Declines[1] are definitely downers, the realization often coming as a bit of a shock, especially to fundamentally optimistic Americans.  Nonetheless, the perception is catching on, indeed has become widely fashionable, in part because there’s evidence out there supporting such a conclusion.  The American middle class appears headed in the wrong direction.  The next generation, we’re told, will not be able to pursue a life style comparable to the current one.  Our educational system has become subpar, our infrastructure antiquated, the ability of the U.S. labor market to absorb American workers is declining.  Newspaper circulation is shrinking while our political system once vibrant and responsive has descended into dismal deadlock.  Even on a more mundane level in the world of big time men’s tennis (remember the likes of Tilden, Budge, Kramer, McEnroe, Connors, Agassi), America can no longer produce home-grown champions.

The narrative of decline is by now well established.  It starts, of course, with a presumed “golden age”, a time when all was well, threats distant, prospects bright.  The years after World War II, are one such example widely celebrated for the rise and growth of the middle class.  The GI Bill, the spread of suburbia and the broad availability of good unionized jobs lifted millions into the middle class, sparked dreams of unprecedented prosperity and contentment.  It is also viewed as the best of times for America’s educational system.  Teachers were respected, standards maintained, the basics effectively transmitted, and America’s world leadership in this area indisputable.  It was not that long ago that our political system seemed capable of responding to the nation’s needs.  That’s when the two major parties contained several shades of difference within their ranks, when, for example, Democrats could find moderate Republicans with whom to ally and pass legislation by simple, not super majorities.

Discussions of decline inevitably come around to who or what is responsible.  The 9-11 attack, which shattered America’s sense of security, occurred, many explain, because of failures within the U.S. intelligence community.  The decline of manufacturing results from companies shifting their operations overseas;the housing collapse because of new esoteric financial derivatives.  It can also get personal.  Many blame the declining performance of America’s schools on teachers.  Newt Gingrich was held to be a major contributor to the polarization that came to grip Washington politics.  Tiger Woods presumably wrecked his game by misbehaving away from the golf course.

Can declines be arrested or have some conditions reached a point of no return?  There can be no more important question.  Has water pollution and atmospheric warming advanced too far for a turnaround to occur?  Even with the current natural gas boom will the America’s storehouse of traditional energy supplies be tapped before alternative sources are abundantly available.  Remembering what happened to most all our farmers over a century ago, will workers in manufacturing go the same way?  Can a slippery slope provide any traction?

Remember, Americans love comebacks, however.  Fear of decline can spark turnarounds.  Success often results from previous failures.  Many assumed IBM had lost its mojo; instead it has bounced back.  American exports, thought to be losing out in world markets have come roaring back.  The American auto industry, once declared to be on life support, has once again become vibrant and profitable.  Perceptions of decline have not slowed down the pace of technological advance in the United States.  And what country has stepped up lately to call the shots given of the supposedly waning influence of the U.S. in the world?  Which nation poses a serious challenge to American cultural clout around the globe?  The defense rests.

Still, history may be on the side of those who view America’s glass as half empty.  None other than Jeb Bush recently held that, “We’re in decline.”  Hasn’t time eventually run out on all once powerful, influential and dominant nations?  A suggestive but hardly conclusive argument.  First, let’s wait and see if the current rough patch ends and the present infectious gloom dissipates.  We may then be singing a different tune.

If, however, it doesn’t the task before us will be how to manage relative decline so that it is gradual and graceful, even constructive; a challenge as formidable as any we’ve ever faced.

[1]Decline has been as much a motif in our history as the belief in progress.  In a nation where change is constant, it was easy to confuse it with decline as in “They don’t write songs like that any more.”  Besides, decline also conformed to a religious framework that presumed recurrent cycles of sin followed by spiritual awakenings.

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