How America Can Rise Again (The Atlantic, Jan/Feb 2010)
In the seventh century BC, the prophet Jeremiah told the people of Israel that their difficulties of the day were justly deserved punishment for their heathen and wicked ways. He also told them, though, that they could return to their chosen status with a renewed dedication to Jehovah. Today, a jeremiad is any warning that current problems are the result of straying from previous standards, but with the promise of restoration to better times ahead if they will follow a suggested corrective course. In How America Can Rise Again, author (and former Jimmy Carter speechwriter) James Fallows explores the question of “whether America is finally going to hell”, but in the tradition of the jeremiad, he offers possibilities for overcoming the massive problems he diagnoses.
In Fallows’ introduction, we see a decaying US through fresh eyes as he returns from an extended stay in China. The worn roads and bridges as one leaves John F. Kennedy airport evoke the standard recitations of the impending demise of the US:
“When I was growing up, these bridges and roads and dams were a source of real national pride and achievement,” Stephen Flynn, the president of the Center for National Policy in Washington, who was born in 1960, told me. “My daughter was 6 when the World Trade Center towers went down, 8 when lights went off on the East Coast, 10 when a major U.S. city drowned—I saw things built, and she’s seen them fall apart.”
Fallows warns us that we’ve been here before and the US has always managed to survive. He also shrugs off the urge to warn us against “falling behind” when comparing the US to other nations and argues that this is a relatively new phenomenon in social warnings. Prior to Sputnik, he explains, the failings were in falling short of expectations, instead of falling behind the achievements of other countries. In the past, the US has survived because it “continually refreshes its connections with the rest of the world—through languages, family, education, business—in a way no other nation does, or will.” These connections depend especially on our openness to immigration, coupled with a university system that serves to attract the greatest minds from around the world.
So what are the problems we now face? Here is Fallows’ list:
The main concerns boil down to jobs, debt, military strength, and overall independence. Jobs: Will the rise of other economies mean the decline of opportunities within America, especially for the middle-class jobs that have been the country’s social glue? Debt: Will reliance on borrowed money from abroad further limit the country’s future prosperity, and its freedom of action too? The military: As wealth flows, so inevitably will armed strength. Would an ultimately weaker United States therefore risk a military showdown or intimidation from a rearmed China? And independence in the broadest sense: Would the world respect a threadbare America? Will repressive values rise with an ascendant China—and liberal values sink with a foundering United States? How much will American leaders have to kowtow?
The bright side, Fallows tells us, is that it is within American power and ability to address these concerns through policy adjustments.
But the biggest problem we face, according to Fallows, is that our government is stuck in archaic structures that belie the rest of American culture’s ability to renew itself. Fallows notes that “A similarly inflexible business organization would still have a major Whale Oil Division; a military unit would be mainly fusiliers and cavalry.” Short of revolution, he sees no way of fixing these defects and shows us the fruits of partisan gerrymandering: “In a National Affairs article, ‘Who Killed California?,’ Troy Senik pointed out that 153 state or federal positions in California were at stake in the 2004 election. Not a single one changed party.”
So, Fallows’ description of our sad state is now complete: “What I have been calling ‘going to hell’ really means a failure to adapt: increasing difficulty in focusing on issues beyond the immediate news cycle, and an increasing gap between the real challenges and opportunities of the time and our attention, resources, and best efforts.”
In the best jeremiad tradition, Fallows then begins to address how America can rise again. His first offering is for “an enlightened military coup”, but, thankfully, he then states that we really can’t hope for that. Next, he proposes that “We could hope to change the basic nature of our democracy, so it fits the times as our other institutions do”, but winds up dismissing something as radical as a new Constitutional Convention when he considers the chaos that would ensue from trying to start over in our currently divided society.
That brings us down to only two final choices:
Doing more, or doing less. Trying to work with our flawed governmental system despite its uncorrectable flaws, or trying to contain the damage that system does to the rest of our society. Muddling through, or starving the beast.
Unsurprisingly, Fallows rejects “starving the beast” and sets out his prescription for “muddling through”, which consists of moving the dialog to basing our decisions on their effects 75 years into the future rather than today. Toward that end, he says, we should rebuild our infrastructure, reinvest in research and address looming environmental challenges and then America can indeed rise again.
Please welcome Mr. Fallows to our Book Salon and join in the discussion of his timely and compelling article.