New New Things

The American idea has always involved innovation.

Alexis de Tocqueville’s observations about our country in 1831 can be paraphrased as: America is unique because of its abundance of land, its absence of aristocracy, and its democratic and equalitarian institutions and values. In different ways, these all reflect the possibility of newness—new places, new people with a chance to be heard, new institutions that must newly earn and re-earn their influence.

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The American Idea
Scholars, novelists, politicians, artists, and others look ahead to the future of the American idea.

America’s history of innovation has drawn on the inherent optimism of Americans, even when realities are discouraging; the strong commitment to education, and particularly higher education; the egalitarian nature of our culture, with its creed that “anyone can grow up to be successful and rich”; and the remarkable success of our democracy when confronted with the great challenges of modern life.

What is most remarkable is that these values and virtues still apply, and that America therefore continues to grow, despite all the dire warnings we hear. Its culture still fosters growth in ideas, in wealth and health, and especially in the capabilities of its people.

America’s land lets us dream of solar farms and fields of switchgrass or other sources of fuel that would help eliminate our dependence on oil. The absence of aristocracy lets us believe that anyone can become president, and the presence of democracy lets us throw out our bad governments before it’s too late. The egalitarian values, passed on in a broad system of public schooling and reflected in and enhanced by tolerance of immigration, let us celebrate entrepreneurship—a French word, an American reality—despite its continually destabilizing effects.

Obviously we face great challenges, but earlier generations have faced far worse: civil war, world wars, childhood diseases like polio. America’s resilience, past and present, is really about culture and values—culture based on equal opportunity, and values based on education and ambition. No one predicted the new gilded age of hedge funds or the scale of the Internet; we can’t predict the future, but we know the American story will continue. This means we can overcome all the challenges we obsess about now—and all the new ones we have not yet invented.