Andy Griffith was a genial and gifted character actor, but when he died on Independence Day eve, you’d have thought we’d lost a Founding Father, not a television star whose last long-running series, the vanilla legal drama Matlock, expired in 1995. The public tributes to Griffith were over-the-top in a way his acting never was, spreading treacle from the evening newscasts to the front page of the New York Times.
It was as if the nation were mourning its own demise. To commentators in the liberal media, Griffith’s signature television role, Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry, North Carolina, was “one of the last links to another, simpler time” (the Miami Herald) and a repository of “values which actually transcended the deep divides which tore the nation apart during the years the show aired from 1960 to 1968” (the Washington Post). On the right, the sermonizers quickly moved past an inconvenient fact (Griffith made a spot endorsing Obamacare in 2010) to deify Sheriff Taylor for embodying “a time when television was cleaner and simpler” and for giving “millions of Americans the feeling the country stood for all the right things” (National Review). Among those “right” things was the fictional Mayberry’s form of governance, which, in the ideological take of the Daily Caller, demonstrated that “common sense and local control work better than bureaucracy or top-down management.”
In reality, The Andy Griffith Show didn’t transcend the deep divides of its time. It merely ignored them. “Local control” of Mayberry saw to it that this southern town would remain lily-white for all eight years of its fictive existence rather than submit to any civil-rights laws that would require the federal government’s “top-down management” to enforce. Nor was television always so simple back then. Just seven months before The Andy Griffith Show’s 1960 debut on CBS, the same network broadcast an episode of The Twilight Zone, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” in which the placid all-American denizens of an (all-white) suburban enclave turn into a bloodthirsty mob hunting down any aliens in human camouflage that might have infiltrated the neighborhood. As the show’s creator and narrator, Rod Serling, makes clear in his parable’s concluding homily (“Prejudices can kill …”), the hovering aliens who threatened to drive Americans to civil unrest and self-destruction at the dawn of the Kennedy era were not necessarily from outer space.
The wave of nostalgia for Andy Griffith’s Mayberry and for the vanished halcyon America it supposedly enshrined says more about the frazzled state of America in 2012 and our congenital historical amnesia than it does about the reality of America in 1960. The eulogists’ sentimental juxtapositions of then and now were foreordained. If there’s one battle cry that unites our divided populace, it’s that the country has gone to hell and that almost any modern era, with the possible exception of the Great Depression, is superior in civic grace, selfless patriotism, and can-do capitalistic spunk to our present nadir. For nearly four years now—since the crash of ’08 and the accompanying ascent of Barack Obama—America has been in full decline panic. Books by public intellectuals, pundits, and politicians heralding our imminent collapse have been one of the few reliable growth industries in hard times.
The outpouring traverses the political spectrum, from the apocalyptic hard right (Patrick Buchanan’s Suicide of a Superpower, Mark Levin’s Ameritopia) to the conservative Establishment (Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010) to the centrist Washington Establishment (Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann’s It’s Even Worse Than It Looks) to centrist liberalism (Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum’s That Used to Be Us) to the classically progressive (Timothy Noah’s The Great Divergence). Depending on the political coloring of the authors, the books have different villains: the tea party, coddled Wall Street plutocrats, coddled welfare-state entitlement junkies, the yapping and trivializing news media, broken schools, a polarized and broken Congress, a politicized Supreme Court, a socialist president. And China Über Alles (with an occasional cameo by India). The books’ pet issues also vary, from the collapse of the family to the debasement of cultural values, the demise of political compromise, the extinction of the “vital center,” the president’s feckless “leading from behind” in foreign affairs, the rise of income inequality, the ballooning of the national debt, and unchecked federal spending. But the bottom line is nothing if not consistent, and is most concisely summed up in a tirade delivered to a hall of college students by Aaron Sorkin’s alter ego, a television anchor played by Jeff Daniels, in the HBO series The Newsroom: “When you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. Yosemite?”
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.
