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Undying Creed: The Acceleration of Our Exceptionalism

M any Americans—particularly those involved with the major news media, academia, and the world of policymaking—envision their country becoming an ever more predictable follower of global fashions in everything from health care to climate change, jurisprudence to economic policy. In other words, they look ahead and see a nation that is a somewhat larger version of those that make up the European Union.

But in reality, those who believe that the United States is sliding down from its historical apex—and that we must accordingly downscale our expectations and adopt the assumptions and economy more appropriate to our European friends—are wrong. American exceptionalism has lost none of its momentum, and the United States is becoming more, not less, distinct among the countries of the developed world in its economic, demographic, and cultural evolution.

For at least a generation, the appeal of declinism and the belief that we must embrace foreign models has constituted, in the words of Georgetown University’s Robert Lieber, a kind of “historical chic” both domestically and abroad. “There is much to be said for being a Denmark or Sweden, even a Great Britain, France, or Italy,” Andrew Hacker suggested in 1971. More than thirty-five years later, the same refrain can be heard from author Parag Khanna, who envisions a “shrunken” America lucky to eke out a meager existence between a “triumphant China” and a “retooled Europe.” America, notes Morris Berman, another critic, is simply “running on empty.”

Such assessments consistently underestimate the sources of what the Japanese scholar Fuji Kamiya has described as America’s unique sokojikara , or reserve power. The peculiar demographic, economic, and cultural strengths of this country, Kamiya believes, create a vastly different reality from that of its major competitors.

This fact was largely ignored at the outset of the current financial crisis, which many pundits here and abroad blithely expected to accelerate American decline as other countries adapted more easily to hard times. Yet Japan’s rate of decline in GNP was three times that of the United States, while Germany and Britain contracted by twice as much. Moreover, the current recession has sparked far more overt social unrest in Europe, China, and Russia than in the United States.

America’s unique strengths will not fade quickly, and it’s difficult to see how an aging Europe, with its own ethnic problems, out-migration of skilled workers, weak military, and weaker technological base, could challenge our preeminent position. India and China are more likely long-term competitors, but both suffer from a legacy of poverty and underdevelopment that will take decades, if not generations, to overcome.

In India’s case, per capita income in 2005 ranked just slightly above that of sub-Saharan Africa; it endures chronic ethnic and religious conflict, as well as an ongoing and lethal struggle with Pakistan. Meanwhile China, like America’s former great rival, Russia, lacks the basic environmental protections, reliable legal structures, favorable demographics, and social resiliency of the United States. Inequality, a growing issue in most countries, including America, has been rising even more quickly in theoretically egalitarian China, which could further undermine its long-term social stability. China’s tendency to ascribe superiority to the Han race will also limit its ability to project itself onto a world that will remain predominately non-Chinese.

 

P erhaps the key distinguishing characteristics of the once and future American exceptionalism derive from the fact that in the coming decades America’s population will grow dramatically, adding at least 100 million people by 2050. This contrasts with more rapidly aging basic rivals in Europe and the Far East, including China.

Although its percentage of childless women continues to rise, America still boasts the highest fertility rate among advanced countries: 50 percent higher than Germany or Japan, and well above that of China, Italy, Singapore, Korea, and virtually all of Eastern Europe. The contrast between the United States and Russia, America’s onetime primary rival for world power, is particularly telling. Thirty years ago, Russia constituted the core of a vast Soviet empire that was considerably more populous than the United States. Today, even with its energy riches, Russia’s low birthrate and high mortality suggests that its population will decline 30 percent by 2050, to less than one-third that of the United States. Even Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has spoken of “the serious threat of turning into a decaying nation.”

A perhaps even more critical demographic shift has taken place in East Asia, particularly in China, where a one-child policy has set the stage for a rapidly aging population by mid-century. By 2050, according to United Nations statistics, roughly 30 percent of China’s population (and 41 percent of Japan’s) will be over sixty years old. South Korea, meanwhile, has experienced arguably the fastest drop in fertility in world history, except for during times of war or plague, which perhaps explains its extraordinary, if scandal-ridden, interest in human cloning. Barely one-quarter of the United States’ population will be over sixty in 2050.

Fright projections of population growth made around the time of The Population Bomb , Paul Ehrlich’s widely acclaimed 1968 Malthusian tract, still shape public perceptions, but those forecasts have turned out to be ludicrously off the mark. Global population growth rates of 2 percent in the 1960s have dropped to less than half that today, and mid-century projections of Earth’s human residents in 2000 turned out to be too high by more than 200 million. World population growth is likely to continue its decline—with growth rates dropping to less than 0.8 percent by 2025—due to a largely unanticipated drop in birthrates in developing countries such as Mexico and Iran. The world’s population, according to some estimates, could peak as early as 2050 and actually begin to fall by the end of the current century.

