Thirty years ago this summer, during the spectacle of the Clarence Thomas hearings, the late Judge Robert Bork said to the late Irving Kristol, "This is truly the end of Western civilization." Kristol, upon hearing Bork's assessment, agreed but put his own spin on things: "Of course it is. But it'll take a long time. Meanwhile, it's still possible to live well."
These days, conservatives once again have good reasons to be down. Progressive Democrats are in charge of the presidency and both houses of Congress. (Narrowly, to be sure, but in charge.) A global pandemic has vastly expanded the power and ambition of government. Deficits continue to climb, and the national debt is close to unmanageable levels, with tax hikes and inflation likely to follow. The media, universities, and now woke corporations all seem dedicated to imposing their favored policies while shutting out the views of others.
Despite all this, Kristol's advice still pertains. While it is clear that conservatives have their work cut out for them, if you take a moment and look around, you can count multiple blessings that you rarely think about. In five of the most prominent elements of our daily lives, food, transportation, information, entertainment, and medicine, all of them have witnessed tremendous innovations that we may feel we cannot live without but, in truth, have not lived with for very long.
When it comes to food, the sustenance of our daily lives, we have more, cheaper, and safer options than ever before in history. An American today who had to revert to the food options of even the 1990s would find himself depressed at the lack of choices and capabilities now available. If you want to go out for your morning coffee, you can order it on your app and have a customized drink ready for you when you arrive. No more waiting for coffee; the coffee now waits for us. Similarly, in restaurants, you can now speed things up by ordering off tablets that have pictures of each dish, while apps such as Grubhub or Uber Eats allow quick and easy home delivery of restaurant food at a reasonable price.
As for cuisine, there are so many more options available, and they are easier than ever to find. In the Jimmy Carter administration, the joke used to be, lose an election, gain an ethnic restaurant, as foreign policy losses would bring refugees with new cuisines to America. Today, we don't need a nation to turn communist for new types of food to reach our shores, or for the blending of two (or more) types of cuisine for new fusion restaurants, or even products. Recent years have brought tasty innovations such as cronuts (croissants and donuts) or duffins (donuts and muffins) and new food trends such as poke, a Hawaiian dish made popular in the mainland in the 2010s. Existing forms of produce, such as Brussels sprouts, have been improved so that they are tastier and more popular than ever (with apologies to the millions who can't stand even the new and improved versions). If you are vegetarian, or vegan, or lactose intolerant, or gluten-free, or some combination of the above, there are now alternatives so those with food challenges can feel like they are not missing out.
If you prefer preparing your own food, options abound as well. Recipes for any kind of dish are available at the ready, and a plethora of videos allow you to learn the mechanics of making nearly any dish from top-flight chefs. Instead of grocery shopping, you can order home delivery electronically for a reasonable fee, and food trucks have brought new variety and convenience into most major American cities. Or you can have a service such as HelloFresh or Freshly send you the ingredients and instructions for preparing meals at home. Once you are cooking, new inventions such as the InstaPot, juicers, and air fryers make preparation easier, while innovations such as at-home sous vide make once pricey cooking styles available for the masses.
If you want to leave the home, transportation is also easier than ever. Cars are better than before, they last longer and break down less, and new innovations such as rearview cameras make backing up, and teaching your teenager how to back up, far safer and simpler. To figure out where you are going, GPS-enabled direction apps such as Waze or Google Maps let you drive without planning out every turn in advance or, worse, keeping a paper map in your lap while trying to navigate a complex and unfamiliar environment. After many, many false starts, electric cars appear to be a real and, in some cases, superior alternative.
Those same options also make travel away from home easier as well. Uber has effectively made being taxied about affordable for the masses, and many a trip that once would have required a rental car now entails just relying on Uber. These alternatives also significantly curtail drunken driving. In 2019, before the pandemic, deaths from alcohol-related crashes reached their lowest rate since the United States began compiling data on the subject.
It is also now far more convenient to plan one's trip. No longer do you have to lug around a dog-eared copy of Fodor's to figure out where to go and what to do. One can plan one's trip in advance, buy tickets or make reservations for highly sought-after exhibits or events, and update plans based on real-time information rather than last year's Lonely Planet guide. For a kosher traveler, of which I am one, an app such as Kosher GPS or Kosher Near Me can tell you how far you are from a kosher restaurant at any given moment. Instead of a small booklet of tickets that are easily lost, electronic reservations make it easier to get on a plane, and to check in before you get there, avoiding long lines. And air travel, COVID-19 aside, is safer than ever. There has not been a fatal crash on a domestic commercial flight in over a decade.
Many, but not all, of these travel-related benefits derive from improved access to information and communication. These two areas have moved us to a place that is leaps and bounds better than where we were three decades ago. Communication is now visual, cheap, and instantaneous. This is a massive shift in just the lifetime of a young adult. In the late 1990s, email was something you had to go to your desktop to check. In the 2000s, video calls were clunky and unreliable. Texting until recently had to be done, painstakingly, on a telephone-style keyboard, and there were charges that accrued per text. It was not that long ago that people noted and worried about the cost of international calls. Today, almost anyone can have a video chat anywhere around the world. Texting is ubiquitous and instantaneous. Young people live on these technologies, but they are simple enough that old people can and do use them, albeit occasionally with humorous results. The high-tech "communicators" of the show Star Trek, which was set in the 22nd century, are now far surpassed by basic smartphone models.
