In most parts of the world, change occurs only very slowly or with the accompaniment of great violence. To any society that has a cultural identity, change is usually a feared and hated thing, since to admit the need for change is to deny some central truth about oneself.
In the United States, change is worshipped. The ability to gain confidence from knowing you are continually on the move, that nothing is irrevocably settled, that anything can be altered, is a unique quality of Americans. We are the only people in the world who instinctively know that no truth serves justice in all circumstances and that practical knowledge can flow only from constant reevaluation.
This thirst for change makes this country an extremely activistic place and, in our politics, whichever group of people or political party has been looked to as the definer of activism has won most of the elections. Between 1860 and 1932, the Republicans defined activism. In election after election, they harped on the need to industrialize the country, give free land to those who would settle it and even stated the need for this country to take its place among the great countries of the world; this meant we needed colonies, so we provoked the Spanish-American War and got some.
Through this period, it was the Democrats who took the less enviable role of critic, often screaming that we must stop going so fast, that there were problems that begged for solution, that the country might go bankrupt, that the sky would fall; and, of course, for their efforts at caution, the Democrats were rewarded with only two presidents during that 72-year period, both under circumstances in which the Republicans were divided.
In 1932, the pivotal political role of the definer of activism shifted into the hands of the Democrats. Franklin Roosevelt defined activism in terms of federal power and promised that by extensive use of this omnipotent power we could fashion a society far better than anything we had previously known. Now the Republicans appeared in the critic's role, and as the Democrats went about the business of finding new problems to solve with federal initiative, the Republicans were heard to say things like: "Stop!" "Don't do it." "The sky will fall." "Something terrible is going to happen." "The country will go bankrupt!" Of course, we all know who has been winning most of the elections for the last 50 years, during which time the Republicans elected only two presidents, both under circumstances in which the Democrats were somewhat divided.
To me, the most interestng aspect of this last campaign was that the Democrats have lost control over the activist side of the political debate. Whether you listened to Teddy Kennedy, Jimmy Carter or Jerry Brown during the last two years, what you heard was an assumption that the future was likely to be a terrible time for this country and that we must simply adjust to this reality by learning to conserve so we can all survive. The Democrats spoke in terms of "limits" and "lowered expectations," and President Carter sort of maintained that while he couldn't point to much progress during his administration, we should all accept the fact that there were no real solutions to our problems anyway.
To say that nothing can be done may be an acceptable political position elsewhere in the world, but it has never been, and I hope never will be, acceptable here. We are the only people in the world who strongly believe that man can do something about his circumstances; that he need not accept what others tell him about the reality of his life; and that the mark of a truly valuable person is whether he is willing to realize that extra dimension that exist in all human beings to thwart what would otherwise be reality.
As much as for any other reason, Ronald Reagan was elected because of an emotional rejection of the idea that our present existence must be tolerated, that we must tell our children to make the best of things because there are no solutions, that those in our society who have not yet tasted the fruits of their own achievement will never have the opportunity. Americans cannot say such things and will never agree with leaders who think they are true.
The Democrats have admitted that they are out of ideas, that the limits of the use of federal power as a tool to implement activism and solve problems have been reached. The people have authorized Reagan to try something different. The election 1984 will tell a lot about whether the Republicans or some new group in the Demoratic Party can grab hold of the activist side of the political debate, but the country feels better already. Things are changing, you can feel confidence returning, everything is up for grabs again. It's great to be an American; anybody else would be scared to death.