01/25/2011 09:46 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Source of America's Future Greatness

Much of America is in a funk. Americans (71 percent of them anyway) think things are "going pretty badly or very badly in the country today" (CNN, Dec 2010). Sixty-three percent think America is on the "wrong track" (NBC/Wall Street Journal, Dec 2010). These figures are not surprising, perhaps, given the state of the economy, politics, and world affairs.

The latest contribution to this Chicken Little portrait is the result of a Harris poll that asked what Americans believe will be "a major contributor to making the country great" in "the next ten years." Since the same question was asked in 1975, the comparison is enlightening.

Of 24 factors, only one was cited as likely to be a major contributor to making American great in the next decade by more than two-thirds of those polled: "Living under a system of guaranteed individual freedom" (68 percent). In contrast, 15 factors were cited in 1975 (which was, lest we forget, just a year after Watergate and the same year in which helicopters snatched the last Americans out of Vietnam as it was overrun from the North).

For every factor, this decline in optimism was evident. For example, "people of different ideas representing the rights of others" saw a 29 point drop (from 77 to 48 percent); "rich natural resources" dropped 27 points (79 to 52); "industrial know-how and scientific progress" fell 26 points (86 to 60); and "allowing people to own private property" fell 22 points (82 to 60).

The pessimism seemed particularly marked generationally, with Echo-Boomers (18-33) reporting lower percentages in every factor compared to older age cohorts, with the largest gaps being between them and Matures (65+). For example, "hard working people" as a source of America's greatness in the next decade was cited by 81 percent of Matures but only 48 percent of Echo-Boomers.

The post-Watergate funk was followed by Ronald Reagan's "It's Morning Again in America" campaign in 1984, so the current pessimism may well be followed by a similar appeal to Americans to feel better about themselves. Indeed, we are already hearing Republican charges that President Obama does not believe in American exceptionalism -- the notion that America is a unique nation with special character, if not divine providence, that guides it to greatness and leadership of the world. Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin have both leveled this charge.

If thinking America is special and great would make it so, than this looming conversation might be worth having. But thinking rarely makes things so, or losing weight would be far easier than it is. We should also remember that President Reagan presided over a huge increase in the national debt, and if it was indeed "morning again in America" in the mid-1980s, how do we explain the results of the latest Harris Poll? Morning must have turned to night pretty quickly, despite the fact that, since Reagan took office in 1980, a Democrat has been in the White House only a third of the time.

Rather than bemoaning America's loss of greatness or insisting that greatness is only a mindset away, we would seem better served by a conversation about what that greatness really consists of and what is needed to produce it. The Harris Poll does not define what a "great country" looks like, and no doubt Americans' answers would be nearly as varied as Americans. Yet some consensus on this question is essential to prevent the squandering of effort and resources on such disparate goals that we never reach any of them. If we want greatness, then we need to know what greatness is, for if everything is a priority for our efforts, then nothing is.

The 24 factors that the Harris Poll seems to think constitute the means to greatness require some conversation as well. There are some curious omissions: reducing the national and personal debt, enhancing American's infrastructure, improving educational outcomes, leveraging the diversity of America to strengthen the economy and social fabric, and providing meaningful employment for all those willing to work are not in its poll.

As Chicken Little learned, you need to gather some evidence, exercise sound judgment and have moral courage before you run off convinced that the world is going to end. This may be a lesson worth recalling as we get bombarded by doomsayers and rainbow promises from the Left and Right over the next two years.

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