Is the United States in Decline?

In The Decline of Nations, published last year, I provided some historical examples of national decline and discussed some evidence of decline in the United States. Among the more worrisome trends included a massive increase in the size and intrusiveness of the federal government including huge deficit spending and indebtedness; serious weaknesses in America’s military capacity and capability; a weak educational system; a decline in America’s culture (including a deterioration in art, literature, manners, morals and religious observance); the superficiality of the media; the decline of traditional institutions such as the family and marriage; a rise in crime and illegal immigration; and an erosion of the rule of law.

Recent events since the book was published confirm these trends. Every one of these weaknesses has gotten worse. While I wrote in my concluding chapter that “the signals early in the twenty-first century are mixed,” two years later it appears clear that the United States is approaching full decline. It is still possible to reverse the trend, but the situation is grave.

Government Extravagance and Mass Democracy

The federal government spent $6.8 trillion in fiscal year 2021. The excess of spending over tax revenue created a $2.8 trillion deficit in that year. The Biden Administration proposes to spend additional trillions and to raise taxes substantially. The Congressional Budget Office projects that deficits will total $15.1 trillion between FY2021 and 2031, and that federal debt held by the public will rise from 100 percent of Gross Domestic Product ($22.3 trillion) today to 106 percent of GDP ($35.8 trillion) by 2031, which would surpass the record level of federal debt set during World War II. The CBO also projects higher inflation (which is already occurring) and rising interest rates, which will adversely affect the budgets and savings of all Americans. 

Massive government spending accomplishes two goals for politicians. First and most obviously, it buys votes. Public officials spend the public’s money in the places where it will do the most for the politicians, although it may incidentally benefit others. Second, over time, government spending creates a growing class of people who become dependent on government through entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, housing allowances, subsidized child care, unemployment benefits, and many other subsidy programs. These programs never go away; they only expand. The dependent classes accordingly grow larger. Most of the programs do not require the beneficiaries to work. Paying people not to work is socially destructive. And, of course, those who receive subsidies tend to vote for the ones who subsidize them. This, again, is the irresistible logic of mass democracy. 

Our founders, of course, being well-versed in history, completely understood the political dangers inherent in democracy, and took steps to provide, in the federal Constitution, some restraints on fiscal irresponsibility, including a limitation on the federal government’s power to impose direct taxes. Direct taxation was authorized much later by the 16th Amendment, adopted in 1913.  

The 16th Amendment was one of the first important products of the Progressive movement, whose intellectual leader was Woodrow Wilson. It was followed by the 17th Amendment, which provided that senators shall be elected by popular vote rather than by state legislatures. These progressive measures destroyed two of the carefully designed checks and balances on mass democracy included in the original Constitution. 

The Progressives were an enormously influential group of statist liberals who regarded the original constitutional understanding (which featured limited government; separation of legislative, executive, and judicial powers; and federalism) as obsolete and inefficient and believed that the power of the national government, and in particular its executive branch, must be greatly expanded in order to regulate the economy and permit open-ended spending on social welfare. Similarly, the Progressives inaugurated a cult of expertise, which led to an administrative welfare state staffed by “experts” who would run powerful and permanent agencies of government. 

The noxious consequences of the Progressive movement are with us still. To give a current example, the federal government and its compliant corporate allies are imposing mandates requiring employees to submit to involuntary vaccinations. We are the helpless subjects of a gigantic and uncontrollable Leviathan which is the historical fulfillment of the New Deal political ideal of “tax and tax, spend and spend, elect and elect.” 

The federal courts, beginning in the 1930s, acquiesced by abandoning constitutional limitations on the administrative state. There are now no effective limits on federal government spending, as evidenced by ever-increasing deficits, public debt and the accompanying inflation. The triumph of the Progressive movement is a part of the abandonment of the original limited and federalist republic and its replacement by mass democracy under the management of the progressive centralized state. Just as the erosion of limits on personal behavior leads to the decline of morals and manners, the disappearance of constitutional limits on government opens the way to every kind of governmental excess.

Tian Jianmin / Costfoto/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Foreign Policy and National Defense

The United States faces serious challenges to its national interests from potentially hostile nations such as China, Russia, Iran and North Korea. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is rapidly modernizing its capabilities. China’s recent launch of a long-range maneuverable hypersonic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead is a potential game changer. China is expanding its militarization of the South China Sea and poses a threat to Taiwan and possibly to other east Asian nations. Its “Belt and Road” initiative seeks to make China the dominant economic power in Eurasia. To pay insufficient attention to the Chinese threat is to repeat the mistake of Britain and its allies in the 1930s in underestimating the German menace.

