Saturday, August 2, 2008

Decline of the U.S.: Where It All Started

Where did it all start? Where did the United States, superpower of the free world, start to slide downhill? It started last year, in something that the President or the Supreme Court or someone else said or did. No, it started before that, when so-and-so did such-and-such. We can trace it back, all the way to whenever and whomever. But here's my take on it. Logically speaking, the decline of the U.S. began from its peak. Right? It was at a peak, and then it ceased to be at its peak, and that's where the decline started. So, then, when was the U.S. at its peak? There was something resembling a peak in the 1990s, when Clinton balanced the budget and the economy was in a long-term expansion. The Soviet Union had collapsed; the U.S. was the world's sole superpower. But in the 1990s, the world was no longer the property of the United States. Japan had soundly thrashed us in manufacturing in the 1980s. Those jobs were gone, as Bruce Springsteen sang, and they weren't coming back. An increasing amount of our stuff was being made abroad. Billy Joel's song "Allentown," commemorating the decline of the Rust Belt, actually came out way back in 1982. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton of the balanced budget was also the Bill Clinton who was humiliated by thugs in Somalia, and who could not lift a finger to stop the Rwanda genocide in 1994. In the 1990s, wages for the average person stagnated. Families were able to keep up economically, in many cases, only because both husband and wife were now working full-time-plus, while struggling to raise the kids. There was no longer so much money for the poor; people were feeling the pinch and were angry about having to pay taxes (for welfare payments, they believed) that bit into what money they did make. The U.S. did have an international adversary, the Soviet Union, from World War II through most of the 1980s. That Cold War rivalry cost the U.S. a great deal in time, money, and anxiety. We lived under the threat of nuclear annihilation. Yet we still do, strictly speaking: the Russians still have their missiles, and so do others. We are not preoccupied with this on a daily basis now, and we were not preoccupied with it then. Yes, we have our photos and, in some cases, our memories of schoolchildren practicing for nuclear war by getting under their desks or going down to the basement. But that threat eventually slipped into the fabric of daily life, in the way that you make sure to clean your dishes so you don't get food poisoning. You mostly don't worry about it until something goes wrong. What we had in the 1960s and thereabouts, that we don't have now, is confidence. Things had kept getting better, and we thought they were going to continue to do so. We had surplusage -- we had enough to waste. Cars had fins in the late 1950s and, a decade later, men had long hair. It was not crucial for young people to get their careers together: they could hitchhike around the country; they could be hippies. The United States, as king of the postwar world, had built layer upon layer of security and control to protect itself. We didn't just have NATO; we also had SEATO and CENTO. We weren't worried about Mexicans sneaking into Texas, not nearly as much as we were worried about Communists sneaking into Vietnam, half a world away. Vietnam. That, I propose, is where the downhill slide began. Eisenhower, especially, had built a stable and prosperous country. JFK's assassination cast a long shadow; but the liberal policies of the time continued to march forward under Lyndon Johnson. The country could afford a lot. But it could not afford Vietnam. Not financially, and not politically or socially. People were worried that Vietnam might tear the country apart. To some extent, it did. Construction workers beat, and young National Guardsmen murdered, young college students who were protesting it. There were riots. The international image of the United States took a drubbing. By present-day standards, the country was in flames in 1968. LBJ did not run for re-election in 1968. Primarily because of his Vietnam policies, he was essentially disgraced. The chant of the day, for antiwar protesters across the street from the White House, was "Hey, hey, LBJ -- how many kids did you kill today?" There hadn't been anything quite like that before. Johnson's departure opened the door for Richard Nixon, who kept us in Vietnam -- who, in fact, escalated the conflagration -- and who would eventually lead us into the oil shock of 1973. Nixon's own disgrace and resignation yielded the ascent of his second vice president, Gerald Ford (the first, Spiro Agnew, having also been disgraced). Ford was a good man, but not a great politician. He was defeated by the hapless Jimmy Carter, another good man of insufficient temperament and experience, who was in turn defeated by Ronald Reagan. Thus