These trends will have profound consequences, as the fate of the so-called East Asian Tigers shows. Fueled by a rapid expansion of their workforce, these countries have constituted the world’s greatest economic success story of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. However, within the next four decades they, like most of the developed countries in Europe, will become veritable old-age homes compared to America, as the workforces that propelled their growth go gray.

History—from the decline of Rome onward—has much to tell us about the relationship between demographics and national destiny. While a somewhat slower population growth would be a boon for developing countries, a rapidly aging or decreasing population does not bode well for the societal or economic health of advanced countries. It is modest growth that offers the prospect of expanding markets, new workers, and entrepreneurial innovation.

America’s exceptionalism also extends to national attitudes toward the future, work, raising children, morality, and religious values. As the author Michael Chabon wrote recently, “In having children, in engendering them, in loving them, in teaching them to love and care about the world,” parents are “betting” that life will be better for them and their progeny.

In terms of attitude toward family and religion, America already may have more in common with Third World countries than it does with the developed world. In the 1960s and ’70s, social theorist Peter Berger predicted the nation would follow the European lead toward “secularization,” defined as a society largely “removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols,” and where individuals “look upon their world and their own lives without the benefit of religious interpretation.” Yet, although non-affiliation has risen, roughly 60 percent of Americans, according to a recent Pew Global Attitudes survey, believe religion is “very important.” This is twice as many as in Canada, Britain, Korea, or Italy—and six times the percentage in France or Japan.

Other aspects of daily life in twenty-first-century America also increasingly diverge from those in other advanced countries. Americans tend to work longer hours and be more career-oriented than their European counterparts. By 2003, Americans worked more than 300 more hours annually than did the average resident of the European Union.

America’s critics see these figures as proof of a predatory economic system that imprisons citizens in a rat race. As one writer puts it, Europeans “emphasize quality of life over accumulation” and “deep play over unrelenting toil.” (Some have gone so far as to argue that this more relaxed attitude is better not only for people, but in terms of the production of greenhouse gases.) Yet the belief that one should work hard and that one will be rewarded for doing so appears to be ingrained in the American attitude; an approach to life that is voluntary rather than coerced by “the system.” Under their demands for diminished workweeks, other countries worry that as they snooze, they lose. Even in Japan and South Korea, countries long known for a fevered work ethic, there is now widespread concern about the younger generation’s questionable tolerance for hard work.

It seems unlikely that with an additional 100 million citizens the United States will relax its work ethic, especially as more and more Americans endeavor to carve out a place for themselves and their families in a more crowded and competitive country. Although globalization produces homogeneity in other respects, Americans retain an essentially different set of assumptions from many abroad, particularly in holding to the notion that success lies fundamentally in their hands. All indications suggest that this fundamental philosophical difference is likely to grow even more pronounced over time, particularly between Europeans and Americans.

 

R obust American demographics will also be the engine driving its economic vitality. As many other advanced countries become dominated by the elderly, the United States will have the benefit of a millennial baby boomlet: a surge in growth beginning in the decade 2010–20. This next rise in births, though it may be delayed by tough economic times, will over time add to the workforce, boost consumer spending, and allow for a new creative impetus from a generation slightly larger than the boomers.

Perhaps more important, America’s comparatively flexible business culture will be able to tap these demographics in order to meet the challenges of both new and traditional competitors. Rumors of the death of American capitalism fueled in the past year by the failures of Wall Street’s investment banks and other financial institutions have been wildly exaggerated. New investment vehicles will emerge, as will some of the more dynamic, locally based banks—most of which have avoided the most arcane and dangerous financial instruments. Some of these banks are now quite small, but they will evolve, in traditional financial centers like New York and elsewhere, as the country grows and adapts to new economic conditions.

It is also likely that many of those who used to be considered of “retirement age” will be playing an increased role in the twenty-first-century economy, in part due to the flexibility of a society that increasingly embraces home-based work and less rigid retirement schemes. Freed by new technologies and a culture that rewards entrepreneurship, many Americans, including those in their fifties and beyond, will relocate at will and consistently reinvent what they do. Similar opportunities exist in Europe and Japan, but rigid labor laws and more conservative social mores make them less likely to embrace the positive potential of older workers.

This trend was in place even before the recession of 2008–09, when nearly one in four Americans reported they did not intend to retire when they hit 65, as was once considered the norm. Some of these seniors may end up in full-time jobs, but many others will work part-time, or may serve as mentors to younger people entering businesses. In any case, the seniors may well prove less of a burden than a powerful reserve force for the American economy.

