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America’s best days are ahead of us

Actually, 2011 wasn’t such a bad year.

It had more than its share of awful stuff, of course, at home and abroad. In January, a troubled man with a gun and a grudge wounded U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and 18 other people, killing six, including a 9-year-old girl.

The Arab Spring that we hoped would sprout Jeffersonian democracies throughout the Middle East instead devolved into a civil war (Libya), a bloody crackdown (Syria) and a muddled mess (Egypt). The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression ground on, humbling not just the United States but also Western Europe.

And if you watch national politics for a living, as I do, it was easy enough to believe that common sense and simple decency had taken a very long holiday. Mark the nadir where you wish; I found it in Donald Trump’s extended pose as a Republican eminence grise.

Still, the year revealed developments and trends that surprised and delighted me. Giffords, with her astronaut husband at her side, continues to make a near-miraculous recovery from a devastating brain injury. An economic recovery really does seem to be taking hold, though it’s painfully slow. And many courageous citizens in the Middle East are still braving bullets and bayonets to defy their tyrannical rulers.

Most gratifying, the citizens of this great country continue to shed old stereotypes and ancient prejudices, bringing the nation closer to its promise of full equality for all. As the mother of a chocolate-colored, 3-year-old girl, I’m eager to see the country live by its creed.

A fuller measure of equality was finally given to gays and lesbians in uniform, who are now able to serve their country openly. President Obama signed the law repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” in December 2010, and it was implemented last September. While a few mossbacks harrumphed and predicted dire consequences, the change was carried out with remarkably little blowback.

Outside official Washington, widespread protests by ordinary citizens called attention to the loss of economic equality. The Occupy Wall Street movement did not come equipped with answers to the vexing problems of stagnant wages and a shrinking middle class, but, at the very least, it helped to change the course of the national conversation.

It had been only too easy for Americans to ignore the growing problem of income inequality, which started to show statistically in the 1970s but gained steam in the 1990s with an increasingly globalized work force. As long as home prices were rising and credit cards were ubiquitous, Americans could enjoy a rising standard of living.

Until the great collapse of 2008. With that, average workers were slapped in the face by sudden economic vulnerability. Still, politicians tried to steer us in the wrong direction — blaming individual homeowners, Republicans, Democrats and, yes, socialists. (There is actually one in Congress; U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont is a self-described “democratic socialist.”)

With Occupy Wall Street, politicians across the political spectrum were forced to acknowledge a difficult truth: America is not a country of widespread economic opportunity. The rich get richer, fat cats get fatter and the middle class gets the shaft.

Still, even with financial insecurity eroding our civic pride, young Americans are bullish on their country. And their perspective has restored my faith in the great American experiment. According to a recent survey from the Pew Research Center, fewer than one-third of Americans between the ages of 18 and 46 believe life in the United States has gotten worse over the last 50 years.

That stands in stark contrast to my generation of baby boomers and our parents, nearly half of whom believe life has gotten worse, not better, over the last 50 years, Pew says. We’ve lived through a lot of changes, but I’ll cast my lot with the younger folks. I think America has become a better and stronger country.

Those younger adults are much more accepting of the greater diversity and fuller equality that have emerged over the last five decades. They see a country whose best days are still to come. So do I.

Email Cynthia Tucker cynthia@cynthiatucker.com.