2020: The Year We Confronted Decline
“Certainly I must not forget that I am writing for posterity,” says the narrator in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus. And certainly right now a lot of us feel the same way.
That isn’t to say the world is going to remember what we write here, much less care. But our children just might. We are, after all, living through a year that future students will study in high school history classes. It’s too easy to say that 2020 is the new 1968—history doesn’t copycat itself quite so neatly. But certainly those four numerals will one day come to connote tension, strife, even transformation. A below-average miniseries will be made, probably called Corona, with episode titles like “I Can’t Breathe” and “Captain Crozier.” Decomposing bourgeoisie radicals will stroll around robot-dusted sociology departments invoking the “spirit of ’20.”
As for those of us still living through this pyromaniacal year, we can only wish we had the blessing of hindsight, the ability to know how it will all end—and how long it will take. The most terrifying thing about 2020 is that it may outlast 2020. The challenges we face—a coronavirus pandemic, social unrest—are so extensive and stubborn that they could easily wear on past December. On top of that are other problems that have been brewing for decades, which have now either come to a head or been dangerously exacerbated. This year has felt like a perfect storm, and it’s left an almost foreign word on the national tongue: decline. Polls find that Americans, ever a sunny bunch, still hold out some hope for the future, but they’re anxious, unsure. They worry life may never return to the way it used to be.
It isn’t that America is declining in the rankings. We’re still number one in many respects: biggest economy, most powerful military, largest immigrant population. It’s that for once the sheer heft of the challenges ahead seems to outweigh our ability to shoulder them. America’s ethos has always been that of a striving innovator. We don’t simply accept circumstances as they come, as, say, some Europeans tend to do; we seek to shape them and change them. Our civic religion tells us there’s no problem we can’t solve, be it the commies or stagflation or terrorism. Yet today we face so many hurdles, some of them deeply rooted in our own soil, that getting over all of them can seem impossible. That cheerful manifest destiny, that complacent “end of history” attitude that many of us grew up with during the 1990s, now seems like a relic of a distant time.
Let’s take stock. The United States is now an empire, no more pretending or posturing, ludicrously overextended across the globe. American troops are stationed in 177 countries, including places like Germany where they’re no longer needed yet can’t ever seem to leave. Their presence in the Middle East has not saved that region from chaos. Their presence in East Asia has not prevented a rising China. Yet on they linger, running up a ruinous national debt that recently reached an eye-watering $26.5 trillion, with more on the way as Congress mulls another round of coronavirus relief. The interest on that debt is chewing into the national budget. And China is targeting our ability to borrow as it seeks to displace the dollar as the global reserve currency.
Those two issues—empire and fiscal incontinence—would themselves be enough to draw nervous comparisons to late-stage Rome. Yet on the list goes. We are riven by inequality, both cultural and economic. The ghost of our racist past still clanks around in our attic, as George Floyd is killed by police and we approach the three-year anniversary of the violence in Charlottesville. Yet the enforced solution, critical race theory, is no solution at all, but a doctrine of surrender that cedes our essential equality. We are transitioning away from Christianity, undergoing the West’s most significant creedal shift since Constantine, yet we sleepwalk into it, oblivious to the void it leaves behind. Another world power is rising across the ocean, proudly anti-liberal and blatantly authoritarian, an ideological competitor to what we’ve long called “the American dream.” And while China has (allegedly) kicked the coronavirus, we can’t seem to, drawing pity from a world we once inspired.
That’s one portrait of America anyway. And while it’s hardly wrong, it’s also happily incomplete. As Steven Pinker or the website HumanProgress.org will readily tell you, no account of our present times should omit all the good. To take just one example, in spite of the pandemic, the world is currently producing more grain, an essential food staple, than ever before, with consumption expected to follow suit. Against a history rife with hunger and privation, that’s something to celebrate. There are always upsides, which is why people generally don’t trust those who preach decline. The modern-day Millerites have very often been proven wrong.
So it’s important that we don’t exaggerate how bleak our situation is. History isn’t deterministic; there isn’t some ticking time bomb beneath our country that we’re powerless to defuse. Good decision making has averted decline before and may yet do so again. But it’s going to take serious and committed leadership, men and women willing to make tough decisions sans the usual partisanship and desire to please. Irving Babbitt, discussing the French Revolution, wrote, “It is all a question of leadership; and the one serious doubt about democracy is whether it can show sufficient critical discrimination in the choice of its leaders.” Yet America today is led by a most unworthy man, a president who conflates sharp tweets with national stewardship. His Democratic opponent seems little better, at best willing to bend to left-wing hate mobs and at worst mentally unfit to lead.
If we’re going to arrest our decline, we need a new system of incentives for leadership, one that doesn’t just prize social media preening and winning the news cycle. We also need to admit we have a problem in the first place, which, given the swagger of that civic religion, can be difficult to do. The last time we talked seriously about decline was during the late 1970s, when the economy was a mess, the Soviet Union seemed coated in Teflon, lines snaked around gas stations, and the hostages were stuck in Iran. Back then, President Jimmy Carter warned, accurately but suicidally, that we were in “a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.”
Fortunately from there came a turnaround that was almost out of a conservative storybook. The U.S. hockey team beat the Soviet Union. A beaming Ronald Reagan was elected president. The hostages came home. Tax cuts and Paul Volcker juiced the economy. The Berlin Wall fell. The country swelled with pride.
Yet for all he got wrong, Carter was right that the “malaise” he confronted was in part a crisis of the soul, a listlessness and bewilderment after the revolts of the ’60s and the traumas of Vietnam and Watergate. And therein a final lesson for us today. Our national condition, as Babbitt would remind us, is an outgrowth of our hearts. Before we can restore our greatness, before we throw the bums out, we need to rediscover those qualities that can counter malaise—charity, restraint, liberality, good humor. To stop decline, we first have to fix our dispositions.