James Fallows’ Atlantic cover story on American decline is a must-read. A veteran journalist who has spent the past three years in China, Fallows compares the rapid development there with what he has seen since returning to the U.S. and lays out the reassuring reasons America is not declining and the chilling reasons that it is.
First, he says fear of decline is part of America’s national psyche. Our surprisingly consistent “on the brink” mentality used to be fueled by fear we were letting God down as his chosen people; since World War II, we are just afraid of losing our dominant position in the world. We always think we are in decline whether or not we are, and believing that usually helps us come back from edge when we are in danger.
Are we in decline right now? Yes and no, and not in the ways you might think. We still attract the world’s top students and scientists, and lead the globe in technological development. The wealth visible in any public place in the United States means it will remain the envy of the world long after China’s economy has surpassed ours. “Falling behind” as a society in relation to other nations is, Fallows concludes, a shallow worry unsupported by reality. (Remember, most of China still doesn’t have indoor plumbing.)
That’s the good news. The bad news is that our federal government has all but failed, and its very makeup threatens our ability to adapt to the problems we already face. Health care is a disaster, roads and bridges are crumbling, and no one really believes the government can do anything about it. The Senate allows tiny states with fractions of the U.S. population to kill necessary change, much like giving every passenger on a bus their own special brake: it renders the bus undrivable. The government has swelled into a favor-state where earmarks and special interest groups eat away at the national wealth while public confidence turns sour.
I started out this process uncertain; I ended up convinced. America the society is in fine shape! America the polity most certainly is not. Over the past half century, both parties have helped cause this predicament—Democrats by unintentionally giving governmental efforts a bad name in the 1960s and ’70s, Republicans by deliberately doing so from the Reagan era onward. At the moment, Republicans are objectively the more nihilistic, equating public anger with the sentiment that “their” America has been taken away and defining both political and substantive success as stopping the administration’s plans. As a partisan tactic, this could make sense; for the country, it’s one more sign of dysfunction, and of the near-impossibility of addressing problems that require truly public efforts to solve.
Even more depressing, there is probably no way to fix it barring an “enlightened military coup” or a constitutional convention — and even those options would be disastrous.
David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol. He covers religion for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and is a graduate student in the Draper Program for Humanities and Social Thought at New York University. He can be reached at hdavidsessions at gmail dot com.
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