In terms of the military’s capacity, capability and readiness, the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Military Strength rates the U.S. Army and Navy as marginal, the Air Force as weak, the Marines as strong, the nuclear forces as strong but tending toward marginal, and the Space Force as weak. Recent reports show that the United States is losing the cyber and artificial intelligence war with China and that America’s declining shipbuilding capacity has weakened the Navy’s ability to keep up with China. The reason for these deficiencies is not any lack of competence on the part of America’s warriors, but is due to a lack of funding and support from the legislative and executive branches and neglect by the media and the public generally, who are not sufficiently attentive to the importance of national defense. Neglecting the realities of external threats and the requirements of self-defense is a sure sign of decline.

MARCUS YAM / LOS ANGELES TIMES

The Afghanistan Debacle

When the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States occurred, it was clear that Afghanistan had harbored and supported the Taliban and al-Qaeda, so our military invaded Afghanistan and successfully disabled those terrorist entities in that country. The George W. Bush Administration decided to keep U.S. forces in Afghanistan and to encourage the formation of a modern, democratic government in the country. This process became known as “nation building,” which we also tried (with equal lack of success) in Iraq. Subsequent administrations continued America’s involvement in Afghanistan.

A limited number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan were sufficient to keep the Taliban and al-Qaeda out of power for 20 years. The American effort in Afghanistan was supported by our NATO allies and by many Afghan civilians and military units. In the summer of 2021, the Biden Administration simply walked away and abandoned our allies without any prior notice. This hasty and dishonorable withdrawal was one of the worst foreign policy decisions in recent American history. 

Without U.S. air and logistical support, the Afghan military collapsed and its president fled the country in the face of a determined Taliban onslaught. The United States then frantically tried to evacuate Americans and some Afghan civilians. In an act of unforgivable negligence, our government had abandoned Bagram Air Force Base in July 2021, depriving our military of the best facility for accomplishing a successful evacuation. The result was chaos. The frenzied evacuation from the much smaller Kabul Air Base was able to extract most, but not all, Americans and some Afghan allies, but billions of dollars of first-rate military hardware was left to be captured by the enemy. 

This process violated the most basic principles of a military withdrawal: get the civilians and dependents out first, then the equipment (or destroy what you cannot get out) and then get the troops out. Our leaders did it ass-backward, to use ordinary soldiers’ language. Afghanistan is now back to where it was in 2001—under the control of the Taliban and related groups of ruthless terrorists. Soon enough it will once again be a training ground for terrorists. After this surrender to a third-rate enemy, it may be a stretch to refer to the United States as a superpower.

Education

American education continues to deteriorate. The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 forced the closure of many public schools, and children had to learn online or through home instruction. As a consequence, parents discovered, to their dismay, what their kids were actually being taught in the public schools. It was obvious that the quality of the teaching did not match what the parents expected. 

Parents are losing faith in the public schools’ ability to teach the fundamentals of literacy, mathematics, science, and civics. Two generations of children have graduated from K-12 schools with inadequate skills in reading and math while being indoctrinated with race and gender theory, the politics of resentment and victimhood. Parents now have to fight with school boards and teachers’ unions to prevent further leftist indoctrination of their children. Under the critical race theory teachers employ in many schools, white people are labelled as racists and oppressors, while American history is portrayed as bigoted and hateful. Nature and common sense are denied as the difference between men and women is abandoned to hallucinatory notions of “gender fluidity.” Fortunately, Americans are beginning to rise up against this poisonous and divisive nonsense.

The traditional goals of excellence and achievement are being undermined by a new norm of mediocrity and conformity to the lowest common denominator. The College Board has announced that it is eliminating the essay portion of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) because it is too burdensome for some students. Grades are de-emphasized in college admissions in favor of “diversity and inclusion.” Difficult courses are being dropped across the board. The right of parents to participate in their children’s education is under attack. In the name of equity, we are moving toward mediocrity. It is a race to the bottom.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the public schools are inadequate. They are plagued by violent and disruptive students. As a part of the recent “defund the police” movement, school resource officers whose job was to help prevent such conduct are being removed in some school districts. Parents are surely aware of the many deficiencies of the public schools, but many parents lack the resources to send their children to private schools.