In the post–World War II years of American might, it is hard to find a sustained period when America was not fretting about its status in the world and its ongoing or potential decline. That includes those golden years apotheosized in Coming Apart, That Used to Be Us, and The Andy Griffith Show, when rising affluence and the Cold War ostensibly unified the country around core values. It’s not just Mad Men that has exposed the romantic view of the fifties and early sixties as a golden age to be something of a sham. In her revisionist 2008 excavation of that period, Inventing the “American Way,” the historian Wendy Wall shows how America’s mid-century political and business Establishments were sufficiently frightened about the prospect of disunity that together they manufactured an American consensus and sold it as a brand, the American Way.
The American Way was promoted in every medium available, from billboards to Superman comics. One representative stunt in 1947 was the Freedom Train, a red-white-and-blue locomotive christened the Spirit of 1776 and charged with barnstorming the nation to exhibit a bounty of historic and patriotic documents. The project was promoted by Harry Truman’s attorney general, Tom Clark, financed by major corporations, and packaged by movie and advertising executives. The mission was to demonstrate to one and all that America “was unified, consensual and inclusive”—or, in other words, a nation adhering to “the vital center,” a term that would be coined by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in 1949. The launch was celebrated in Philadelphia to capitalize on the 160th anniversary of the Constitutional Convention, with an Independence Hall jamboree of patriotic songs and speeches broadcast on NBC. But though the train would chug on for sixteen months, it was nearly thrown off-track by one dispute after another. Some of the exhibition documents—including copies of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and of William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper The Liberator—were dumped. The Gettysburg Address survived the cut, but by being paired with an 1865 address by Robert E. Lee. Attempts to permit white and black viewers in the South to mix freely were met with resistance, with the consequence that at a few stops, the Emancipation Proclamation was exhibited to segregated audiences. Even the choice of “freedom” as a rubric was a carefully considered avoidance of the more contentious “democracy.”
A decade later, just as Mayberry was being readied for prime time, fears of decline were ratcheting up further. Bipartisan panels of elite leaders convened by the Rockefeller brothers in the late fifties—ranging from liberal stalwarts like Adolf Berle and John Gardner to conservative grandees like Henry Luce and Henry Kissinger—published their collected findings in a 1961 report titled Prospect for America. “The number and the depth of the problems we face suggests that the very life of our free society may be at stake” was the opening sentence. This history has been either forgotten—or willfully blocked out—to such an extent that a period marked by rising civil-rights conflict is now routinely trotted out by some 2012 declinists as a Platonic baseline of American unity, centrism, and fairness against which today’s America can be found so sorely wanting. That nostalgia for what never was tells us more about the roots of the current declinist panic than any of the pie charts and graphs used to track America’s present statistical erosion.
In decoding that panic, our fixation on American exceptionalism, or the depletion of same, is an invaluable tool. Exceptionalism is actually something new in the usual declinist mix. As a 2010 Washington Post examination of the craze noted, until recently the term had been “rarely heard outside the confines of think tanks, opinion journals, and university history departments.” A blogger for The Atlantic who did the requisite number-crunching found that the locution “exceptionalism” had been used by national publications only 457 times between 1980 and 2000, and 2,558 times in the following decade. But “since 2010, it’s gone viral, leaping into print and online publications roughly 4,172 times” as of March of this year.
The moment when American exceptionalism was pushed into the fray—or, more accurately, jumped the shark—can be traced to the final months of the 2008 presidential campaign. Its champion was Sarah Palin. She first embraced the concept at a rally in Nevada that September, speaking of how “we are an exceptional nation” and telling her fans, “You are all exceptional Americans.” There’s nothing objectionable about that, but a month later she was recasting her definition of exceptionalism to expressly quarantine Obama from the American mainstream. In October, as she took to accusing him of “palling around with terrorists who would target their own country,” she went on to say (of Obama, not Bill Ayers): “This is not a man who sees America like you and I see America. We see America as a force of good in this world. We see America as a force for exceptionalism.”
Once Obama was elected, American exceptionalism became as Palin had defined it—a proxy for the patriotism that the new president lacked. From there, it took just a rhetorical sleight-of-hand to link Obama’s deficiency of Americanism to America’s advancing decline. The conflation was consummated by Charles Krauthammer in an influential October 2009 article for The Weekly Standard titled “Decline Is a Choice: The New Liberalism and the End of American Ascendancy.” To make his case, he leaned on an Obama quote from a press conference at a NATO conference in Strasbourg, France, that spring. In response to a question from Edward Luce, a Financial Times reporter (and himself the author of a subsequent declinist tome subtitled America in the Age of Descent), the president had answered, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” In Krauthammer’s view, this was proof that Obama was endorsing American decline, for “if everyone is exceptional, no one is.”
