“The loss of faith in America, its promises, and its constitutional and democratic ideals augurs not only American decline, but American collapse.”
any leading thinkers have begun correctly to refer to our present era as “decadent.” Anomie and alienation reign, and when considered alongside the periodic episodes of intense, tribalistic, bad-faith acting, and violence (like the one that has been on display in Washington as of late), these realities point towards an uncomfortable truth: The American republic is in decline. The causes for our apparent decline—and thus, the potential paths back towards confidence and prosperity—are numerous and hotly debated.
In his recently published book, The Decline of Nations, Joseph F. Johnston, Jr. offers a fairly standard conservative take on what ails America and how we might save ourselves from the throes of decline. In doing so, Johnston’s argument inadvertently highlights both the strengths and the weaknesses of conservative and market-oriented diagnoses of American decline and their related proposals for American renewal.
Lessons from the Past: The Great Powers of Rome and Britain
Johnston grounds his study of American decline in the historical examples of Rome and Britain, and he unearths relevant takeaways: that the economic base of great power strength must not be neglected, that military strength stems from economic strength, that overextension into foreign forays can weaken a nation at home, that the comforts of civilization can leave a nation unprepared and unwilling to put in the requisite hard work and sacrifice that brought it to its great power status in the first place, and that the modern shift in core governing priorities away from national defense and economic growth towards redistribution of a staid economic pie can prove destructive.
One of the most interesting aspects of Johnston’s survey of Roman and British decline is the vital role that aristocracy played in both societies. When analyzing the collapse of the Roman empire, Johnston notes that “Every successful nation depends upon a diligent, loyal, and effective sociopolitical elite or establishment.” Unfortunately for Rome, its elite grew eviscerated over time. The Roman senate’s weakness made manifest the wider reality of Roman elite collapse: “In return for wealth, dignity, and meaningless honors, the senators accepted a position of helpless subservience to the emperor and the generals.”
So too in Britain, where the landed aristocracy lost much of its economic, social, and political power in the face of 19th and 20th century industrialization. Those powers were usurped by the novel titans of industry, but “the capitalists were morally unprepared for leadership.” The immense gains of industrial capitalism were insufficiently dispersed, writes Johnston, and backlash ensued. Soon enough, Britain had thrown in its lot with socialist-leaning policies that hampered its economic dynamism and national strength up through the Thatcher era.
Johnston’s insights into the importance of a legitimate aristocratic elite for the sake of national strength and unity are relevant even to our supposedly meritocratic and democratic 21st century American society. As Ross Douthat pointed out in the wake of President George H.W. Bush’s death in 2018, part of us yearns for the return of the WASPs—“a ruling class that was widely (not universally, but more widely than today) deemed legitimate, and that inspired various kinds of trust (intergenerational, institutional) conspicuously absent in our society today.” The elites that replaced the WASPs certainly do not engender the same sort of acceptance and trust on the part of the wider public that the WASPs did. As institutional legitimacy and social trust continue to wither, it is worth reflecting on whether the hallowing out of the United States’ former elite is, in fact, part of the problem—as was the case in both Rome and Britain. Of course, increased diversity within elite enclaves and lowered barriers to access to said enclaves warrants celebration. That said, as meritocracy increasingly becomes the order of the day, we are in danger of losing that sense of elite duty, that sense of noblesse oblige from our elites to serve the common good.
Americans need to be reconnected to one another, to the engines of prosperity, and to institutions like faith and family that give life meaning.
Atop this interesting point regarding the role of a socially legitimate and duty-bound aristocracy, Johnston makes a persuasive case for a renewed focus on economic prosperity, military strength, and wariness of “overreach” in foreign policy. Indeed, the stagnant growth of the United States’ economic pie and our weakened defense capabilities and trimmed military budgets are certainly key factors behind American decline. With that said, Johnston’s pitting of the welfare state against economic dynamism is somewhat question-begging.
