its main policies and institutions resisted his efforts.

Those words are found in a subsection entitled “Assessing Reagan” (pp. 142-154). Like Kalb, Samples justifies the words with ample evidence throughout the book.

It is possible to come away from these (and other) books profoundly depressed about the future of the nation. As Kalb demonstrates, liberalism is a self-contradictory, perverse philosophy that now rules the politics and culture of the USA. As Samples shows, the one serious effort that we have made to tame the beast did not succeed. Despair seems legitimate. And yet, the nation’s political literature has also been graced by the recent appearance of several hopeful books – some based on an abstract faith in American destiny and some bearing concrete proposals to recapture the country. America has shown amazing recuperative powers in the past and I think that Reagan would have more faith in Gingrich and Tyrrell than in Kalb and Samples. I’ll stick with the Gipper.

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