Since then it’s been pile-on time on the right, usually with that one Obama quote brandished as the smoking gun. The president is constantly being lashed for his lack of commitment to American exceptionalism, much as he was slapped around during the 2008 campaign for not at first slavishly donning a flag lapel pin. Newt Gingrich helped lead the way with a campaign book titled A Nation Like No Other: Why American Exceptionalism Matters; he explained that he is an “American exceptionalist” because he believes in “fundamentally rebuilding the America we inherited,” as opposed to Obama, who “believes in fundamentally undermining the America we inherited.” Mitt Romney’s contribution to the genre, No Apology, is one long dirge for how America has lost its greatness in the Obama era’s bankrupt “reorientation away from a celebration of American exceptionalism.”
“On the right, the word ‘exceptional’—or ‘exceptionalism’—lately has become a litmus test” is how the columnist Kathleen Parker accurately characterized her fellow conservatives last year when chastising Obama for not obediently saying “that word ‘exceptional’ ” during his 2011 State of the Union address and instead “studiously” avoiding “the word conservatives long to hear.” The only flaw in her argument is that no American president has ever publicly referred to “American exceptionalism” in the more than eight decades since Stalin coined it—with the sole exception of Obama. According to the American Presidency Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara—a repository of all the presidents’ public words, eagerly mined by fact-checking bloggers in response to exceptionalism fetishists like Parker—George W. Bush did at least use exceptional in office, albeit twice in reference to his torpedoed Supreme Court nominee, Harriet Miers.
It doesn’t take much imagination to understand why Obama, branded as an outlier to the “real America” by Palin in 2008, would be held to a different standard than his predecessors by a modern GOP that is almost as lily-white as Mayberry. But declinists not normally engaged in conservative partisan politics have fallen into the American-exceptionalism trap as well by buying wholeheartedly into the right’s elevation of Stalin’s coinage from near obscurity to a jingoistic buzz term. Murray writes that the country will be on the right track “only when we are talking again about why America is exceptional and why it is so important that America remain exceptional.” Friedman and Mandelbaum second the motion: American exceptionalism “has to be earned continually” and “is now in play.” Their intention may not be to join the right in tarring Obama with America’s collapse, but in this hothouse political climate that is the practical effect.
That many of the problems cited by our declinists are real is beyond debate, starting, in my view, with the three-decade-long collapse of fundamental economic fairness that’s been charted by Timothy Noah, Joseph Stiglitz, Jacob Hacker, Paul Pierson, and others. We are living in “a country run by the rich, for the rich,” in the succinct summation of the financial blogger Felix Salmon. Most of the declinist authors have other worthy critiques of present-day America to offer as well, and with good reason. Hardly a week goes by without the tarnishing of another major American institution, from JPMorgan to Penn State, or a random calamity like the carnage in Colorado.
None of this makes us No. 2 to China, an autocracy riddled with state and business corruption and often abridging the basic human rights that, for all our lapses, are more often honored than not in 21st-century America. We’re not Greece. We’re not even post-empire England. But if we were to slip into so much as a tie for No. 1, that would drive many Americans nuts, because if anything is baked into the national character, it is that we must be the alpha dog, the leader of the pack, the undisputed world champion. Yet the alpha dogs of our own economy now inhabit a realm so far removed from most of their fellow countrymen that the whole idea of No. 1 is becoming an unattainable abstraction to those below. This is why the platitudes to be found in some of the declinist books fall flatter than usual. When Murray airily calls for “a civic Great Awakening” and a return to “founding virtues,” or when Friedman and Mandelbaum urge us “to reconnect with the values and ideals that made the American Dream so compelling,” the words have about as much value as a subprime mortgage in the context of our current Gilded Age.
