What’s Your Theory of America’s Decline?
Frank Rich has a big piece out about the declinist vogue in America right now. This being Frank Rich, you can’t take much of what he says seriously. He complains high up that The Andy Griffith Show gave a false view of small-town life because no black people were on it. Well, yeah, and Hogan’s Heroes fell far short of telling the truth about life in a Nazi prisoner of war camp. So what? Anyway, Rich does make a decent point in bringing up how declinism is always with us Americans, as part of the neurosis of being a superpower. Still, I would say that just because panic over decline is a recurring state of mind, that doesn’t mean that decline isn’t real and meaningful.
Anyway, I reference the Rich piece to cue up his one-paragraph survey of various current theories of American decline, from the right to the left:
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 f–k you’re talking about. Yosemite?”
I’d like to throw the question open to the room: What is your theory of American decline? That is, why, in your view, has America declined, or is America in decline. Don’t cite the symptoms of American decline; we can agree on most of them. Think about what factors have brought this state of affairs to pass. I’m not asking you to come up with a solution, only a diagnosis. I’m asking you as well to think about what your own political team has contributed to the decline.
My theory goes roughly like this:
America’s decline stems from extreme individualism, in its moral, philosophical, and economic forms. We have become a nation of egoists who, as a general matter, either will not or cannot value things beyond our individual desires, at least not strongly. If every age gets a God who looks like them, then Moralistic Therapeutic Deism shows how decadent we’ve become. We have discarded the traditional family as a rigorous personal and social ideal, first through the divorce revolution, and then through widespread adoption of sexual norms that hollow out the force of the family to form and maintain strong social bonds. The collapse of the family — and it is collapsing among the poor and working classes — cascades across many areas.
Economically, this extreme individualism and its concomitant loss of a communal sense manifests itself as an economy in which everyone is looking out for his own immediate interest, and no one seems to be motivated by a sense of the common good. Wall Street’s depredations are, in my view, the most consequential manifestation of this tendency, but it exists throughout society. The California man I wrote about on Beliefnet years ago who woke up one day and said, “Hey, why not walk away from this mortgage?”, and did so without a sense of shame, expresses this sentiment at the level of the ordinary person.
The hyperpower delusion that died in Iraq expresses this sentiment at the military level. I believe the redefinition of marriage expresses this hubris at a social level. Et cetera.
At the core of all this is a loss at every level of a sense of limits, and of a sense of responsibility for oneself and one’s community. As you know if you’ve been reading me for any time, I believe the Left and the Right have both failed us, in their own ways. But “the Left” and “the Right” aren’t abstractions; they are us. Claes Ryn nailed it:
Traditional civilization is threatened with extinction because pleasing but destructive illusions have become part of the way in which most people view the world and their own lives. The hold on society of those who created and fed these illusions cannot be broken mainly through practical politics.
I believe we are living through what Alasdair MacIntyre prophesied 30 years ago:
It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between
one historical period and another; and among the more misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age … and the epoch in which the Roman Empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. … A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve – often not recognizing fully what they were doing – was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. … This time, however, the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers, they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are not waiting for Godot, but for another – and doubtless very different – St. Benedict.
MacIntyre’s “account of our moral condition” basically concludes that our individualism, and with it the belief in subjective emotion as a guide to truth, has led inevitably and irretrievably to a loss of a common culture, and a common reference point, or set of reference points, for strong community. This has moral, religious, social, and economic effects. This is my theory of American decline.
Yours? I’m far less interested in reading your critique of my ideas than of hearing your own take on things.