Is America going to hell? After a year of economic calamity that many fear has sent us into irreversible decline, the author finds reassurance in the peculiarly American cycle of crisis and renewal, and in the continuing strength of the forces that have made the country great: our university system, our receptiveness to immigration, our culture of innovation. In most significant ways, the U.S. remains the envy of the world. But here’s the alarming problem: our governing system is old and broken and dysfunctional. Fixing it—without resorting to a constitutional convention or a coup—is the key to securing the nation’s future.
Image credit: Seamus Murphy
Since coming back to the United States after three years away in China, I have been asking experts around the country whether America is finally going to hell. The question is partly a joke.
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How should we feel? I spoke with historians and politicians, soldiers and ministers, civil engineers and broadcast executives and high-tech researchers. Overall, the news they gave was heartening—and alarming, too.
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One Reason Not to Worry: We Have Been Here Before
Another Reason Not to Worry: The Irrelevance of “Falling Behind”
The Crucial American Advantage
The Main Concerns
The full details are beyond us here, but the crucial point is that in principle, the United States itself has the power to correct what is wrong in each case.
The Biggest Problem
That is the American tragedy of the early 21st century: a vital and self-renewing culture that attracts the world’s talent, and a governing system that increasingly looks like a joke. . . . In 1994, Jonathan Rauch updated Olson’s analysis and called this enfeebling pattern “demosclerosis,” in a book of that name. He defined the problem as “government’s progressive loss of the ability to adapt,” a process “like hardening of the arteries, which builds up stealthily over many years.”
Scientists I spoke with said that as more and more research money is assigned by favoritism and earmark, it becomes harder for scientists to pursue the most-promising research opportunities.
What Is To Be Done?
I started out this process uncertain; I ended up convinced. America the society is in fine shape! America the polity most certainly is not.
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What are the choices? Logically they come down to these, starting with the most fanciful:
We could hope for an enlightened military coup, or some other deus ex machina by the right kind of tyrants. . . .
We could hope to change the basic nature of our democracy, so it fits the times as our other institutions do. But this is about as likely as an enlightened coup. . . .
Our government is old and broken and dysfunctional, and may even be beyond repair. But Starr is right. Our only sane choice is to muddle through. . . .