A powerful, historical-based argument that the U.S. will chose when to decline–and then it will happen. Otherwise, it holds the cards.
As many statesmen and commentators have asked, can Americans do what needs to be done to compete effectively in the twenty-first-century world?
The only honest answer is, who knows? If American history is any guide, however, there is at least some reason to be hopeful. Americans have experienced this unease before, and many previous generations have also felt this sense of lost vigor and lost virtue: as long ago as 1788, Patrick Henry lamented the nation’s fall from past glory, “when the American spirit was in its youth.” There have been many times over the past two centuries when the political system was dysfunctional, hopelessly gridlocked, and seemingly unable to find solutions to crushing national problems—from slavery and then Reconstruction, to the dislocations of industrialization at the end of the nineteenth century and the crisis of social welfare during the Great Depression, to the confusions and paranoia of the early Cold War years. Anyone who honestly recalls the 1970s, with Watergate, Vietnam, stagflation, and the energy crisis, cannot really believe that our present difficulties are unrivaled.
Success in the past does not guarantee success in the future. But one thing does seem clear from the historical evidence: the American system, for all its often stultifying qualities, has also shown a greater capacity to adapt and recover from difficulties than many other nations, including its geopolitical competitors. This undoubtedly has something to do with the relative freedom of American society, which rewards innovators, often outside the existing power structure, for producing new ways of doing things; and with the relatively open political system of America, which allows movements to gain steam and to influence the behavior of the political establishment. The American system is slow and clunky in part because the Founders designed it that way, with a federal structure, checks and balances, and a written Constitution and Bill of Rights—but the system also possesses a remarkable ability to undertake changes just when the steam kettle looks about to blow its lid. There are occasional “critical elections” that allow transformations to occur, providing new political solutions to old and apparently insoluble problems. Of course, there are no guarantees: the political system could not resolve the problem of slavery without war. But on many big issues throughout their history, Americans have found a way of achieving and implementing a national consensus.