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Stop trashing America's future

By John P. Avlon, CNN Contributor
  • John Avlon: It's become fashionable to say the American Dream is dead or dying
  • He says such talk is a reflection of today's difficult economic times
  • Avlon says America has faced much worse problems and has found ways to thrive
  • He says diversity, innovation, freedom are powerful reasons to think future is bright

Editor's note: John Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for The Daily Beast. He is the author of "Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America."

New York (CNN) -- Here's a New Year's resolution for the nation in 2011: Stop predicting the death of the American Dream.

This has become a popular parlor game in recent years, boosted by the malaise that always comes with a bad economy. Article after article speculates that America's best days might be behind us. It's also a symptom of the broader narcissism of the baby boom generation -- now that they're hitting 65, they feel like America must be sun-setting as well. It's not.

Yes, we've got serious challenges to face as a nation. But what era in American history has been pain-free? Heroic moments come with hard times.

We often glamorize the past, in large part because it's past. We know how it all turned out -- usually for the best. And if the past seemed comparatively pure and simple, that's because the people doing the reminiscing were children at the time, comparatively pure and simple themselves.

Particularly since the election of President Barack Obama, talk radio has been full of fantasies about the 1940s and '50s, a time of reigning small-town American values that are, according to this script, currently under conscious assault.

It remains unspoken that this rural and suburban idyll took place in a still-segregated America -- an inconvenient fact if you take the word freedom beyond a bumper sticker. Women's equality and gay rights were a distant dream. What passed for diversity was a measure of white ethnic immigrants being slowly and often reluctantly accepted by the WASP establishment.

All of which is a way of saying that America is always changing, we are always evolving -- often in fits and starts -- but usually in the right direction.

That itself is a reflection of the expanding franchise of the American dream. My grandparents' generation, dubbed "the greatest generation," was great precisely because it overcame huge obstacles. First, they faced the Great Depression and then World War II.

For the better part of two decades, Americans witnessed civilized nations being overtaken by demagogues and dueling utopian fantasies of communism and fascism that ultimately left millions of people murdered in their wake. Conventional wisdom among the chattering class was that democracy could not compete with dictatorships because of the inherent inefficiencies that came with freedom.

These were not simple times. They were piled high with difficulty, a clear and present danger that dwarfs even the serious threats we still face from radical Islamic terrorists.

We know that civilization will ultimately defeat these violent fanatics even if there are future terrorist attacks. It is a reason for vigilance and resilience, not internal accusations of weakness or defeatism. And the rise of major nations such as China and India as economic competitors is a dream of harmony compared with the rise of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in the 20th century.

The baby boomer generation confronted one of the worst years in American history -- 1968 -- when Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated within months of each other.

American cities burned in riots that summer, and we were embroiled in Vietnam, with thousands of casualties each month. Whatever turbulence we face right now, it is far short of that tumultuous summer.

And the 1960s were a walk in the park compared with the 1860s, when the nation erupted into the bloodiest war in our history, with hundreds of thousands of Americans killed on both sides. One of our greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln, was assassinated days after the war ended, to be succeeded by one of our worst, Andrew Johnson, an alcoholic from Tennessee.

During the Great Depression, only three out of four Americans could find work. Today, the number is nine out of 10.

Today's joblessness is too high, and the long-term squeeze undergone by the middle class should be a national scandal, but we have been through far worse as a nation and emerged ultimately stronger.

One of the prime complaints we hear today about America is that business reacts badly to uncertainty. But by definition, the future is always uncertain. Deal with it.

Even the decades that seem like consensus "good times" in the rearview mirror of history were fraught with ups and downs and crises of national self-confidence.

We remember the 1980s and 1990s as times of great prosperity (aided by the fact that the baby boomers were in their fit and trim 30s and 40s). But I recently rediscovered the 75th anniversary edition of Forbes from 1992. The cover headline presented the theme of the entire issue -- "Why We Feel So Bad ... When We Have It So Good."

Inside were authors ranging from Saul Bellow and John Updike to Henry Louis Gates and Peggy Noonan analyzing the angst. Noonan's typically graceful essay offers this psychic snapshot: "Another thing has changed in our lifetimes: People don't have faith in America's future anymore."

Stop and remember that this was two years after the fall of the Soviet Union. Democracy and capitalism had defeated communist dictatorships after a half-century-long Cold War. Yes, we were weathering a mild recession, but it came after the Wall Street boom of the 1980s and ahead of the internet innovations of the 1990s. And yet national decline was the topic of conversation.

Moments of doubt and disaffection are part of the human condition. It is not a problem exclusive to America. It is not a reflection upon or the responsibility of any given president.

America has weathered far worse storms than those of our times.
--John Avlon
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The current round of doomsaying has been fueled in part by something different and more cynical -- a political culture in which extreme partisans on both sides believe they can gain tactical advantage if people think the country is going to hell.

Fear is a powerful recruiting tool in this business plan. It leaves professional polarizers in the media and politics rooting for a president's failure. Democrats did it toward the end of Bush's term and now Republicans do it to Obama. But you can't run down a country in the hopes of then being called upon to raise it up.

When you view our nation's problems with a sense of historic perspective, you quickly see that America has weathered far worse storms than those of our times.

The American Dream is alive and well. The franchise is expanding to a broader group than ever before. We have strengths that previous generations did not have -- and we have different problems as well. That's life. We need to toughen up and straighten our civic backbone. We need to build bipartisan determination to deal with challenges ranging from terrorist threats to cutting the deficit and paying down the national debt.

Each generation is given the opportunity and the obligation to confront the challenges of its time.

Americans today have rational reasons for optimism as we face the future. We are a diverse, dynamic and innovative nation founded on an ideal of freedom that continues to inspire individuals around the world. Together, we will keep the American experiment strong and growing as we work to form a more perfect union.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John P. Avlon.

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