Is America still a land of promise? The biblical metaphor was used in 1785 by George Washington, who described the new United States as a “second land of promise.” More than a century later, the progressive journalist Herbert Croly wrote: “From the beginning the Land of Democracy has been figured as the Land of Promise.”
The promise might seem to have been broken to many Americans suffering the effects of the Great Recession, the worst global economic crisis since the Great Depression. The collapse of the world economy in late 2008 followed a generation in which incomes stagnated or declined for most Americans, while the rich reaped a greater share of economic growth than they had done since the years preceding the Wall Street crash of 1929.
What Herbert Croly, a century ago, called “the promise of American life” was actually two promises bundled into one: the promise of continued economic growth and the promise that the gains from growth would be equitably shared.
The promise of economic growth almost certainly will be fulfilled in the years and decades ahead. Despite the crippling effects of the pre-2008 real estate and stock market bubbles, America’s innovation machine is producing new technologies at a remarkable rate.
By vastly expanding accessible reserves of natural gas and oil, hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” may transform the U.S. from an importer to an exporter of fossil fuels, even as it brings about a welcome reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by replacing coal with lower-carbon natural gas. Rapid prototyping (better known as 3d printing), robot cars and trucks, civilian commercial drones, biosensors — all of these innovations are moving rapidly from the laboratory to the marketplace. The result will be increases in prosperity and quality of life that can hardly be imagined today.
As in the past, today’s technological advances tend to result not from private effort alone, but from partnership among the private sector, the public sector and the nonprofit sector. Public investment in research and development has been critically important in the early stages of new industries, from radio and television to nuclear energy, jet engines, the Internet, fracking, and robotics. Nonprofit research universities also play a central role in the transmission of new ideas and new products from laboratory to marketplace.
In addition to funding breakthrough science and technology, the government also has an important role as a partner of business in the provision of the public good of infrastructure, from funding railroads in the steam age to building the Internet in the information age.
Whether America’s private sector flourishes in this century will depend, in large part, on whether the public sector is provided adequate resources for research and development and infrastructure investment.
Will the benefits of technology-driven progress be widely shared? That is primarily a political question. American history proves that widely shared prosperity does not “trickle down” to most Americans. The middle class in the United States was not born, but made — and remade repeatedly — by a combination of public policy and citizen movements.
In the 19th century, exclusion of slavery from the Northern states by the Northwest Ordinances permitted the evolution of a society of middle-class farmers based on free labor, which ultimately defeated the slave plantation society of the South in the Civil War. In the 20th century, the pro-worker legislation of the New Deal, combined with widespread unionization, turned industrial workers from underpaid serfs working six or seven days a week under the thumb of company goons and spies into the suburban middle class of the 1950s and ’60s. Breaking down barriers to participation in the economy of nonwhite Americans during the Civil Rights Movement required struggles in which many bled and some died.
From the plantation owners of the South to the corporate executives of the mid-20th century and the financial sector billionaires of today, economic elites in the U.S. have fought bitterly against every extension of wealth and political power to ordinary Americans, from the abolition of slavery to the outlawing of child labor and establishment of the minimum wage. Because both parties, much of the press and the university system are dominated by the rich in any given era, change in America has ultimately come from grassroots movements demanding the inclusion of excluded groups — the abolitionists, organized labor, suffragettes, civil rights activists.
The disempowerment of the broad majority of Americans, not a lack of economic progress, is the greatest threat to the future of the U.S. as a middle-class nation. The institutions that used to represent middle-class Americans — unions, farmers’ organizations, local party machines — have crumbled as Americans have moved into the service sector and the suburbs.
In their absence, the parties have ceased to be mass organizations and have become, in effect, advertising agencies for self-financed candidates or candidates able to raise huge sums of money from rich individuals or special interest groups. Elections turn on narrowly targeted propaganda in key media markets. Between elections, the laws tend to be written for, and sometimes by, permanent lobbies in Washington.
History, which has favored the U.S. for two centuries, could pass America by. Nowhere is it written that America must remain the world’s most dynamic economy or even a middle-class society. The American dream could turn into an American nightmare of economic stagnation and permanent class hierarchy.
But the challenges faced by today’s Americans are dwarfed by those that other Americans successfully overcame in the past, from saving the Union during the Civil War to rising from the Great Depression to save the world from totalitarian tyranny. Again and again, from the 18th century to the 21st, the American republic has successfully reinvented itself. It may take time, but only a foolish gambler would bet against the ability of the American people once again to make their country a better place to live.
As Winston Churchill observed during the dark days before U.S. entry into World War II, “The Americans can be counted upon to do the right thing, when they have exhausted the alternatives.”
Michael Lind is co-founder of The New America Foundation and author of “Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.”