The obvious solution is to break the public school monopoly (which, like all monopolies, is designed to benefit the monopolists and not the customers) and offer school choice. Instead of funding the public schools, state education funds should follow the student. This could be done by legislation at the state level requiring that a major portion of the tax dollars devoted to education be allocated to every K-12 student in the form of an education savings account. Parents of students would be credited annually with a share of this fund which they could direct to an accredited charter, private, or parochial school. A state ballot initiative along these lines, called the California Education Freedom Act, is moving through the signature-gathering process. If passed (and, of course, it will be strongly opposed by the teachers’ unions and other statist and leftist voices), the initiative would fundamentally transform education in California and would quickly spread to other states.

Joshua Lott/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Social Breakdown

Following the killing of a black man by a white police officer in Minneapolis in May 2020, rioting, looting and outbreaks of mob violence occurred in cities all across the country. The police officer was tried, convicted, and sent to prison, but the appropriate use of legal process did not stop the rioters, led by Antifa, Black Lives Matter and other radical organizations who were supported by America’s leftist media and academic elites. Political leaders in American cities did little or nothing to stop the violence. We know from history what happens when mobs in the street begin to control what happens in the cities. In the United States, the FBI reported that in 2020 murders rose by 29.4 percent compared to the previous year and the overall violent crime rate was up by five percent. 

A recent survey indicated that the upward trend in crime rates is continuing in 2021—for example, the number of shootings and carjackings increased during the first seven months of 2021. Some of the rise in crime can be attributed to the anti-police sentiment that arose in 2020 (“defund the police”) and was hyped by the leftist media. The demand to defund the police was part of a broader push for radical social changes such as a moratorium on evictions, postponement of rent, release of prisoners, elimination of bail, redistribution of wealth and similar demands for “social justice.” A reluctance to enforce the rule of law will erode the bonds that hold a society together.

American Culture  

During the first two-thirds of the 20th century, the United States still had what could be described as a common culture. While modernism had certainly produced a certain amount of disruption in art, manners, and taste, there was a general acceptance of traditional moral and religious values, including personal responsibility, standards of behavior, and respect for law and order—even during the Great Depression. In the 1960s, these values began to deteriorate. Academic standards were lowered. A culture of rock music and drugs contributed to a mindless ethos of noise and vulgarity. Now, in the early decades of the 21st century, the “post-modern” culture reflects a culture that is rootless, devoid of spiritual values, disconnected from the past, infatuated with technology and driven by global markets with no traditional moorings or permanent ideals. In a secularized culture, God is forgotten and mammon reigns.

The old upper middle class capitalist elite that dominated American culture from the 1870s until the late 20th century supported traditional values of individual liberty and responsibility, respectability, self-restraint, and respect for religion. The old elite has been replaced by a new “progressive” elite that values equality, secularism, self-indulgence, antinomianism, redistribution of wealth, and the paternalistic welfare state. The old bourgeois elite supported the high culture celebrated by T.S. Eliot in his Notes Toward the Definition of Culture (1948), and this culture has not entirely disappeared—it persists in a few remaining art museums, symphony orchestras, opera companies and a handful of book publishers; but the dominant trends today celebrate the mundane, banal, and vulgar aspects of modern life. 

Popular music today ranges from insipid to degraded. Modern galleries feature some modernist masters to be sure, but also display works designed to shock, amuse, or titillate. Most modern architecture, in the words of Britain’s Prince Charles, is “soulless, bureaucratic and inhuman.” In literature, it is hard to find writers today of the stature of Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, Edith Wharton, John Steinbeck, Saul Bellow, Tom Wolfe, or Walker Percy.

U.S. political and social culture has taken a sharp turn to the left. Left-leaning ideologues are prominent in universities, the media and the Democratic Party. They believe in a kind of cultural Marxism, which holds that America’s traditional economic system—based on free markets, private property, self-reliance, entrepreneurialism, limited government, subsidiarity, and the rule of law—is systematically racist and unfair and should be replaced by some form of collectivist, centralized, administrative welfare state. The Left dislikes the nuclear family as well as the custom-based local community, free enterprise, and separation of powers that go along with it. 

The Media

The news media have always been a vital part of American culture. Traditionally, American newspapers and other media outlets have reflected a wide variety of opinions. Today’s dominant “mainstream media” (including the New York Times, the Washington Post, ABC, CBS, NBC, MSNBC, CNN, National Public Radio and their acolytes) have become politicized followers of the leftist agenda. 

The clearest example of this agenda is the New York Times’ “1619 Project,” launched in 2019, the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first slave ship in America. The real founding of America, according to the Project, was not Jamestown or the arrival of the Mayflower or 1776, but the introduction of slavery into America, which was the foundation of everything that happened thereafter, including the American Revolution, which, the Times argued, was fought to protect the interests of slaveholders. The Project declared slavery to be the centerpiece of American history. 

