DECADES are tantalizing things. There is no reason why, as arbitrary lines on history's calendar, they should oblige the analyst who wishes to discuss distinct periods of change. And yet, in the US in this century, they have often shown remarkable internal coherence. The 1930s were a span uniquely dominated by the Great Depression, the 1940s by World War II, and so on. In much the same way, the country's political experience of the 1980s has theme and coherence. The decade began with national confidence at its lowest ebb since the depression. From this low, however, developments and events occurred to turn things around, and the decade ended with public confidence at high levels. If, as I think a reading of US history indicates, Americans have usually been confident about their prospects, personal and national alike, the '80s achieved a return to ``normalcy.''
It was just over 10 years ago, on July 15, 1979, that the president of the United States said the country was in crisis. ``It is a crisis of confidence,'' Jimmy Carter told us, ``that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will.... The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and political fabric of America.''
One simply can't imagine any prominent politician talking this way today. But in 1979 both analysts and events were encouraging this view. Daniel Bell, the distinguished sociologist, had proclaimed ``the end of American exceptionalism,'' in arguing that we were experiencing a long-term loss of faith in the country's future.
Survey research documents the precipitous decline in public confidence over the '70s. A number of the measures reached their all-time rock bottom early in 1980. For example, in a May 1980 poll for Time, Yankelovich found only 21 percent of Americans saying that things in the US were going very well or even fairly well - the lowest proportion ever recorded.
Surveys also document the sharp recovery of the '80s. By the middle of the decade, the proportion believing things were going well in the country had climbed into the 60 to 70 percent range - where it has remained. Last month Gallup found 82 percent of the public professing optimism about their own future, 71 percent about the country's. In the same survey, 74 percent expected their financial situation to get better over the next 10 years, and 77 percent looked to improvements in the overall quality of life.
Three sets of developments have contributed much to the upswing.
Political restoration. The sense of political failure was palpable in the '70s. In contrast, successful governance has seemed within reach over the '80s. Rather than being chewed up by ``unmanageable'' problems, presidents have been handsomely reelected, or elected as the chosen successor of the past incumbent.
Economic restoration. The US economy will stand at about $5.4 trillion, in annual GNP, at the end of 1989, up from $2.6 trillion in the first quarter of 1980. Inflation accounts for some of this nominal growth, but even in real terms, using dollars of constant (1982) purchasing power, GNP rose by 31 percent over the decade. And inflation has been under control.
What about the specter of Japan, Inc., and its challenge to America's economic future? It's a big, complex, competitive world, and US businessmen and policymakers mustn't fall asleep at the controls. Still, the country's overall standing vis-`a-vis Japan has held up well in the 1980s. Economists for the respected Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) compute indices that express each country's per capita gross national product in terms (called purchasing power parities, or PPPs) of what it will actually buy among domestic goods and services.
In 1980, the per capita GNP of the US was $11,800, that of Japan $7,950 - in dollars adjusted to express purchasing power. By 1987, the latest year available, US per capita GNP was $18,338, that of Japan $13,182. This means that the economies of the two countries have, in terms of real purchasing power terms, been growing at comparable rates over the decade - and that the US is far ahead.
International restoration. From American perspectives, the most extraordinary gains of the 1980s have occurred not domestically but around the world, in the advance of ideals and institutions the US has long championed. The public had been told repeatedly that, if it would only stay the course in national defense and other commitments, not only could peace be maintained but an extension of democracy might be possible. Most dramatically in Eastern Europe today, but all around the planet during the '80s, we have seen this claim borne out and our commitment generously recognized.
Thus, the restoration of public confidence in the US rests on an ample foundation. Pessimists rightly worry about whether the foundation can be maintained - but they should not begrudge us optimists for taking satisfaction in what has been built these past ten years.