we passed the 1970s with an unusual number of presidents and vice presidents, bouncing from Kent State to Watergate to the Iranian revolution to a severe recession. In important ways, we started downhill in 1968. The assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that year (and the nationwide riots and city-burnings that followed the latter) had a powerful negative impact. So did the police beatings of protesters at the Democratic convention in Chicago. Many experienced a profound alienation from the Establishment. Rather than participate in the world of Nixon et al., it became increasingly reasonable to "turn on, tune in, and drop out," as Timothy Leary proposed. The generation gap, as it was called, was so large that Jerry Rubin could gain a wide following for his adage, "Never trust anyone over 30." People of greater age were precisely the ones who were sending young men off to die in that absurd, counterproductive war. After 1968, the oil shocks of 1973, and the global humiliation of having to flee Saigon in 1975, the confidence and the power never returned. Ronald Reagan could promise "Morning in America" in 1980, but he could deliver that new day only by adding enormously to the national debt; and when he left office, he left us with a savings and loan crisis that cost more than $100 billion to fix. It had been encouraging to see a confident face in the White House. Reagan was a leader. But he was delivering a pipe dream. Had he not perpetuated the fantasy of an America that could continue to boss the world around, perhaps the next generation of Republicans would not have imagined that it made sense to waltz into Iraq so nonchalantly. This is not to say that the U.S. will have entirely failed in Iraq. Important good things may come of that adventure. Indeed, at this point important good things seem ever more likely to come of it, thanks especially to the leadership of General David Petraeus. But it was an adventure that the nation could not afford. The hundreds of billions (if not several trillion) that it will ultimately cost were badly needed at home, as were the thousands of people who went over there to fight and die. The Vietnam era was the time to face up to that kind of adventure -- to think and talk about it, sort it out, and convert its learning into national policy and consensus. We did not achieve that. People still argue that we should have tried harder to win that war, instead of recognizing that we didn't belong there and didn't really need to be there. It took more leadership than we could find, at the time, to knock our heads together and make us decide what we were all about. None of the presidents during or following the Vietnam era -- Johnson, Nixon, or Ford, or subsequently Carter or Reagan -- were up to that. And so we had to repeat the experience, thirty years later, in a different form and place. God only knows what kind of world we could have produced if we had stood so strongly and had spent so much, not for anticommunism and capitalism, but for human rights and democracy. Especially since 1968 or thereabouts, we have stood, too often, for the bad guys, because they have said and done what our leaders wanted. This has given us a legacy of powerful anti-American movements around the world. In a bid to keep what we used to have, we have done what aging institutions do: we have supported the status quo, which tends to mean the rich and powerful, at the expense of the ordinary person. That's the story of Musharraf in Pakistan, of Mubarak in Egypt, of the Shah in Iran, of Pinochet in Chile, of Batista in Cuba, of Thieu in South Vietnam ... the list goes on. It is also, increasingly, the story of America itself, whose growing gulf between the poor and the super-rich takes us ever closer to the example of Latin America in decades past. Any nation will have many small rises and falls, as it climbs toward or descends from its peak of influence, power, and wealth. A nation has many dimensions, with myriad people and activities underway at every moment. In a very rough and overall sense, however, I submit that 1968 was the year when America reached its peak. Economic and political indicators have lagged at differing rates since then, but that was close enough to the high point. I would also suggest, incidentally, that the nation's decline from that peak has been facilitated, not retarded, by dirty, deceitful, and violent efforts to cling to the past. The United States still stands for special things. One hopes it does not completely squander that reputation, and the power and influence that go with it, in a foolish bid to avoid the future. The future is scary, and it often brings unpleasant changes. But let us not fight reality. Let us rather make the most of it. It is, indeed, morning in America. The nation is older, and some things that were once easy are not so easy anymore. But life is to be lived nonetheless. Let us live it right.