The United States is a great country dominated by small minds. The two dominant political forces of our time — the progressive left and the Trumpian right — have a stake in pushing a declinist narrative, one to change the country in a more statist direction, the other to stir up resentment and nostalgia among the middle-class masses.
Both political forces overemphasize the country’s problems, obscuring the underlying reality.
Though the country has many faults, notably rising inequality, poverty and an economy under constant pressure of de-industrialization, the United States remains by far the most important, wealthy and powerful nation on the planet. This is what both the Trumpistas and their progressive opponents consistently get wrong. Both overemphasize our national weaknesses and miss our fundamental strengths.
The case for American preeminence starts with an economy so large — almost one quarter of world GDP — that California has an economy larger than Britain, Texas bigger than Canada and New York more valuable than Korea. It is also expanding faster than that of any major high-income country, with growth finally including workers in the bottom rungs. Meanwhile, in much of the developing world, most critically China, growth is slowing.
The American advantage also applies to demographics. Despite a decline in the birthrate, we our population is slated to grow when most of our key rivals — Germany, Japan, Russia and China — will all shrink. Due largely to immigration, the United States is expected to gain 100 million people by 2100 while the populations of China, Germany, Japan, Russia and much of Europe are expected to drop precipitously. By 2100 China will lose over 370 million people.
Trumpistas need to get more positive
Trump and his followers say “Make America great again” as if the country has fallen headlong into disrepair and decline. If the economy holds up, in the next election, Trumpistas could easily ditch declinist memes and focus on how the country, already in world-leading shape, has gotten stronger under their watch.
They would be better advised to emphasize the fact that the American economy is doing well, enjoying a resurgence of manufacturing power even as it increasingly consolidates control of global finance, entertainment and technology.
This applies as well to the critical issue of immigration. Rather than portray even legal immigrants as a threat, as many Republicans in Congress now do, Trump should actively promote the contributions of legal immigrants. No doubt the borders need to be secured, but migration patterns suggest the continued, powerful appeal of America for people around the world. China Xi Jinping may offer “the Chinese dream,” but the number of Chinese immigrants to this country has doubled since 2000, to 2.3 million.
Progressive dissing of America
Rather than pleading about MAGA, Trump can plausibly make the case that he has helped restore the country’s position in the world. He can contrast this with the current progressive message, to quote media darling Pete Buttigieg, that insists that “America was never as great as advertised.”
The new orthodoxy in the media and academia emphasize our historical shortcomings, which certainly should be discussed, but not at the expense of acknowledging the amazing accomplishments of this still morphing republic.
This progressive orthodoxy is tied to a belief that only by transforming ourselves into some version of a northern European welfare state, with free college, health care and super-high taxes, can the country move forward. But the European approach to handing much of life and commerce to the state has not exactly worked miracles.
More “free” stuff has not encouraged Europeans enough to have children, a sure sign of a society losing its mojo. Dependence cradle to grave on the state appears not to encourage family formation but prolonged, sometimes permanent, adolescence. The more dismal demographics — including in Germany — suggest a future shaped by rapid aging and the prospect of far more severe fiscal issues in the future as workforce declines and the number of the elderly soar.
Europe’s failures extend as well to economics. In all these countries government plays a more intrusive role, much as the progressives advocate here. Yet this has not made Europe the world-beaters progressives suggest. Due in part to lower taxes and regulation, the U.S. economy is expanding twice as quickly or more than that of Germany, Sweden or France, all of which boast elaborate welfare states and super-high taxes.
Leading from the front, not from paranoia
Given these realities, America should stop acting like a petulant child and more as a leader assured of its preeminence. Nor do we have to adopt the relativism of the Obama years, when even the idea of “American exceptionalism” was largely disdained, and other national models often held as exemplars.
Being No. 1 means a different approach to the rest of the world. After the Second World War, when America was clearly the dominant country, we won over others by projecting confidence — as we saw with Franklin Roosevelt, Truman and Reagan — enough to persuade others that we are the best horse to bet on.
But wealth and power does not by itself assure global leadership. What makes America truly No. 1 is something else — our commitment to free institutions, free speech and, to a large extent, free markets. As it becomes more and more evident that “China’s empire,” sometimes aided by its addled Russian wingman, offers other countries only an authoritarian approach and a future as vassals, the American model is set to become once again globally persuasive. What’s needed now is a leadership that knows how to sell it, here and abroad.
This article first appeared in The Orange County Register.
Joel Kotkin is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. He authored The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us, published in 2016 by Agate. He is also author of The New Class Conflict, The City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He is executive director of NewGeography.com and lives in Orange County, CA.