For starters, it is important to remember that the United States won the Cold War and entered its “unipolar moment” with a welfare state that was far more generous and far more bloated than today’s welfare state. With the passage of welfare reform in 1996—i.e., the transition from Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) to Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF)—the American welfare state grew a good bit leaner. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) reported in 2016: “Over the last 20 years, the national TANF average monthly caseload has fallen by almost two-thirds—from 4.4 million families in 1996 to 1.6 million families in 2014—even as poverty and deep poverty have worsened.” And the following graph from the CBPP—depicting the declining proportion of families with children living in poverty who are receiving welfare payments—makes the weakening of the American welfare state all the more clear.
I am not one to grapple with Johnston’s Daniel Bell–inspired thesis that the gains from the capitalist system of fairly widespread luxury and comfort can, in turn, chip away at the virtues of hard work and delayed gratification that sustain the continued success of the underlying system. However, Johnston might be going a bit too far to couple this insight with broadsides against the welfare state and insinuations that it is culpable for American decline: “The basic question is straightforward: has the wide expansion of luxury, hedonism, overexpansion, and the omnicompetent therapeutic state imperiled the vigor and cohesion of our society and its capacity for action?” Surely, cutting bloat from government assistance is a good thing, but having read works like Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope, I am less than convinced that further cuts to government assistance programs are what is needed. It certainly is time to update these programs: to make them more efficient and more tailored to the actual needs of Americans in our 21st century, ever fluctuating economy. However, cutting them seems neither helpful nor just. Instead of cutting, we need to counter decline by adapting a mindset of connecting. Americans need to be reconnected to one another, to the engines of prosperity, and to institutions like faith and family that give life meaning.
The Overlooked Aspect of American Decline
Johnston gives short shrift to the greatest threat to American self-confidence, prosperity, and national vigor: the ascendant political mindsets that are premised on tribalistic “us” vs. “them” thinking (whether that be a cultural, racial, or economic “us” and “them”). The ascent of tribalistic politics threatens the continuance of America’s democratic republican constitutional order, as evidenced by the shameful insurrectionary violence at the United States Capitol on January 6th. The dictates of tribe blind us from the reality of common citizenship. As our sense of “us” and “them” grows increasingly entrenched, the willingness to abide by law and democratic norms withers. The continuance of our constitutional order—of our nation of laws and not of men—is thrown into question. With our constitutional democracy gone, our pace of decline will transition from drift to overdrive.
What drives such tribalistic politics is a sense among various groups of people that they have not had their fair share of the opportunity to pursue happiness and the good life—the very promise of the American Dream. So, while Johnston is correct to stress certain realities of hard power when assessing the causes of American decline and the way out—like the neglect of the importance of economic growth, military hard power, and the prudent usage thereof—the more immediate threat to American greatness more or less escapes his study: the increasing loss of faith in the promise of America. That loss of faith propelled the populist nationalism of President Donald Trump’s political rise—a rise that is currently ending in violence and absolute disgrace. And so too did it undergird the violence unleashed by the police killings of unarmed African American citizens this past summer.
As the heinous insurrectionary violence at the Capitol on January 6th has made clear, our tribalism—our falling into categories of “us” and “them,” the contempt that pervades that division, and the resultant willingness on the part of many to forsake democratic norms and procedures—threatens to become the most relevant, material, and proximate cause of American collapse.
In sum, Johnston is correct to stress the necessities of hard power and the decline in genuine patriotic attachments to the United States. However, much like how we need to think more critically about the demand side of the problem of conspiracy theorizing, we need to ponder why there is such demand for the sorts of grievance-ridden, tribalistic politics that threaten to strike at the core of the American experiment. The loss of faith in America, its promises, and its constitutional and democratic ideals augurs not only American decline, but American collapse. It is best that we attend to that loss of faith, and that we do so quickly.
Thomas Koenig is a recent graduate of Princeton University and will be attending Harvard Law School in the fall of 2021. He can be found on Twitter @TomsTakes98