Two years into the pandemic, there seems to be little cause for celebration. Three-quarters of a million Americans are dead, cases are rising yet again as the Omicron variant threatens to evade our vaccines’ defenses, four million fewer Americans are employed than before the pandemic, inflation is rising, and few would argue that Joe Biden’s promised “time to heal” has arrived at home. American politics and society are just as rancorous as ever, and it is hard to cast aside the creeping suspicion that many political actors are drumming up rage and vituperation precisely because they have run out of ideas for addressing the pandemic, just as they have for many of the body politic’s preexisting conditions.
The picture is even darker when we look abroad. The collapse in global tourism has devastated our southern neighbors, and the pandemic’s other effects are fueling much of the disquiet along the border. Russia is ruthlessly exploiting Europe’s dependence on its energy exports and is threatening another wave of violence in Ukraine. China’s behavior is becoming more threatening, particularly against Taiwan, and the US military advantage over China is rapidly disappearing. Drone and missile strikes reverberate across the Middle East, and Iran’s nuclear enrichment program is proceeding apace.
Despite the gloomy outlook, there are several reasons for hope this Advent season. This is not nearly the darkest period in American or global history, and there are good reasons to believe that the US still possesses all the tools needed to revitalize the country and stabilize the international system. The question is whether we will use them effectively.
Although many see in our desultory politics a sign of decadence and even a warning of civilizational collapse, it is closer to the historical norm in the US than we often admit. Although great leaders have emerged on occasion, the most important sources of American strength rarely reside in Washington. Put another way, Americans have rarely succeeded because of judicious decisions made by our political elite; more commonly, as citizens make their own way, the country prospers and grows stronger.
Fortunately for all, the US preserved perhaps its most important national asset throughout the pandemic: the financial system. As Alexander Hamilton argued, “It is impossible for a Country to contend on equal terms, or to be secure against the enterprises of other nations without being able equally with them to avail itself” of public credit. Without reliable access to relatively inexpensive loans, the US economy could not grow, and the government would be unable to defend the country in times of war or other emergencies. Despite several poor decisions over the intervening two centuries, American credit has become so reliable that the dollar is a prized asset in tumultuous times. Indeed, it became too valuable as the pandemic spread and the rush for dollars threatened to create a global financial catastrophe. The Federal Reserve’s deft maneuvers stabilized the global economy and preserved America’s role at the center of the global financial system. Even as our inflation ticks up, investors and other countries are still eager to buy dollars.
The US is also poised to lead in important technologies that will determine the future of economic growth. The Chinese Communist Party has cracked down on its most dynamic tech companies and reportedly plans to close off one of the most important sources of foreign funding for its tech sector, our most formidable rival. Moreover, China is utterly dependent on semiconductors imported from US partners and allies, and many of the machines that produce semiconductors rely on American and allied technology. Beijing’s ability to compete in artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies may be harmed significantly if the top Chinese companies fall afoul of American human rights and other sanctions. In addition, although the mRNA vaccines have not prevented the spread of COVID-19, the immense promise of that technology indicates that the US has an important lead in the upcoming “bio revolution” that could transform agriculture and the health industry.
Although material factors often seem easier to measure and predict than intangible ones, there are also some signs that the decline in our country’s spiritual health is slowing or perhaps even stopping. Generation Z, made up of Americans born after 1996, attends church more frequently than Millennials or Generation X does. Many members of Generation Z are not yet adults and may only go to church because their family does, but if they continue to go, that is a good sign for our civic health. Our politics are so rancorous now in part because the main subjects of debate are fundamental questions about the purpose of American society and the goals of American life. It is far better for people to engage in this contest while grounded in something more lasting and enduring than current fads. If, like Christianity, it is true, even better.
This is a dark time, and there is much to be done. But there are yet reasons to hope. After Great Britain suffered a calamitous setback during the Revolutionary War, Adam Smith noted calmly that “there is a great deal of ruin in a nation.” Britain not only recovered from losing the American colonies, but it also sustained its place as the greatest power on earth. That is still possible for us today.