America’s decline, and how to prevent it

Internet serendipity strikes again! Hot on the heels of my questions about the political fragmentation and polarisation of the United States comes a long but lucid article from one James Fallows at The Atlantic, in which he discusses the nation’s seemingly perpetual worries about its own decline, and the reasons he believes that the US is still the envy of the world in most respects. [via MetaFilter; image by Henry Brett]

It really is quite lengthy, but well worth the time. There’s too much to attempt a succinct summary, so I’ll skip through to Fallows’ main point of concern – namely that the thing that most needs fixing is the US system of governance. But how could that be achieved without a coup or a complete constitutional rewrite?

That is the American tragedy of the early 21st century: a vital and self-renewing culture that attracts the world’s talent, and a governing system that increasingly looks like a joke. One thing I’ve never heard in my time overseas is “I wish we had a Senate like yours.” When Jimmy Carter was running for president in 1976, he said again and again that America needed “a government as good as its people.” Knowing Carter’s sometimes acid views on human nature, I thought that was actually a sly barb—and that the imperfect American public had generally ended up with the government we deserve. But now I take his plea at face value. American culture is better than our government. And if we can’t fix what’s broken, we face a replay of what made the months after the 9/11 attacks so painful: realizing that it was possible to change course and address problems long neglected, and then watching that chance slip away.


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. Part of the mind-set of pre-Communist China was the rage and frustration of a great people let down by feckless rulers. Whatever is wrong with today’s Communist leadership, it is widely seen as pulling the country nearer to its full potential rather than pushing it away. America is not going to have a Communist revolution nor endure “100 Years of Humiliation,” as Imperial China did. But we could use more anger about the fact that the gap between our potential and our reality is opening up, not closing.

Lots of food for thought in there… not to mention enough starting points for a dozen Harry Turtledove novels (albeit minus the lizards). How do you think the US might rescue itself from this political cul de sac?

7 thoughts on “America’s decline, and how to prevent it”

  1. You can’t. It’ll be a divorce – if you are lucky. However, coastal states would benefit intensely from being unshackled from conservative great plain states. You can regard the US as some ‘modern, developed, educated’ first world, with some big globs of conservative third world thrown in. If the rich parts cut loose from the albanian-level bible belt garbage that sticks to the union, it would do a LOT of good for all those involved.

    I think scession is the way. Let a few states secede, let the dollar collapse and go through this transition. Things will turn around once the remainders liberate themselves from the stifling corporate parasites and shilling caste as well. And not to forget the US is hemorhaging a TRILLION A YEAR on military waste. Once all involved reduce that to a tenth, it’ll mean a lot of liberated resources.

  2. No way the system will change, so the only fix is to find better people…difficult.

    Definitely both American culture and money.

  3. Americans have been going on about decline since Bretton Woods in the 1940s. In the 1960s many hawks felt that America had failed to make the most of its post-War dominance. In the 90s it was failing to make the most of America’s hegemonic moment after the collapse of the USSR.

    The same thing can be seen in Roman writings : “We are corrupt and decadent compared to the golden age”. It’s a trope of rightist op-ed writing. I say rightist because leftists tend not to look back and, in more recent times, no self-respecting leftist would bemoan the decline of the US.

  4. I think it would help if our politicians actually grew spines rather than pander to the prospect of re-election, party lines, etc. They should, you know, actually do what they were hired to do: represent the American people. They haven’t truly represented us in all the years I’ve been a live, and probably longer before that.

  5. America’s decline is inevitable. Most of the engineering works are currently done by chinese and indians. The whole family system of America is on the brink of extinction, thanks to the feminist policies. It is extremely difficult for a country with moral failure to rise. No measures taken by government can compensate for moral and ethical failure.

  6. “No measures taken by government can compensate for moral and ethical failure.”

    Please. The moral imperative is great to talk about, but poor in predicting success or failure. No empire on this earth has ever fallen because they were morally or ethically a failure. The Egyptians, Mongols, Alexander, Rome, Persia, Chinese Dynasties, Spanish Empire, British Empire, etc., all , pillaged, stole, enslaved, killed for sport, butchered children, etc. from the very beginning to the end of their empires. Other than corruption in the economy there are no moral sins that doom an empire.

    You can break this down to the individual level. Let’s take Tiger Woods as an example. No matter how often or with whom he cheats it has no bearing on his skill at golf. You might find him despicable, but he would still completely destroy 99.9999% of the world on the golf course (this would include virtually every professional golfer).

    Rome had men kill each other for sport, took slaves, rapped women, and killed children, but they would still kick the ass of 99.9999% of everyone for hundreds of years.

    The moral and ethical argument holds as much water as a good sieve.

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