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The First Universal Nation: Leading Indicators and Ideas About the Surge of America in the 1990s
By Ben J. Wattenberg
The Free Press, 418 pages, $22.95

Ben Wattenberg is America’s most prominent optimist. He is notoriously reassuring about the condition of what has in his mind become “the first universal nation.” Its influence, he suggests, is global—not only militarily but in vital economic and social areas as well. Wattenberg’s long-standing optimism about developments leading to this apotheosis has to a great extent been confirmed by recent events abroad such as the fall of Communism and the reassertion of American power in the Middle East. When it comes to conditions at home, though, the situation is less clear.

Nevertheless, Wattenberg’s current gathering of op-ed articles from the past ten years (along with afterthoughts and supporting tables) shows him usually to have had the better of the argument against the relentless pessimism that pervades so much of contemporary social analysis. Somehow the pessimists managed to dominate public discussion during a period of American success that might have been expected to produce nothing but cockeyed optimists. Paul Kennedy’s Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987), with its warning against military expenses and imperial overstretch, was a representative work of the time. Against it, Wattenberg notes that U.S. spending on defense as a percentage of GNP has actually dropped, that the country is not in economic decline, and that Japan is not about to surpass us. In sum, Wattenberg (characteristically) concludes, Kennedy is “wrong, wrong, wrong.”

Wattenberg is convincing when he combines statistics and impressions to argue that America has grown into a global power through its economic productivity and the force of its ideas instead of through imperial conquest. “It is not an accident,” he refreshingly writes, “that America holds the technological lead in aircraft, airlines, pharmaceuticals, computers, biotechnology, plastics, synthetic fibers, telecommunications equipment, and petroleum exploration, to only begin a very long list.”

Two recent news stories confirm Wattenberg’s optimism; indeed, they almost seem to have had his name on them. The first reveals that contrary to some dozen years of talk about the economy’s decline in manufacturing jobs, drop in output, and shift to an unproductive service society. American manufacturing has actually been on a steady rise. The second story shows America not just holding onto but increasing its lead in science. “The United Stales,” the New York Times reports, “publishes the highest quality scientific articles, at least as judged by the number of citations they receive, and by this measure the quality of American work has steadily increased over the last decade.” So long, therefore, as the terms of debate about America’s condition are overall optimism/pessimism, Wattenberg serves as an effective counter to the fashionable defeatism of recent years.  

On the other hand, when the debate is not exclusively about the broadest overall measures or the macrocosmic perspective. Wattenberg’s arguments do not always persuade. He defends American education on the evidence of increased government spending, high ratings for American universities by East Asian scholars, public opinion surveys that show a return of confidence in higher education, and Harvard Provost Henry Rosovsky’s report that his university asks “who is the best person in the world to fill a particular vacancy, and then we try to convince that scholar to join our ranks.”

But government spending can be ineffective. East Asian scholars are likely to be concerned with scientific education alone, public opinion is no objective guide to reality (elsewhere Wattenberg defends lower schools because 77 percent of children “like school”), and Provost Rosovsky, apart from having obviously self-serving motives, has shown himself to be a disseminator of educational trends that Wattenberg himself opposes elsewhere—as when he writes, “The ideology in the humanities (by my lights) is often naively super-liberal.”

Indeed, much of the failure of American education has precisely to do with the humanities, and hence with the role of culture in society. What does it mean to society that the humanities have been debased? This is not a question that can be answered with the conclusion, “Still, we’re number one.” When the critical thinking fostered by humanities education is neglected, science and technology themselves are put at risk. This conclusion is suggested by Wattenberg’s own chart—duly reproduced but not discussed—showing American thirteen-year-olds to stand last in math and science achievement among nine international student groups tested. Presumably, these are the same kids who like school and are the beneficiaries of higher education spending. They are on their way to colleges where antihumanists, with Wattenberg’s blessing, are choosing those whom they regard as the best professors in the world. What East Asian scholars think of science departments, admittedly less affected by this trend, is not necessarily cause for comfort; after all, they value the departments as places to send their own students to train before returning home.

Wattenberg thinks of himself as particularly sensitive to the cultural dimension, notably in his contrast of America’s ideational global stretch with the expansionism of the imperial powers in Kennedy’s book. “It’s culture that counts,” he writes in discussing American world influence. He has in mind Coca-Cola, jeans, pop music, and Kojak, all of which he is happy to celebrate so long as they spread American influence. To be sure, a better world order has probably been nurtured by some of the worst elements in American culture. But Wattenberg gives no indication that he sees this as a paradox. Nor does he consider the baleful effects of the same elements at home, where the pop spectacle hardly seems to call for unrestrained boosterism, but rather for some nuanced cultural analysis.

That Wattenberg reads and understands such cultural analysis is clear from his respectful references to social critics less optimistic than himself. One might even argue that his concessions to other critics add up to an indictment of American society and culture more severe than most pessimists would hazard. We face “formidable problems,” he concedes, among them crime, drugs, and quotas. “We need environmental spending, federal health research, highway spending, monetary aid to the poor.” In deference to Charles Murray, it is conceded that “there are massive problems among some young blacks these days”: “high crime, poor education and out-of-wedlock birth” (elsewhere played down as a serious problem), “permissiveness, quotas, criminal coddling, welfare laxness.”

In education, for example, he acknowledges that many high school graduates cannot write coherently and that, “ironically, higher [college] enrollment levels can harm quality.” Even the kids who like school “do feel that there are big problems among our youngsters”: “more than half the teenagers observed ‘a lot’ of smoking (52 percent), drinking (37 percent), sexual activity (30 percent), crime (19 percent), drug abuse (19 percent), marijuana (23 percent), teenage pregnancy (13 percent), crack/cocaine use (6 percent).” It all adds up to . . . well, to something more complex than Wattenberg’s cheery conclusion that regarding education the “good news is that people are paying attention to the bad news.”

But for all the minor contradictions and inconsistencies in his evaluation of the state of the nation, Ben Wattenberg offers a valuable witness in an age when commentators, unlike the general public, routinely predict shipwreck for the American ship of state without taking into account the accident-prevention equipment on board. Wattenberg’s record on most issues has been good—with the notable exceptions of fertility (which did not continue its decline as he predicted) and Iraq, which proved not to have been “weakened immeasurably.” On the more subtle cultural issues, his concessions show that he recognizes the persistence of specific problems, even if he does not integrate those concessions into his overall assessment. Those looking for an analysis that takes national shortcomings more seriously will have to go elsewhere—and be willing to be far less entertained than by the vigorous, confident prose of The First Universal Nation.

Peter Shaw is Will and Ariel Durant Professor of Humanities for 1990-1991 at St. Peter’s College, Jersey City, NJ. His most recent book is The War Against the Intellect: Episodes in the Decline of Discourse (University of Iowa Press).