The other America
Germany’s first chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, supposedly once said that there was “a special providence for drunkards, fools and the United States of America.”
Apparently, late 19th century observers could not quite explain how the U.S. thrived when by logic it should not. That paradox has never been more true than today.
The U.S. government now owes more than $18 trillion in long-term debt. Even after recent income tax hikes for the very wealthy and huge cuts in the defense budget, the Obama administration will still run an annual budget deficit of nearly $500 billion.
No government official dares to trim Social Security or Medicare. Everyone knows that both programs are fiscally unsustainable.
More than 11 million undocumented immigrants are residing in the U.S. as federal immigration law is reduced to a bothersome irritant. A record 92 million American citizens 16 and older are not working.
Red-state and blue-state animosities reveal a nation more divided than at any time since the 1960s — or perhaps the pre-Civil War 1850s.
The permanent bureaucracy is awash in serial scandals. The IRS, VA, GSA, NSA, ICE and Secret Service have all deservedly lost the public trust.
Congress suffers from overwhelming public disapproval. President Obama’s approval rating hovers just above 40 percent.
Our new foreign policy could be characterized as managed decline. Three defense secretaries have retired or resigned under Obama. Two of them, Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, wrote memoirs in which they blasted the administration. From Russia to the Pacific to the Middle East, the world seems to be descending into the law of the jungle as the U.S. withdraws from its traditional role as a global overseer of the postwar order.
The Michael Brown shooting illustrates seemingly irreconcilable racial divides not seen in 50 years. Al Sharpton once was seen as a social arsonist and tax delinquent. Now he appears to be the White House’s most influential advisor on racial matters.
Student-loan debt has surpassed $1 trillion. Six years of college has become the new normal. Even then, more than a third of the students who enter college never graduate.
In such a depressing American landscape, why is the United States doing pretty well?
Put simply, millions of quiet, determined Americans get up every morning and tune out the incompetence and corruption of their government. They simply ignore destructive fads of popular culture. They have no time for the demagoguery of their politicians and the divisive rhetoric of social activists. Instead, these quiet Americans simply go to work, pursue their own talents, excel at what they do, and seek to take care of their families.
The result of their singular expertise is that even in America’s current illness, the nation still soars above the global competition.
Only in America can you find the sort of innovation, talent, legal framework and can-do attitude needed to invent and refine hydraulic fracking and horizontal drilling. Just a few hundred thousand scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, oil riggers and skilled craftsman have revived the once-ossified oil industry for 320 million Americans.
The United States is not running out of fuels — as was predicted over the last 20 years. It instead has become the largest gas-and-oil producer in the world.
The epitaph for Silicon Valley is written each year. Its tech industry is copied the world over. Yet seemingly each year a new American technical innovation — the laptop, Google, Facebook, the iPad, the iPhone — sweeps the world. Apparently, American informality, meritocracy and top-flight engineering still draw global talent into Northern California, which sends back out the latest gadgets to be gobbled up by billions.
Neither drought, nor needlessly cumbersome regulations, nor unfair trade practices have stalled American agriculture. The farms of the United States — where less than 2 percent of the population resides — have never turned out so much safe, nutritious and cheap food that is feeding the world and earning America hundreds of billions of dollars in foreign exchange.
The U.S. military — in which fewer than 1 in 100 Americans serve — is facing record cuts. The Navy will have fewer ships than the American fleet of World War I. The Air Force and the Marine Corps are shrinking. Yet superb American forces continue to ensure that the United States and its allies remain safe. Neither Vladimir Putin’s Russia, nor the communist Chinese hierarchy, nor the Iranian theocrats are quite ready to take the on the U.S. military. All are rightly worried that to do so would be suicidal.
America is not saved by our elected officials, bureaucrats, celebrities and partisan activists. Instead, just a few million hardworking Americans in key areas — a natural meritocracy of all races, classes and backgrounds — ignore the daily hype and chaos, remain innovative and productive, and dazzle the world.
The silent few of a forgotten America have given the entire country an astonishing standard of living that is quite inexplicable.
(Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of “The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern” You can reach him by e-mailing [email protected].)
Victor Davis Hanson