Michael Kazin says America is an optimistic nation





What does it mean when 86 percent of the Americans surveyed last week by CNN/Opinion Research Corp. say they believe that their system of government is broken?

It probably means, Michael Kazin says, that Americans are behaving like they always do. A repeated theme in American history, says Kazin, a historian at Georgetown University, "is Americans believing the country is in decline and then finding ways to rebound from both the fear of decline and the problems that gave rise to that fear."

There is reason for optimism, says Kazin, who specializes in populist movements and is the editor of The Princeton Encyclopedia of American Political History.

For one thing, populist movements similar to, for example, Tea Parties, have reared up repeatedly in American history to rail against social inequities and faltering financial systems. But rather than heralding the end of the republic, he says, they "often spur politicians to make changes that in the end make the country stronger."

Americans apparently understand this: Of the 86 percent in the survey who thought the government was broken, 81 percent say that it could be fixed.

"Most Americans are still optimistic about the future of the country," Kazin says, "and even of politics."

Kazin's most recent book is "A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan." He is also co-editor of Dissent magazine.

He talked to CNN.com last week (the interview has been edited for length)....

CNN: You have said that the United States is doing rather well, and that what is in decline is a myth that America will always be richer, freer, and superior to other nations. So the country is not in decline?

Kazin: I think we are in trouble, but that's not the same as saying we're in decline. We have an economic crisis, unsolved problems, our political situation is deadlocked, many Americans are unhappy with the government.

But we've been there before. In the 1930's there was such a period: the Great Depression. And what came afterward was victory in World War II and then the greatest sustained economic boom in American history.

One of the continuing themes in American history is Americans believing the country is in decline and then finding ways to rebound from both the fear of decline and the problems that gave rise to that fear. I see no reason to believe that won't happen again....



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