In the most recent issue of The Atlantic James Fallows asks a question that’s on a lot of people’s minds these days: “Is America going to hell?” It’s a provocation that has recurred throughout American history, from John Winthrop’s sermon aboard the Arbella in 1630 to Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech in 1979. In every case doomsday predictions have proven to be premature; what looked at the time like a descent turned out to be just a dip.
As a rule, it’s a good idea to be skeptical whenever anyone tells you this time is different. It’s hard enough to understand our own time, let alone to measure it against hundreds of years of national history we’ve only ever read about. Chances are that even the most acutely wrought pessimism has been felt before and for much the same reasons.
And yet when Fallows contends that this time is different, it’s hard to dispute him on the facts. The core of the problem, he argues, is not any one particular challenge—debt, health care, energy—or even all of them summed together; it’s that our government has become incapable of organizing the national effort required to meet those challenges.
The culprits Fallows identifies are familiar ones. They include an ADD news media, the permanent campaign, and hyper-partisanship. But mostly he blames the filibuster and special interest groups. The two merit mentioning together because they sow dysfunction by the same method: In both cases well-organized factions are able to get their way at the expense of the common good.
While these conditions were present in America at the start, Fallows worries they’ve grown more entrenched and pernicious over time. The gap between the most and least populous states in the country is considerably larger than it was two hundred years ago which means that small states hold even more outsized influence in the Senate today than they did at the Founding. (Fallows notes that the 41 votes needed to filibuster legislation could conceivably represent as little as 12% of the population; 500,000 folks from Wyoming effectively neutralize 37 million Californians.)
And about special interests, he says they accumulate like plaque, so that the situation today is a lot worse than it’s ever been. The political economist Mancur Olson wrote in his 1982 book The Rise and Decline of Nations that “organization for collective action” takes a long time (agricultural lobbies didn’t coalesce until after World War I; the AARP until 1958) but that once organized, such groups “usually survive until there is a social upheaval or other forms of violence or instability.” And until that day comes, they nickel and dime the country of its wealth, one earmark, subsidy, and loophole at a time.
So there are reasons beyond a general sense of dismay to believe that American greatness may be ebbing.
Regardless of how you come down on Fallows’ argument (and as discussed below, I disagree with him), his essay comprises a nice primer on what might be called “Essential Reading for the End of Life As We Know it in America.” Here is a selection of the most influential titles mentioned in his essay:
- The federal government’s first problem is that it’s viewed as inept. This stacks the deck against big legislative initiatives which are vulnerable to the “government takeover” epithet lobbed so effectively against health care reform. Rick Perlstein provides a genealogy for this anti-government attitude in two books critical of modern conservatism—Before the Storm and Nixonland—that show how a postwar “American consensus” shattered into the “American cacophony” that deafens today.
- The US has staggering debt-obligations dumped around the world: We owe China $2.5 trillion; Japan $1 trillion; Korea $200 billion. In their 2010 book The End of Influence Berkeley professors J. Bradford DeLong and Stephen Cohen argue that as a consequence, “America is unlikely to remain the cultural hegemon, the overwhelmingly dominant source of cultural memes.”
- In Are We Rome? Vanity Fair editor at-large Cullen Murphy draws unsettling parallels between present-day America and the culturally insular, governmentally corrupt final days of the Roman Empire.
- Pessimism about the future is nothing new in America. As Sacvan Bercovitch retells it in The American Jeremiad (1978) the Puritans worried that the game was up before they had even stepped off the boat. From Winthrop’s sermon to The Education of Henry Adams, Bercovitch traces the history of what he calls a “national ritual” of lamentation. To that history, Fallows adds George Kennan’s Memoirs, which he tabs as the apotheosis of the tradition in the 20th century.
- T. Jackson Lears, the Rutgers historian, is the author of two books that caution against viewing the dissatisfaction of our time as exceptional: In No Place of Grace he examines the antimodern impulse percolating through industrializing America in the late-19th century; and in Rebirth of a Nation, he narrates how amidst the hollowness of the Gilded Age, Americans turned to militarization as a source of meaning. Or as Lears puts it: “The rise of total war between the Civil War and World War I was rooted in longings for release from bourgeois normality into a realm of heroic struggle.”
- The single biggest reason our government doesn’t work, argues Jonathan Rauch in Demosclerosis is “creeping special-interest gridlock.” This in line with Olson’s argument from The Rise and Decline of Nations discussed above.
My own view of Fallows’ argument is that it’s either too pessimistic or too optimistic depending on how you think about the American electorate, which strangely goes almost unmentioned throughout the essay.
It’s true that aspects of our government are basically set in place: Parliamentary rules will always slow change, the two major parties will always monopolize the ballot, the rich and well-connected will always have an edge over everyone else. But given that, it’s also true that every year we have elections and that those elections matter.
Fallows thinks about government like a broken down car, such that no matter how skilled the driver or where he wants to go, he’s not going to get there. During the eight years of the Bush presidency we would have been better off had that been true. But instead we got Iraq and trillion dollar deficits. It feels odd to point to the election and reelection of George W. Bush as proof that our democracy remains vital, but the extreme calamity of his presidency indicates better than anything else in recent memory that for better or worse, who we choose to lead our country has consequences.
The real question, then, is can we choose the right leaders and hold them accountable once in office? There are reasons to be pessimistic here, too. In 2004, Fallows notes, 153 state or federal positions were up for election in California and not one switched parties, even as the status quo was driving the state into the sea. So there’s reason to doubt whether voters are capable of promoting their own interests at the ballot box.
But there’s also reason for optimism. It’s clear to me at least that we chose the right candidate for president in 2008. And while Obama’s efforts to reform health care have been derailed, maybe for good, the fact that we came within one fluke special election of addressing the biggest problem facing the country says to me that all hope is not lost.
If it really were true that our future depended on special interests giving up the fight, or senators ceasing to act like senators, I’d agree with Fallows’ bleak view. But so long as we have the opportunity every November to reset our course, I can’t believe we won’t eventually, and maybe even in spite of ourselves, end up moving in the right direction.