An introduction to our symposium “Is America in Decline?,” held jointly with England’s Social Affairs Unit.
Burke was right!
We are only five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America.
—Barack Obama, October 2008
I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.
—Barack Obama, April 2009
Civilizations die from suicide, not murder.
—Arnold J. Toynbee, A Study of History
Decline is once again in vogue.1 When we began contemplating a symposium on the question “Is America in Decline” last spring, little did we think that our finger would be so firmly on the pulse of the Zeitgeist. Look around: kindred symposia, essays, and special sections have sprouted up like mushrooms. Some have employed the same title we chose—“Is America in Decline?”—but I’ve noticed a gradual ratcheting up of the rhetorical volume. The current issue of Foreign Affairs, for example, screams in seventy-two-point type: “Is America Over?”
English is not as formal as Latin in distinguishing between questions that are genuine questions and those that expect a certain answer, Yes or No as the case may be. This gives writers and editors a little epistemological wiggle room. “Is America in Decline?” “Is America Over?” Are those genuine questions or covert declarations? You have to read on to find out. Let me say straightaway, then, that we intend our question mark to be a neutral interrogative. There are plenty of sobering observations and depressing statistics in the essays that follow. But the (generally gleeful) certitude that the answer to such questions must be Yes is hasty if not misplaced. The rejoinders “That depends” and “Compared to what?” never seem to receive the attention they deserve.