America’s Ace in the Hole Is, Of Course, Its Awesomeness

The United States likes to think of itself not just as “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” but also as the world’s heartland of homegrown optimism. Since at least de Tocqueville, visitors have commented on Americans’ predilection for thinking big and looking on the bright side – a cultural trait that has often been linked to the American fixation with free enterprise and capitalism. A depressive poet is not likely to conquer a continent or invade everything from Mexico to the moon. As a Latin American history professor once told my class, the American businessman’s idea of history is a 45-degree angle into the future, quite unlike the squiggly, ambivalent line most historians see.

Yet the US also has a history of recurrent lapses into pessimism, when its self-ordained status as a felicitous hybrid of Eden and the Promised Land seems to be in danger of failing miserably. Any American over the age of 30 today likely remembers the spasm of self doubt that gripped the nation throughout the 1970s and 1980s; Jimmy Carter immortalized the troubles of his own presidency by speaking of a very un-American “malaise” and an age of limits, rather than excess, while movies like Gung Ho dramatized worries that Japan was zooming past an aging, lagging America. (The latest version of this story tells how Americans will end up subjugated to China and India.) The US seems to vacillate between periods of robust confidence in its boundless future, and bouts of deep-seated insecurity and defensiveness. This bipolar quality likely explains why American exceptionalism evokes such strong responses among liberals, conservatives, and Americans of all political stripes – some see the idea that America is destined for great things as unwarranted and unrealistic, while others worry that America’s own specialness is threatened by such doubts and hope to quash them whenever they come up.

The debate over exceptionalism has been reignited by two epochal (and interrelated) events: the severe economic crisis that began in 2007, and the rise of Barack Obama to the White House. The collapse of the real estate market – itself a perfect example of starry-eyed American dreams of infinite prosperity – shook the world economy almost to its foundations, and called into question the supposed triumph of capitalism that followed the end of the Cold War. If deregulation, free markets, property rights and the like could leave millions around the world jobless, hungry, and homeless, maybe the neoliberal project of globalization was not all it was cracked up to be.

For many conservatives, this failing of capitalism has been less troubling than the emergence of a charismatic political figure who campaigned for office by promising to fix the system. Commentators such as Dinesh D’Souza and Newt Gingrich have been quick to accuse President Obama of deliberately trying to worsen the economy, using the crisis to destroy American institutions of private enterprise and democracy and engineer the final downfall of capitalism. Liberals may find this characterization hard to recognize, given what they see as the Administration’s cautious and pragmatic approach to issues such as healthcare and financial reform, but the cult of dread created by leading conservatives has given shape to a number of powerful anxieties about culture, race, and the future of the economy. It is also worth noting that the current crisis of confidence on the Right taps into some of the deepest historical currents of conservatism – the boosterism and cheerleading that has defined much of Republican political rhetoric in the last few decades actually represents a deviation from an intellectual tradition that has more often emphasized the wickedness of human nature and the dangers of democracy, going all the way back to Burke and Hobbes.

Into this gloomy scenario we find Joel Kotkin marching. The futurist and “uber-geographer” has written a book called The Next Hundred Million, which purports to show how “the addition of a hundred million new Americans” will change the country for the better and assure its continued prosperity, even as other countries struggle and shrink. The legendary sociologist Herbert Gans wrote a comparable book a few years ago, envisioning how Americans might employ progressive solutions to clean up the wreckage of the age of Reagan and Bush, but Kotkin is clearly more interested in trumpeting how the free flow of people and goods – i.e., markets and globalization – can resolve the problem of how to maintain programs of healthcare, education, and retirement benefits in the face of inadequate revenue and an aging population. America is a place people want to move. For Kotkin, recent debates over immigration are painfully shortsighted, as he believes that migrants from Africa, Asia, and Latin America will infuse America with much-needed entrepreneurial energy and fiscal stimulus.

Notably, the Los Angeles Times’ Ron Brownstein wrote a provocative piece last year arguing that such demographic changes would actually lead to prolonged conflict. As America’s young population grows more diverse, Brownstein argued, politics will begin to coalesce along both generational and racial lines. Young families – browner and more multiracial than ever before – will want government funds to go toward services such as daycare and schools, while an older, whiter electorate will fight tenaciously against any effort to diminish the resources committed to the retired. Such a scenario is not entirely implausible, especially given the ferocious outburst of dissent by elderly Americans who demanded that “their” Medicare not be harmed by a “government takeover” in 2009. Liberals can snicker about the mind-boggling contradictions that underlie such protests, but their emotional power can be discounted only at progressives’ peril.

