If we look back to, say, the elections of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, there has been an incredible, transformative improvement in the world. Totalitarian regimes and dictatorships have fallen in the former Soviet empire, in East Asia and Latin America, in Afghanistan and Iraq, in Africa; almost everywhere the trend has been towards liberalization. The internet has brought a sort of liberalization to the heart of the developed world: where once flows of information were dominated by big media organizations they have now been decentralized and democratized; the grassroots has been empowered, energized, brought into the conversation. All around the world life expectancy is rising, literacy is rising; starting in the middle of the last decade GDP has been rising too. Peace has been spreading, too, as the age of European wars becomes ever more remote, as the Cold War dissipated peacefully, as grisly Third World bloodbaths like the Vietnam War, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s, the civil wars in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sierra Leone, have passed, as have the 1990 genocides in the Balkans and Rwanda. If one wants to reply that they have been succeeded by new wars, well, yes, but smaller ones. There are no wars underway today as bad as the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s; no regimes as bad as Stalin's Soviet Union or Mao's China or Saddam's Iraq or Idi Amin's Uganda, with the exception of North Korea. In the United States in particular things have been changing for the better. Inflation was conquered; under Clinton and Bush we had a decade and a half of near full employment; racism has retreated to the point where we've elected a black president and where many under-30s, such as myself, have never encountered it in our lives (except when traveling abroad); and we have partially overcome the fascist legacy of immigration restrictions from the 1920s, and absorbed millions of immigrants, still far too few, but enough to greatly enrich our economy, society and culture while helping to spread development and democracy via remittances and cultural influence. Adverse social trends have also been halted or reversed: divorce, illegitimacy, and crime are in retreat. English has gone from strength to strength as a world language, and more people can communicate with each other than ever before. China and to a lesser extent India have surged from desperate poverty into accelerating economic growth.
In short, we have been living through a real golden age, one of the most progressive-- in the sense of ever-greater human flourishing, not in the sense of leftist statism which is inimical to progress-- ages in the history of the world, but not everyone understands this. A certain class of conservatives, sometimes called the "paleocons," resent this rise of prosperity and freedom and want to drag us back to a more segregated, squalid, conformist world where their own wicked complacency and prejudice would not look so ugly against the rising moral standards of an age of enlightenment and progress. A similar pessimism has its echoes on the left, which retains a certain bitterness that religion and the free market, and not their beloved state, continues to be the source of human betterment. As the memoir of one politician expresses it:
IT'S BEEN ALMOST ten years since I first ran for political office. I was thirty-five at
the time, four years out of law school, recently married, and generally impatient with
life. A seat in the Illinois legislature had opened up, and several friends suggested that I
run, thinking that my work as a civil rights lawyer, and contacts from my days as a
community organizer, would make me a viable candidate. After discussing it with my
wife, I entered the race and proceeded to do what every first-time candidate does: I
talked to anyone who would listen. I went to block club meetings and church socials,
beauty shops and barbershops. If two guys were standing on a corner, I would cross the
street to hand them campaign literature. And everywhere I went, I'd get some version of
the same two questions.
"Where'd you get that funny name?"
And then: "You seem like a nice enough guy. Why do you want to go into something
dirty and nasty like politics?"
I was familiar with the question, a variant on the questions asked of me years earlier,
when I'd first arrived in Chicago to work in low-income neighborhoods. It signaled a
cynicism not simply with politics but with the very notion of a public life, a cynicism
that-at least in the South Side neighborhoods I sought to represent-had been
nourished by a generation of broken promises.
It is not surprising perhaps, that a politician who dismisses the 1980s and 1990s as "a generation of broken promises" has done his best to drag us back to the 1970s, which normal Americans recognize as a miserable time when misguided statist economic policies and amoral "realism" and isolationism in foreign policy were casting doubt on the whole future of the republic. I'm optimistic enough to think that 2009 is the new answer to "what's the worst that can happen," that the domestic and international order built up in the Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Gingrich-Bush Golden Age is sufficiently robust and resilient, and the American electorate sufficiently educated and intelligent, as to provide sufficient safeguards to prevent any politico-economic disaster worse than what we suffered in 2009. But then, if W hadn't saved Iraq and the banks before our escapist interregnum we might be worse off than we are. Still, the American people seem to be learning fast enough from their mistakes to be ready to put things back on the right track. So, Happy New Year in 2010!