 

B etween 2000 and 2050, the vast majority of America’s net population growth will take place among racial minorities, particularly Asians and Hispanics, as well as in a growing mixed-race population. The American experiment in what Walt Whitman described as creating “the race of races” will continue to evolve. By mid-century, the United States will no longer be a “white” country, but an amalgam of racial, ethnic, and religious groups, all participants in the construction of a new kind of civilization whose roots lie not in any one country or continent, but across the entirety of human cultures and racial types. This multiracial society just now emerging in a few places—such as in southern California—will become ever more commonplace in the rest of the country. No other advanced, populous country will enjoy this kind of ethnic diversity. And in many ways these newcomers will not so much change the country’s cultural and economic exceptionalism, as enhance it through the embrace of religious faith, family, and the culture of hard work.

As they attain critical social mass, minorities and immigrants will continue their gradual move into the suburbs, where there is much less chance of creating racial enclaves than in urban neighborhoods. Even now, the best places to find America’s Hindu temples or new mosques are not in the teeming cities, but alongside churches and synagogues in the outer suburbs of Los Angeles, New York, or Houston, areas rarely dominated by one ethnicity.

The United States’ chief global rivals seem far less able to accommodate this level of immigration and integration. China, Japan, and South Korea are so culturally allergic to diversity that they are unlikely to welcome large-scale immigration, even if much of their future labor force has to go to work in walkers and wheelchairs. Given Europe’s current considerable problems integrating its immigrants, particularly Muslims, the continent seems ill disposed to open its doors further, and rather than opening their doors wider, some notionally liberal countries like Denmark and the Netherlands have begun considering measures to sharply restrict immigration.

The United Nations estimates that 2 million people will move to developed countries annually until 2050, and that more than half will come to the United States. The United States also remains by far the world’s largest destination for educated, skilled migrants. In 2001, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an association of thirty democratic, free-market countries, the United States was home to nearly 8 million skilled immigrants, equaling the combined total for Australia, Canada, and the entire European Union.

These newcomers will play a leading role in the next economic transition of the United States. The country’s increasingly diverse population will generate many of the new ideas, technological innovations, and cultural expressions of our future society. They will supply the critical manpower to run the increasingly automated and highly specialized factories, efficient farms (both large and small), and scientific laboratories of the twenty-first century. And they will be a primary source for the teachers, caretakers, and hospital workers needed to both raise large numbers of children and cope with an increasing number of the aged.

 

T he demographics of the next several decades will generate challenges as well as a promise for twenty-first-century America. While Europeans and increasingly East Asians face key challenges like an unprecedented aging of population, labor shortages, and the lack of opportunities for domestic economic growth, the United States will have to deal with an expanding number of working-age and young people. While a reduced workweek and slower economic growth might not dramatically affect Europe and East Asia, because of their rapidly aging societies, a policy of slow growth in a growing United States would be socially unsustainable. America’s greatest priority, therefore, will be creating the entrepreneurial and workforce opportunities for an ever-expanding population.

Similarly, America’s response to environmental challenges will diverge from those in Europe as well as Japan, South Korea, and other advanced Asian nations. For them, declining demographics alone may help mitigate problems linked to energy use or land management. But a growing United States will have to seek out innovative solutions, primarily through social organization and technology, to maintain rising output but with markedly less detrimental ecological impact.

While no “clash of civilizations” between us and other developed countries is in the offing, we will approach the problems of the next few decades differently, in part because of our diverging demographic prospects. This does not mean the United States cannot learn from Europe or East Asia. Some elements of European social policy—including approaches to city management, health-care systems, and fuel economy standards—deserve to be studied and perhaps emulated. Asian methods of production, technology usage, and social organization also hold promise. Civilizations have always thrived by learning from each other.

 

T he social cement binding the various groups of Americans together in the future will have little to do with bloodlines or common ancestors. Most other countries in the developing world will continue to build upon a substructure of racial identity and distinct cultural heritage, or even the manipulations of colonial mapmakers. America can continue its evolution only to the extent that it fulfills some sense of its historic mission as a purveyor of classical liberal values. This will become more, not less, important as the new powers of the twenty-first century, notably China, export what has been called their “illiberal challenge” to America’s more inclusive and democratic system.

As the British writer G. K. Chesterton put it a century ago, the United States is “the only nation . . . that is founded on a creed.” This faith is not, and was not initially meant to be, explicitly religious, but it does reflect a fundamentally spiritual idea of a national raison d’etre.

This American creed will become ever more important as the United States attempts to cope with its own growing diversity, its differentiation from other nations, and the challenge of new aspiring powers. Rather than a country that sees itself as the norm, America in the twenty-first century may become, as it was in its earliest decades, more of a great exception: a beacon and model to some; an abomination to others.

It will probably not be the hegemonic giant it remains today, but the America of 2050 may well evolve into the one truly transcendent superpower in terms of its society, technology, and culture. If it does, the United States will exercise its influence less through force and more through technological and cultural innovation, and through the dynamism of its diverse society. In this sense, the primacy of America in 2050 will rest, as Thomas Jefferson saw it back in 1817, “not on conquest, but in principles of compact and equality.”

Joel Kotkin, a scholar of urban development, is a fellow at the New America Foundation.

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