For his part, Kotkin is too busy trying to shake America out of its recession blues to worry about the potential nastiness of such conflicts. He asks us to look at the big picture, pointing to the fact that America has assets of space, diversity and democracy to help it cope with the political and economic headwinds of the future. The US is simply not bursting at the seams like some of its so-called rivals, like India or China or even the United Kingdom, where 61 million people live on a set of islands slightly smaller than the state of Oregon (home to about 4 million people). The US could afford to accommodate a hundred million (or more) new citizens who are clearly eager to come here and buy property, start businesses, and feed, clothe, and educate their children. Meanwhile, politicians in Germany, Russia, and Japan ponder ways to incentivize procreation, as their birthrates fall and young people look to exciting lives that are more fulfilling than changing diapers and assisting in math homework. If one hasn’t noticed, China is not exactly eager to increase its own population by encouraging immigration.

The author breezily suggests that Americans are happier with their lot, which consists of working, on average, 300 hours more per year than their European counterparts, with less of a social safety net and much less job security. Yet a more Eurocentric critic would have very little trouble digging up one survey after another that finds the Danes or the Norwegians reporting a greater degree of personal satisfaction with their lives.  (By one measure, the US doesn’t even crack the top ten.) The Next One Hundred Million does not engage this contrary evidence, which is perhaps forgivable in a manifesto for the general reading public, but the fact that Kotkin seems to take for granted the superior quality of life in America is troubling nonetheless.

Kotkin believes that one of the biggest problems facing America is “maintaining the prospect of upward mobility,” but he seems to be more concerned with preserving the mirage-like illusion – the “prospect” – of opportunity than upward mobility itself. “The promise that ‘anyone’ can reach the highest levels of society has been and remains fundamental to the American ethos,” Kotkin says, yet his own scare quotes around “anyone” suggest that he himself doubts whether this central myth is really real. One gets the sneaking suspicion that the American Dream is one of those Big Lies, the necessary public stories that hold people together in a common enterprise even when the promised fruits of the partnership never materialize for many of the partners. The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once said the public needs “necessary illusion[s]” and “emotionally potent simplifications” to accept the status quo, and Kotkin’s version of the American Dream seems to fit the bill.

Kotkin lauds the fact that American society has successfully elevated “outsider groups,” such as Jewish and Asian Americans, into the ranks of the prosperous and the elite, yet these exemplars of success only serve as symbols of the “anyone can make it” philosophy, providing a comforting reference point for the system’s goodness while so many others lag behind. This is not just a question of tokenism. The Catholics and Latinos and African Americans who have broken through to success in fields such as academia, business, and law made it there on their own wits, not as the carefully selected representatives of an out-group. But Kotkin’s idea of opportunity still has a glass menagerie quality to it. Where American capitalism is concerned, the idea of diversity serves a failure of metonymy, where the part is taken for the whole. The race, religion and ethnicity of a handful of successful people serve as proof that anyone can make it, when really they only prove that some people can make it. Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi is all the evidence you need of the American economy’s virtuousness.

Opportunity means new vistas for capital accumulation, which can be found in Houston more readily than old, exhausted England. He tours the city with Romulo “Tim” Cisneros, the brother of former Clinton Cabinet secretary Henry Cisneros. “What makes a city great is opportunity,” Kotkin says, going on to quote Tim’s rhapsody:

It’s amazing. Every time I go out there’s something new out there… Houston is so big that you don’t have to worry about the dream getting too expensive because there’s so much new product. It will take a generation to fill it in.

In other words, America has the land, the institutions, and, above all, the people to keep the capitalist economy chugging along for at least another fifty years. One need not think of the painful contraction that has reduced cities like Detroit to shadows of their former selves in the last fifty years, as workers fled unemployment and social disorder to follow fickle employers to the sunnier vistas of the South and West. One need not worry about the gross inequity that means the poor and even the middle class cannot afford a decent education for their children in most of America’s cities, while the affluent and well-connected engineer their own children’s continued access to the best the wealthiest society in history has to offer. There is still another field to exploit over the horizon. When land and water run out, and the continued reproduction of the labor force becomes untenable, the whole machine may run out of steam – but Joel Kotkin is here to let us to know that the whirligig can keep spinning for a while. Then again, as Shakespeare told us, “the great whirligig of time brings its revenges.”

Alex Sayf Cummings