These declinist authors have in common a paucity of plausible or practical solutions to address the laundry lists of imperatives that America must deal with urgently if it is to save itself from perdition or extinction. But their most revealing shared trait, whatever their individual politics or panaceas, is an authorial demographic—they are all white men of a certain age. It’s not happenstance that the Indian-born Fareed Zakaria, who shares some of the declinists’ complaints, conspicuously stands apart from them by defining his subject, in The Post-American World, as not “the decline of America” but “the rise of everyone else.”
Some declinists who should know better retreat into the those-were-the-good-old-days bromides that characterized the Andy Griffith hagiographies. Thomas Friedman and Charles Murray have little in common politically, but Friedman’s love letter to his old neighborhood in the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park in the sixties and Murray’s paean to his small hometown of Newton, Iowa, in the fifties—both presented as middle-class Utopias united by solid values and a faith in the common good—are interchangeable. And no wonder: According to the U.S. Census, both towns were more than 99 percent white at the time the two men graduated from high school. Would the midwestern nirvanas of St. Louis Park and Newton have been so friction-free if black or immigrant aliens had moved to Maple Street before Friedman and Murray left town for college? To measure the rapidly evolving America of 2012 against the segregated white America of a half-century earlier is as empirically spurious as contrasting the current bankrupt plight of Stockton, California, with the solvency of Mayberry (which, let us not forget, was not a documentary slice of sixties America but a repurposing of Hollywood back-lot sets first built to stand in for Atlanta streets in the 1939 Gone With the Wind).
Still, our legion of white-male Cassandras may not be wrong. America may well be in a fateful decline. But given that the country has survived a civil war, two world wars, the Great Depression, 9/11, and the quagmires of Vietnam and Iraq, is our current crisis proportionate to the doomsday hysteria—or have we lost perspective? Is it really true, as a Friedman friend is quoted in That Used to Be Us, that “at no time in our history have our national challenges been as complex and long-term as those we face today”? Is the Harvard professor Niall Ferguson right to cite the elimination of Western-civ survey courses at elite universities as an indicator of Western civilization’s endgame? Is Michael Sandel, also of Harvard, correct to call our volunteer military (numbering 1.4 million on active duty, or roughly 0.45 percent of the population) the country’s “last repository of civic idealism and sacrifice for the sake of the common good”?
Or is something else going on here? A more revealing question raised by our declinist panic is why it has been accompanied by a strange parallel infatuation with American exceptionalism. This once little-heard term, sometimes wrongly attributed to Tocqueville, was coined by Joseph Stalin in a 1929 anti-American sneer. Now it is flung about as the ubiquitous, defensive measure of America’s global standing. And it’s often used, Joe McCarthy style, as a cudgel to bash those who are judged to have hastened our decline by being insufficiently jingoistic—notably the president, who came in for a fresh and particularly cartoonish barrage of slurs on his bona fides as an American from Romney partisans last week. How much our declinist panic has to do with the actual facts of America’s case and how much it has to do with the fact of Obama is not always clear.
The severity of the economic crisis notwithstanding, the underpinnings of our discontent are almost uncannily reminiscent of those that marked all our other modern waves of American declinism. Witness an essay by the political scientist Samuel P. Huntington written in 1988 for the journal Foreign Affairs on the question “The U.S.—Decline or Renewal?” The proximate crisis of declinist panic then was the October 1987 stock-market crash and the economic rise of Japan. Surveying that era’s own blizzard of declinist lit, led by the historian Paul Kennedy’s best-selling The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Huntington compiled an inventory of woes that can be found in most of the 2012 sequels: America was losing its competitive edge, piling up trade and fiscal deficits, declining in growth, and falling behind in education, research, and development. And, as Huntington pointed out, the declinist panic of the late eighties was the fifth in a mere three decades—following the “Sputnik moment” of 1957–58, the economic rise of Europe and Japan in the late sixties, the opec oil shock of 1973, and the cornucopia of woes of the later seventies (Watergate, defeat in Vietnam, the Iranian hostage crisis). Since then, the spin-and-dry cycles of morning and mourning in America have repeated themselves like clockwork, with scant variation from the Huntington template. Hardly had Bill Clinton celebrated peace and a booming economy in his 2000 State of the Union valedictory than the tech bubble burst and the market crashed once more, soon to be followed by 9/11 and the long “Why do they hate us?” funk of the American soul.