Beyond that boilerplate, Friedman and Mandelbaum do offer a hands-on suggestion in That Used to Be Us: the call for an implacably moderate third-party presidential candidate whose views, if not persona, seem indistinguishable from Obama’s. This scheme proved DOA in the real world; the Friedman-promoted third-party vehicle called Americans Elect capsized ignominiously. But the idea was another telling manifestation of nostalgia for that ostensible postwar golden age, when high-minded folk, too high-minded to dirty themselves in the two-party system, could still set the agenda. If only more people like “us” could be put in charge—more conclaves of experts like those convened by the Rockefellers in the fifties, more commissions like the recent and impotent Simpson-Bowles deficit panel, more self-appointed centrist groups like the current No Labels (still being flogged on Morning Joe by the former George W. Bush flack Mark McKinnon), America might be just the way it used to be. All those bullet-point wish lists generated by editorial boards, think-tank symposia, and declinist books would magically take hold in the body politic regardless of what the great unwashed electorate might have to say about it.
One self-appointed citizen leader who has risen to this bait is Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, who has been preaching the virtues of the American Dream in full-page newspaper advertisements that often sound like retreads of old American Way campaigns. In one recent ad—“We all know there is something wrong” and that “real solutions” are needed, he intoned—he offered “to spark the conversation” of civic self-improvement by giving customers a “free tall hot brewed coffee on the Fourth of July.” He implored Americans to use Instagram to “post a photo of the America we all need to see” and to spread their ideas on Twitter with the hashtag “Indivisible.” But if you tracked #Indivisible shortly thereafter, you’d have found that Starbucks was doing its part by tweeting about its new Blonde Roast: “Great over ice! Have you tried it yet?”
Nonetheless, David Brooks has pushed this patronizing concept of immaculate, above-the-fray leadership to another level lately by arguing in the Times that Americans need to be schooled in the manners of “followership.” Whom they’re supposed to follow isn’t named, but presumably it’s a clubbable, middle-aged stalwart of either the Aspen Ideas Festival or Davos. “Today’s elite lacks the self-conscious leadership ethos that the racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic old boys’ network did possess,” Brooks wrote, arguing that America could benefit from the “stewardship mentality” of “the best of the Wasp elites.” He’s not alone. During the years since Obama had the audacity to change the complexion of the most elite office in the land, there’s been an unexpected outbreak of nostalgia for Dwight Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush, the Waspiest of Wasp presidents in memory. By all rights, Romney should be the beneficiary of this yearning in 2012. Not for nothing do his political supporters use the loaded phrase “historic opportunity” to describe the prospect of taking out Obama. Not by accident do they wish aloud, as the former Bush 41 chief of staff John Sununu did last week, that “this president” would overcome his exotic childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia and “learn how to be an American.” If Romney fails to capitalize on his opportunity to be the last hurrah of this demographically doomed old guard, it will not be just because he is a parody of elitist noblesse oblige but because his own Americanism has been compromised by the outsourcing of his money to the Cayman Islands, Bermuda, Switzerland, and who knows what other exotic places that most Americans have never been to.
Samuel Huntington wrote in 1988 that declinist waves “may be better indications of American psychology than of American power,” and that “decline, in short, may be in the eye of the beholder.” That certainly applies now. However serious America’s problems, the declinist panic has been fed psychologically by the advent of Obama: He was vilified for negating American exceptionalism months before he was even inaugurated and had the chance to take any official action that affected the country’s fortunes one way or the other. That Establishment pundits would be fellow travelers in this animus, yearning for an Obama who is not Obama, or for a great white daddy who would bring back the good old days, is a bipartisan indicator of a larger resistance to the onrushing ethnic, social, and cultural change in America of which Obama is only the avatar. It’s a kinder, gentler, and more respectable form of Palinism.
Lost in all our declinist panic is the fact that the election of an African-American president is in itself an instance of American exceptionalism—an unexpected triumph for a country that has struggled for its entire history with the stain of slavery. “Only in America is my story even possible,” Obama is understandably fond of saying, knowing full well that as recently as the year of his birth, 1961, he would not have been welcome in Mayberry, let alone the White House. That his unlikely rise has somehow been twisted into a synonym for America’s supposed collapse over the past four years may be the most disturbing and intractable evidence of our decline of all.
This story appeared in the July, 30, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.