Three years ago, Cullen Murphy published Are We Rome?, a book that asked a version of the question that has run through American political discussion for at least 200 years. Murphy, a former editor of this magazine, gave the only sensible answer, which amounted to “Maybe.” When I spoke with him recently, he emphasized how much the current wave of “declinist” worry matches a tradition that has been an inseparable part of American strength.
“If you go back and pick any decade in American history, you are guaranteed to find the exact same worries we have now,” he said. “About our commercial capacities, about the education system, about whether immigrants are ruining our stock and not learning English, about what is happening to the ‘real’ values that built the country. Poke a stick into it, and you will get a gushing fount of commentary on the same subjects as now, in the same angry and despairing tone. It’s an amazingly consistent trait.
“Fifty years from now, Americans will be as worried as they are today,” Murphy said. “And meanwhile the basic social dynamism of the country will continue to wash us forward in the messy, roiling way it always has.”
Ralph Nader, for whom I worked as a researcher in my teens and early 20s, and from whom I became estranged after his 2000 run for the presidency, made a similar upbeat point in a recent reconciliation conversation in Washington. First he elaborated the ways that Congress, the media, the regulators, and both political parties were more in thrall to corporate power than ever before in his memory. But, he said, “you’ve got to be very careful about thinking things can’t rebound. My favorite phrase is ‘America is a country that has more problems than it deserves, and more solutions than it applies.’ We don’t want to be Pollyannas, but we really should believe that we can turn things around.”
In The American Jeremiad, his classic 1978 account of that phenomenon, Sacvan Bercovitch, of Harvard, points out that from the very start of European settlement in New England, colonists were warned that God was disappointed in them, so they should improve not just their individual ethics but their collective social behavior. Indeed, only six years after the Arbella brought John Winthrop to Massachusetts, a Congregationalist minister was lamenting the lost golden age of the colony, asking parishioners, “Are all [God’s] kindnesses forgotten? all your promises forgotten?”
Bercovitch traces how this theme persisted through the centuries that followed, reaching its literary high point in the portrayal of 19th-century America in The Education of Henry Adams, to which I would add the 20th-century summit, George Kennan’s Memoirs. Bercovitch also explains the theme’s important political effect. “The jeremiad played a central role in the war of independence, and the war in turn confirmed the jeremiad as a national ritual.” It was a national as opposed to a purely religious ritual, because the warnings were intended—and expected—to provoke a cleansing public response. Through the 1800s, “American Jeremiahs considered it their chief duty to make continuing revolution an appeal for national consensus,” Bercovitch wrote. Americans had to be told that they were this far from doom before they would address problems.
In his recent book about Jimmy Carter’s now-ridiculed “malaise” speech in 1979, What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?, Kevin Mattson, of Ohio University, says that initially the speech was well received, as most jeremiads are. (I worked earlier as Carter’s White House speechwriter but had left by that time.) The speech, which did not include the word “malaise,” was officially called “A Crisis of Confidence” and warned that Americans had lost their way. Carter began by reciting a list of immediate crises and then said: “It’s clear that the true problems of our nation are much deeper … The symptoms of this crisis of the American spirit are all around us.” He enumerated these “true problems” in painful detail. For instance, “We remember when the phrase ‘sound as a dollar’ was an expression of absolute dependability.” The speech is shocking to read 30 years later, for how closely its diagnosis of American problems matches today’s bleak national self- assessment, from the dispiriting partisan gridlock of politics to the crippling dependence on foreign oil. (One obvious difference is that Carter does not mention China at all, let alone as a more successful rival.) In retrospect, his grim tone might seem the reason Carter was turned out of office the next year. But in its time, this was what voters wanted to hear. “It prompted an overwhelmingly favorable response,” Mattson wrote after his book came out. “Carter received a whopping 11 percent rise in his poll numbers.” It is remembered as a failure not because Americans of the time rejected a tough-love appeal but because two days later Carter asked his Cabinet members to resign, creating an air of political chaos. In The Audacity to Win, his recent memoir of Barack Obama’s drive to the presidency, David Plouffe, his campaign manager, describes how Obama struck a similarly resonant chord (minus the Cabinet turmoil) at an important moment in the campaign. At 11 p.m., as the last candidate speaking at the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in Des Moines two months before the Iowa caucuses, Obama held a crowd rapt with a jeremiad calling for national rebirth and reform. “The dream that so many generations fought for feels as if it’s slowly slipping away,” he said. “And most of all, we’ve lost faith that our leaders can or will do anything about it.” The crowd went wild.
