In Decline

Victor Davis Hanson doesn’t believe it, and neither should we. In this column in National Review Online, Hanson explains why he doesn’t believe that the US is in a state of inevitable decline.

We are in a fresh round of declinism — understandably, after borrowing nearly $5 trillion in less than three years and having very little to show for it. Pundit strives with op-ed writer to find the latest angle on America’s descent: We are broke; we are poorly educated; we are uncompetitive; we have gone soft; our political institutions are broken; and on and on. The Obama administration does its part, with sloganeering like “reset,” “lead from behind,” “post-American world,” and America as exceptional only to the degree that all nations feel exceptional.

This is not new. In the late 1930s, the New Germany and its autobahns were supposed to show Depression-plagued America how national will could unite a people to do great things. After all, they had Triumph of the Will Nuremberg rallies; we still had Hoovervilles. They flew sleek Me-109s; we flew lumbering cloth-covered Brewster Buffaloes. We, the victors of a world war, were determined never to repeat it; they, the losers, were eager to try it again.

In the 1950s, Sputnik and the vast spread of Communism through the postcolonial world were supposed proof of the efficiency and social justice of Communism and the rot of capitalism — the inevitable denouement of the 20th century. Sputnik soared, even as our ex-Nazi scientists could not seem to make our rockets work. They had Uncle Ho and Che; we had Diem and the Shah. Their guys wore peasant garb and long hair; ours, sunglasses and gold braid.

By the 1970s and 1980s, Japan Inc. was the next new paradigm of the post-American world. Even American “experts” lectured us on the need to adopt Japanese-like partnerships between corporations and government. They made Accords and Camrys; we made Pintos and Gremlins. We played golf at Pebble Beach; they owned it.

As Japan faded, the next great hope followed in the 1990s when the EU captivated the American Left. The Europeans’ loud moral declarations, their pacifism, cradle-to-grave entitlements, trains à grande vitesse — all of that was what a backward America should strive for. They crafted the Kyoto Agreement; we drove gas-guzzling Tahoes and Yukons. Their strong Euros bought in New York what our weak dollars could not in Paris.

Where are all those supposedly post-American systems now? Fascism was crushed; Communism imploded; Japan is aging and shrinking; the European Union is cracking apart. But, of course, there is China, which, we are told, is the next new replacement for America — a country with enormous demographic problems, a reputation for crude diplomacy and an outlaw approach to international commercial agreements, censored media and a complete lack of transparency, vast inequality, environmental catastrophes, and no stable political system to transition a rural peasantry into a postindustrial affluent citizenry. No matter — our jet-setting elites still whine that they have shiny new airports; we have grungy LAX and JFK. They have sleek bullet trains; we, creaking Amtrak.

If we are in a state of decline, than most of the world is declining even faster. America does have its problems and they are serious but I don’t think any of them are unsolvable, nor would I willingly exchange our problems for those of Europe or China.

Hanson concludes by noting America’s almost unique ability to reinvent itself with every generation.

Why does the United States continue to reinvent itself, generation after generation, to adapt to a radically changing world? Our ancestral Constitution checks the abuse of power and guarantees the freedom of the individual — all in transparent fashion. And our habits and customs that have evolved over two centuries are grounded in the human desire to be judged by what we do rather than what we look like, or under what circumstances we were born — a fact that explains our vibrant and sometime crass popular culture. The essence of our culture is constant self-critique and reexamination — a messy self-audit that so often fools both ourselves and our critics into thinking that our loud paranoia about decline, rather than our far quieter effort to arrest it, is the real story of America

In short, the 21st century will remain American.

I hope he is right about that. I think that a world without America as the leading power is likely to be a very bad place.

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4 thoughts on “In Decline”

  1. The problem here being just how left wing the Democrats have become. By today’s standards, JFK would be a ‘right wing nut job’. The cultural divide between the left and the right in America may not have grown any sharper, but the number of people on the left has grown ever larger. That is the problem. There is no willpower in America to balance the budget, the populace more concerned about immediate gratification than long term planning. Without a major shift in American culture away from immediate gratification, America will not recover.


  2. Samuel Johnson once said that the prospect of hanging concentrates the mind wonderfully. I hope that the prospect of financial ruin will have a similar effect on the American people.


  3. America is on the verge of depression due to government largesse as is, and still people don’t want to make any cuts to the budget. In surveys, even the Tea Party can’t clearly commit to cut anything in particular. Greece, Italy and Spain are all spiraling into oblivion, and it looks like France will follow. Even with the passage of the new austerity measures in Greece, it will still leave Greece in massive debt and a large deficit. Fifty thousand people in Athens alone joined in massive demonstrations and riots. In a country of only a little over 11 million people, that’s reaching some fairly significant numbers, the equivalent of over 1.35 million in America. The nation-wide Tea Party protest on April 15th 2009 is estimated to be closer to half a million. Imagine over twice as many people all marching in Washington, D. C. They would have the power to eliminate the federal government.


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