This perverse narrative was a wholly distorted portrayal of history and was promptly denounced by many prominent historians. Yet it reflected the obsession with slavery on the part of a large number of academics, journalists, and other progressive voices. What the media does not distort it neglects. For example, the media refused to cover the story of Hunter Biden’s corrupt dealings with Chinese entities, which was revealed by the New York Post but buried by the rest of the press. 

There is no longer any pretext of objectivity on the part of America’s establishment media in the era of woke politics. The overwhelming left-wing bias of the media is accompanied by a striking ignorance of history. The news bias toward the Left can also be seen in other aspects of American life, including academia, the entertainment business, big sports, big corporations, and the military. This reflects the general cultural shift toward the progressive left.

Jordan Vonderhaar/Getty Images

Immigration

Since its founding, the United States has benefited from a steady and relatively manageable influx of productive and motivated immigrants, mostly from European countries. Until the 1960s, the flow of immigrants was limited by various quotas and restrictions. Under the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, however, which permitted “chain migration” of family members, there was a surge of immigration, especially from Mexico and Central America and more recently from Africa and Asia. Much of this immigration in recent decades has been illegal, and many of the migrants are lacking in basic skills and are less likely to assimilate than previous immigrants. 

In addition, thousands of pounds of fentanyl, methamphetamine, and other dangerous drugs cross the border every month. When the Biden Administration took office in January 2021, it stopped construction of the Trump Administration’s border wall, eliminated every other meaningful border restriction including Trump’s “remain in Mexico” policy, and reinstituted the “catch-and-release” policy. The result was a disaster on the southern border. 

In 2021, the number of illegal immigrants apprehended at the border has exceeded 170,000 per month and in July 2021 it exceeded 210,000. Border Patrol officers are overwhelmed. Among the hordes of migrants are criminals and terrorists, brought in by human smugglers and cartels. Year-to-date apprehensions are over 1 million, the largest increase in decades. Under the catch and release policy, most migrants are released into the interior of the United States to await their asylum hearing; few show up. This chaotic situation at our border is an additional sign of decline. A nation that cannot control its borders is not a fully sovereign nation.  

The Leadership Crisis

To overcome crises like those described above requires competent leadership. But such leadership is in short supply in America today. The leadership of Joe Biden since his inauguration in January 2021 has been an abject failure. His management of the withdrawal from Afghanistan was a disaster. 

The crisis on our southern border is another example of inept leadership. Administration officials have repeated disinformation, including statements that “the border is closed,” when it plainly was not. Biden named Vice President Kamala Harris as the designated leader to take charge of the border but she did nothing whatever to alleviate the crisis and has seldom even visited the border. 

Biden’s financial management has been appalling, proposing trillions of dollars of new spending with the support of Congressional Democrats in what would become the biggest spending spree since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society of the 1960s.

In sum, the nation’s growing deficits and debt, its weakened military, rising inflation, feckless leadership, foreign policy retreat, educational malpractice, urban unrest, cultural decline and out-of-control border, taken together, are clear evidence of decline.

So early in the 21st century the good ship United States, several times retrofitted and re-launched, sails into a turbulent sea with an incompetent captain, an undependable first mate and a crew it would be generous to call motley.

What Is To Be Done? 

First of all, it is necessary to change the crew. The 25th amendment provides a legal process for doing so, but the will to invoke it does not exist in either the executive branch or in Congress. In 2022, the voters will elect a new Congress and that will give the American people the opportunity to exercise the most important vote since World War II. It is Congress, after all, that has “all legislative powers” under the Constitution. The results of state and local elections in 2021 indicate that a political readjustment may be under way. An example is Glenn Youngkin’s successful gubernatorial campaign in Virginia, which emphasized higher standards and student achievement in schools, empowering parents, more support for law enforcement and public safety, and more efficient and accountable government. 

Above all, we need to return to the institutions and principles on which the nation was founded. 

As Adam Smith said, “There is a great deal of ruin in a nation,” referring to General Burgoyne’s defeat by American revolutionary troops at Saratoga in 1777. Smith correctly perceived that Britain was unlikely to be “ruined” by this defeat or other defeats in the American Revolution. But the capacity of a nation to endure defeats is not infinite. Our nation has endured a number of setbacks in recent years, some of which have been described above, including our defeat in Afghanistan, the continuing invasion of aliens on our southern border, massive fiscal irresponsibility by our government, a deteriorating educational system, and a decadent culture. None of these occurrences is irreparable, but it is dismaying that they continue to happen and no one does anything to reverse course. A strong nation can do better.

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