The narrative of American decline gets louder every day. Our parents had it better. Our influence overseas has waned. Our country is poorer and more divided than ever.
We say these things, and we mean them in the moment, and our knowledge of history — or lack thereof — allows us to truly believe them. "American decline is the idea that the United States of America is diminishing in power geopolitically, militarily, financially, economically, socially, culturally, in matters of healthcare, and/or on environmental issues," observes a Wikipedia entry on the idea. "There has been debate over the extent of the decline, and whether it is relative or absolute," the article adds, but that it is happening is presented nearly as established fact.
Our decline is in every journal you can think of, on the left, on the right. It's on our fine website here at The Week. And the idea has a long and illustrious history: Decline is a sad story many peoples have told themselves.
But what if the story is wrong? And what if constantly calling back to the way things never actually were makes it impossible for our own age to live up to our expectations — let alone hopes?
When you're looking for signs of decline, it's easy to see them everywhere. In our culture wars, one side sees a horrible moral fall from the good old ways, while the other thinks we're losing the high ground and slipping back into the dark ages. We see decline on the battlefield, pretending we don't win wars anymore. We say people can't find good jobs anymore. Our culture is bankrupt! Look, the only movies we can can make anymore are sequels!
I don't want to make light of any person's suffering. I've been out of work; I have felt despair; and I can't believe that Fast & Furious is still around. But that's hardly a complete picture.
Economically, there's an incredible imbalance of wealth in this country, yes. But our poverty rates are historically low, and we've seen enormous inequality in "better" days. (When John D. Rockefeller walked the earth, he was worth $418 billion, adjusted for inflation — more than $100 billion more than Elon Musk, two Jeffs Bezos, or more than two thirds of the entire federal budget in 1920.) China will overtake the U.S. in the overall size of its economy, but U.S. per capita GDP is more six times that of China and considerably larger than that of other Western nations.
As for influence, there's still no other nation that can rival ours. (Have you ever eaten in the French version of McDonald's when you're traveling in Istanbul?) American soft power remains unmatched.
Our hard power does, too. The U.S. military did not "win" in Afghanistan because it wasn't an existential fight. We achieved an initial victory in ousting the Taliban, achieved another in killing Osama bin Laden, lost sight of what winning meant, and then — fairly enough — decided it was time to go home. That's not a triumph, but it's also not a defeat, and if our soldiers need to be sent to war to protect the homeland or our allies, they stand ready.
Can the United States defend itself from military threats from around the world? No one says no. Can America still project awesome power across oceans and continents? No one says no. Can any other nation in the world do the same at anywhere near the scale of the United States? No.
Do we need a stronger military than the one that nearly $800 billion is buying? We can have one. America was not an international player before World War II became the Arsenal of Democracy and put more than 16 million men under arms. Imagine what the U.S. could do now if we needed to.
And for those who say we're more divided than ever before, three words: American Civil War.
Look, I'm 51 years old. When I was born, Saigon was soon to fall; a president resigned in disgrace after trying to pull down the whole judiciary with him; New York City (where I grew up) was falling apart, and people were scared even to visit. Cars were ugly, beige, and got 3 miles to the gallon; no one could believe the federal deficit was so high; the culture was morally bankrupt, and rock and roll had died with the 1960s. For God's sake, the Beatles had broken up!
Are things truly worse now? Have we declined since the highpoint of shag carpet, the outright dismissal of women and minorities, and the hatred and fear of the LGBT community?
What we are lacking a sense of self-belief, of confidence in our competence. We believe we are powerless and so become powerless. If you believe you will fail before you start, you probably will.
The reality is that when a massive pandemic hit, the U.S. kept things moving, people working, and used science to develop a vaccine faster than most doctors thought possible. We created billions of dollars and sent people checks, put money into roads and other infrastructure. And even though the supply chain rattled, and we couldn't find cream cheese for a little while, it didn't break.
The reality is that when Russia decided to roll back the end of history, America was there to help, shaping a coalition to punish Russian President Vladimir Putin and his co-conspirators, and sending massive stockpiles of weapons to a quasi-ally.
The reality is that America is still a great power — none greater — and can even be a power for good. It's time to believe it.