The expectation of jeremiad is so deeply ingrained in Americans’ political consciousness that it might seem to be universal. In fact, most historical accounts suggest this is a peculiar trait of our invented political culture. I recall, from living in both Japan and England, mordant remarks about the fecklessness of public officials, but many fewer “we have lost our country” broadsides of the sort that Americans have long taken for granted.
T. Jackson Lears, of Rutgers, has written two influential books that discuss American cycles of despair and renewal in the 19th and 20th centuries: No Place of Grace and Rebirth of a Nation. “Historically, the prospect of imminent decline has been used as a rallying cry, to get Americans committed to whatever is the agenda of the person doing the rallying, often the elites,” he told me. He added that while much of today’s “free-floating populist anger” reminded him strongly of the mood of the 1890s, in light of the long history of such concerns, “we can rightly raise a skeptical eyebrow at the shrillest predictions of imminent catastrophe.”
Nearly 400 years of overstated warnings do not mean that today’s Jeremiahs will be proved wrong. And of course any discussion of American problems in any era must include the disclaimer: the Civil War was worse. But these alarmed calls to action are something we do to ourselves—usually with good effect. Especially because of the world financial crisis, “we have seen palpable declines in the middle class’s standing and its sense of security for the future,” Jackson Lears said. “I think that was a good deal of what was behind Obama’s election—that same longing for rebirth that we have seen in other eras. It is rooted in the familiar Protestant longing for salvation, but is adaptable to secular arenas. Obama was basically riding to victory as part of a politics of regeneration.” Barack Obama’s very high popularity ratings just after the election suggest that even those who now oppose him and his policies recognized the potential for a new start.
It was recognized overseas as well. Shortly before the election, I interviewed a senior Chinese government official in Beijing. He would not speak on the record about U.S. politics, and he noted that since the time of Nixon, Democratic presidents had been more troublesome for China to deal with than Republicans. But he said, “We view this”—meaning the possibility of Obama’s election—“as a test of whether America can change course. It is a remarkable strength of your country.” This fall in Sydney, the head of an investment bank laid out for me the ways that profligate spending in the United States had brought the world close to financial disaster, and the future problems that would be created by America’s looming federal deficits. Then he said, “And we will look on in awe as you avoid catastrophe at the last moment—again.”
“Why has the United States been so resilient?” Michael Kazin, a historian at Georgetown University, asked rhetorically, after enumerating previous waves of concern about American “decline.” He listed many factors, including the good luck of geography and resources, the First Amendment’s success in reducing religious and sectarian friction, and the decentralization of power and culture. “There’s no Paris, no Rome—a city where a general strike could bring the whole country to a halt.” But like Lears and the writer Garry Wills, Kazin was at pains to challenge today’s declinism on its own terms, pointing out the successes of recent American history. “Racial relations, the major problem in our history, are better than they have ever been before,” he said. “Religious tolerance is better. Anti-immigrant feelings do not come close to the levels of the 1840s, 1890s, or 1920s. Political decline? The level of participation is higher than it used to be, especially in the last election.”
Garry Wills listed his concerns about the militarization of American public life (the subject of his recent book, Bomb Power ) and the vitriol of today’s political/cultural divisions. But he added: “When people say how bad things are, I always emphasize that we have never in our history been so good on human rights. The rights of women, gays, the disabled, Native Americans, Hispanics—all of those have soared in the last 40 years.” Even the “birther” and “tea bag” movements are indirect evidence of progress, Wills said. “They are reactions to a really great achievement. We did elect a black president. Not many people thought that was possible, even two or three years ago.” Of course Wills’s list of achievements is, for some, evidence of what has been “taken” from them in recent history. The point for now is that their concern is part of a strong national tradition, as is the fluidity that gave rise to it. If we weren’t worried about our future, then we should really start to worry.