With the ability to communicate comes the ability to share information widely. Heather Mac Donald often makes the point that the so-called "victims" on today's college campuses are, in fact, privileged in a way that they cannot even comprehend. As she puts it, "Any college student today, at virtually any American college, is among the most privileged human beings in history, simply by virtue of having at his fingertips the thing which Faust sold his soul for: knowledge." If you want access to the complete works of Shakespeare, the works of Homer, the entirety of the Bible (in numerous translations and with reams of commentary), it is there for the asking. So are the GDP, capital, and population of any nation in the world. And you don't have to go to college to get this information. Courses of study in any field are readily available, to such an extent that the MOOC (Massive Online Open Courses) model may soon threaten the existence of higher educational institutions. This is also good news, as many colleges have descended into becoming woke indoctrination centers, a phenomenon that can potentially be rectified via the kind of external competitive challenge that the MOOC concept represents.
The ways that we now distribute information have also affected the world of entertainment. Here we must deal with one of the things that has gotten affirmatively worse over the last three decades, which is major Hollywood movies. Not much gets made outside of "tentpoles" — movies based on an existing franchise, such as Marvel Comics (pretty good, actually) or Star Wars (less good) — or woke dramas that, in the words of Bill Maher, make one "want to take a bath with a toaster." As a result, the general state of Hollywood theatrical releases is pretty dismal. This is not just one person's opinion. Fewer than 10 million tuned in to see the Oscars this year. The family-friendly, universally appealing dramas and comedies of the past appear to be gone.
The good news, though, is that the decline of the studio release has been accompanied by, and to some extent caused by, an explosion of actually entertaining alternatives. TV, by nearly all accounts, is better than ever, with the cookie-cutter monopoly of the big networks now broken and supplemented by a variety of top-notch comedies and dramas on a multitude of platforms. If your predilections are for the old stuff, on TV or film, that is available as well, and home screens are bigger and better than ever. If you are a reader, it is easier than ever to get any title in traditional paper, or in an e-reader or audiobook format. And for those auditorily inclined, the entirely new world of podcasts emerged in the last 20 years. With 2,000,000 podcasts and over 48 million episodes available, anyone can find something that suits his or her interests at any time.
Finally, our ability to live to enjoy these benefits has been (largely) increasing as well. Modern medicine is far better at treating cancer and HIV-AIDS than it was just a generation ago. According to infectious disease doctor John Bartlett, "In 1996, a 20-year-old person in the U.S. with AIDS expected to live about three to five years and now expects to live to be 69 years. That is amazing." Partially as a result of new treatments, life expectancy reached 78.8 years in 2018, up a full two years since 2000. It has subsequently declined slightly but is likely to increase again once we are past the current COVID crisis.
Beyond life-and-death issues, we have the ability to live our lives in greater physical comfort. LASIK eye surgeries, which the FDA did not even approve until 1995, have become steadily better and cheaper since then, allowing for improved eyesight. Laparoscopic and now robotic laparoscopic techniques have allowed minimally invasive surgeries of the colon, gall bladder, and kidneys. Orthopedic procedures have improved, and recovery times have shrunk. And while electronic medical records annoy some solo practitioners, there is no doubt that they have helped improve care at hospitals, where medical teams no longer have to compete with one another for possession of the sole paper "chart," which was not long ago the only place to get patient information and updates. Now, the whole team of medical professionals gets equal access to patient information.
Medicine is also an area with a bright future ahead. The rapid emergence of coronavirus vaccines suggests new breakthroughs to follow. Expect more improvements in the areas of personalized medicine, drug development, and genetic sequencing in the years to come.
This look beyond the political realm reveals a host of impressive and meaningful improvements in the way that we live our lives that would have been unavailable a generation ago. We may not have flying cars — although, they are coming — but these improvements are tangible and palpable. Moreover, they have come overwhelmingly from the private sector and not from government. Capitalism, freedom, and individual drive, which conservatives rightly celebrate, paved the path forward for these developments. On the woke Left, these very same attributes are derided and affirmatively determined to be not worthy of celebration. The recent Smithsonian "Talking About Race" initiative, which warned against concepts such as "Self-reliance," "Objective, rational linear thinking," and "Hard work is the key to success," derides the very characteristics that help bring about these new innovations. In other words, conservatives have a better case to make that recent improvements derive from the traditional American dream-inspired message, in stark contrast to what's coming out of Hollywood and universities these days. In this way, pointing to new innovations and highlighting life benefits derived from the private sector provide a positive starting point toward winning voters to the conservative side of things.
Conservatives must make the case that not challenging people to do their best work will shut down the spigot that has made things better, healthier, and more convenient for millions of people in America and around the world. This can and should fit into a larger message of optimism, not just about new technological improvements but also about America's long-term prospects. Despair, all too prevalent on both sides of the political spectrum these days, is demonstrably not a winning political strategy. A famous University of Pennsylvania study by psychologists Harold Zullow and Martin Seligman looked at 22 presidential elections from 1896 to 1984 and found that the more optimistic candidate won 18 of those elections. Recent elections have been a little less clear on this point, but optimism has long been a successful American electoral strategy. To take back Washington, conservatives should fold optimism into their messaging.
Our politics are problematic, and there are reasons to question Western civilization's position vis-a-vis its authoritarian competitors. The answer to these challenges is not to wallow in despair but to make the case for the way of life that brought about the innovations we enjoy today. Inherent in doing so is the recognition that our ability to live life and take advantage of opportunities today is unprecedented, and far beyond what we could have imagined even as recently as the Thomas hearings. Making a case for optimism does not require ironing out all of our political differences or ignoring the real problems in front of us. It simply means taking stock of where we've come and continuing to make a case for how we got here.