Why Does America Always Seem to Be in Decline?

Is this broken-record rhetoric useful?

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Last Sunday, Tom Friedman trotted out the old Rome analogy in his New York Times column. America, the implication goes, might be in a decline comparable to that of the ancient civilization. But is the U.S. really on such a downward slope? This analogy has a long history in America, and as always, skeptics of the comparison are protesting. Those well-versed in history tend to find the analogy tedious, not to mention misguided. But one foreign policy professor suggests there's some utility to this kind of anxious pessimism.

  • Historically Questionable Argument  Princeton history professor David Bell points out in The New Republic that "Friedman is sounding a popular theme. A Google search for the phrase 'America's decline' turns up 42,500 hits." That doesn't mean he's right, though. Bell points to Harvard's Samuel P. Huntington's Foreign Affairs article in the 1980s showing "the theme of 'America's decline' had in fact been a constant in American culture and politics since at least the late 1950s." Now, instead of Sputnik and Vietnam, we have 9/11 and the recession to cause worry. But history suggests "these anxieties have an existence of their own that is quite distinct from the actual geopolitical position of our country." It is perhaps "rooted in the collective psyche of our chattering classes" more than in "sober ... analyses." By reading national trends in individual ones, commentators are misreading their place in these events:

By comparing America to Rome and warning us about our imminent decline and fall, writers like Friedman think that they are issuing a necessary wake-up call; sounding an alarm in terms that cannot be ignored. But are they? ... Would Rome not have fallen if a group of clear-sighted, hardheaded Roman commentators had sternly told the country to buck up in the late third century, lest the empire share the fate of Persia? Was Great Britain's decline in the twentieth century a product of moral flabbiness that a strong dose of character-building medicine could have reversed? ... Casting our present-day difficulties as part of an epochal decline and fall may in fact be subtly to suggest that we can do nothing to cure them. We would do better to recognize ... that our political and economic problems demand political and economic solutions, not exercises in collective moral self-flagellation.
  • Where Declinist Talk Can Be Useful  Tufts international politics professor Dan Drezner responds by pointing out that adjusting America's expectations with its actual ability, however, can be helpful. "I'm not saying that the U.S. is in terminal decline and therefore should engage in a systematic strategic retreat," he writes, clarifying an earlier post. But "on the foreign policy front, selective U.S. retrenchment doesn't imply terminal decline so much as a temporary realignment to ensure that American power and interest are matched up going forward." Then he offers a question to his readers: "does retrenchment presage resurgence?" In other words: can correcting problems lead to new growth?
  • Declinism: It's the Way Humans Think  "The human brain is programmed to look for what is new, and what is dangerous," writes The Atlantic's Megan McArdle: "we're prone to ignore all the strengths of the American economy that are still there" and instead "focus on what has gone wrong." Thus, "the narrative of decline is usually the best fit for the facts that loom largest in our imaginations." But that's precisely why, "if you're tempted to make confident pronouncements on the future of American power--economic or geopolitical--its worth reading all the commentators in the past who were equally confident, and absolutely wrong."
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