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Column: America in Decline? A Gloomy History

  • Laura Ingraham from FOX News Channel speaks on the third day of the Republican National Convention on July 20, 2016 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.Photo by Olivier Douliery/

For the Valley News
Published: 8/27/2016 10:05:40 PM
Modified: 8/27/2016 10:26:48 PM

To hear Republicans tell it, the apocalypse is at hand.

At the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, for example, speaker after speaker spun doomsday scenarios about America’s catastrophic decline and imminent demise. Political commentator Laura Ingraham warned that respect was in decline and said that the Democratic nominee had helped to “orchestrate America’s decline.” She worried that she would someday have to tell her children “about how great America used to be.” Newt Gingrich referred obliquely to “accumulating atrocities,” arguing that “every American should be terrified at the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency.”

Some even warned that 2016 could be America’s last election. “There’s no next election,” Rudy Guiliani, the former mayor of New York City, said, “this is it.” The Republican nominee’s slogan is “Make America Great Again.”

The narrative of declension has a long pedigree in American history. Things are not as good as they used to be in some half-forgotten halcyon past. Puritan ministers in the latter half of the 17th century decried the spiritual decline in colonial Massachusetts. These jeremiads (recalling the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah) lamented that the Puritans had fallen away from the faith of the founders, and they called New England to repentance.

In God’s Controversy with New-England, published in 1662, Michael Wigglesworth rendered divine judgment in doggerel. He opened with a history of the settlement of New England, and then asked, on behalf of the Almighty,

Is this the people blest with bounteous store,

By land and sea full richly clad and fed,

Whom plenty’s self stands waiting still before,

And powreth out their cups well tempered?

For whose dear sake an howling wildernes

I lately turned into a fruitfull paradeis?

“The people of New-England are a people whom God hath signally owned and blessed in our first and former times,” Increase Mather wrote in 1674. But the Puritans had fallen away, Mather lamented, “so have we sinned, and provoked the Lord to anger against us, so that of late years he hath severely witnessed against us by the variety of his judgments in a successive way, and for a long time.” Mather concluded that “we are at present an afflicted and poor people, greatly diminished, impoverished and brought very low.”

Mather’s message was that New England had declined from the ideals of its founding generation. And the evidence for this? Droughts, fires in Boston, religious apathy, bickering among the Puritans themselves — everything but that for the nth year in a row the Red Sox failed to make it to the World Series.

The declension narrative resurfaced during the era of the Civil War. Following the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, Gilbert Haven declared that “the judgment of Heaven is upon us.” As the South suffered losses during the course of the war, one Confederate attributed the setbacks to “the aggregate of sinfulness that is working our ruin.” Still another commentator declared that “America has become like the great city of Babylon” for its failure to abolish slavery.

And who could forget Jerry Falwell’s memorable assessment of 9/11, which he blamed on gays, feminists, the American Civil Liberties Union and People for the American Way? The tragedy, he opined, “as terrible as it is, could be miniscule if, in fact — if, in fact — God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve.”

For those who espouse the narrative of declension, the era of peace and prosperity is just behind us and only a return to the purity of an earlier age will bring redemption. This was the message emanating from the podium in Cleveland and now reverberating in Trump rallies across the country.

And who’s to blame for America’s decline? The Democrats, of course, specifically Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Really? Do Republicans actually believe that America was better off eight years ago before Obama took office?

If I remember correctly, the United States was still reeling from the Bush-Cheney recession eight years ago, when Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns collapsed, General Motors teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, millions of Americans lost their jobs and their retirement savings and unemployment spiked to 10 percent. Since the economy hit bottom, however, the nation has steadily added millions of private sector jobs, and the unemployment rate currently stands at 4.9 percent — still too high, but a vast improvement, the lowest rate in decades. As for the stock market (something Republicans tend to care about), the Dow-Jones average stood at 7,949 on the day Obama was inaugurated; on the final day of the Republican National Convention, the Dow closed at 18,563.

Yes, it sure appears we’re in a terrible economic tailspin.

No one, least of all the president himself, would argue that the economy is as robust as it should be, but let’s remember that since January 2011 he has been dealing with an obstructionist Congress. And no one will argue that Obamacare is perfect, but approximately 20 million more Americans now have health insurance than before, and the costs have been lower than anticipated.

Declension? The aforementioned obstructionist Congress has thwarted efforts to address pressing issues — climate change, closing Guantánamo Bay, immigration reform, confirming judicial appointments — thereby frustrating the president’s best efforts. Sure, we face more than our share of problems, including terrorism abroad and violence at home, but are Republicans seriously prepared to argue that the nation was better off eight years ago?

The beauty of the declension narrative is that the bearer of doom and gloom neatly evades any responsibility for the situation itself. It’s someone else’s fault. The tragic shooting of police officers, for example, apparently has nothing to do with a pattern of racial profiling or the lack of political will to enact gun safety legislation or keep firearms out of the hands of lunatics and terrorists and criminals.

But the declension narrative also reflects an utter lack of historical literacy. In his acceptance speech, Donald Trump railed against Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of state. The failure to prosecute, Trump said, demonstrates that “corruption has reached a level like never before.”

I have no brief for Clinton. It astounds me that someone so manifestly intelligent can sometimes be so foolish — did she seriously believe that Rep. Darrell Issa and his colleagues wouldn’t find out about the private server? — and her behavior at times suggests only a nodding acquaintance with the rudiments of ethical behavior.

But corruption on “a level like never before”? Even accounting for the hyperbole of campaign rhetoric, that’s an astonishingly reckless statement. Has Trump never heard of Watergate? Or Teapot Dome? Or, for that matter, the Iran-Contra scandal, when the Reagan administration illegally sold arms to Iran (likely as a payoff for delaying the hostages’ release until after the 1980 presidential election) and then funneled the proceeds to rebels in Nicaragua? I can think of many reasons to reject the orange candidate with trapezoidal hair, but lack of historical perspective should rank near the top of any such list. Americans must think long and hard about electing a president with such a tenuous grasp of history.

The declension narrative, an evergreen in American discourse, is an exercise in both nostalgia and distortion. But more often than not it represents a displaced nostalgia, one distorted by time, memory or naked partisanship. Perhaps Laura Ingraham would like to regale her children about “how great America used to be” in the glory days of the constitutional crisis brought on by Watergate or during the economic calamities of the Bush-Cheney recession.

Randall Balmer is chair of the Religion Department and director of the Society of Fellows at Dartmouth College. He is the author of more than a dozen books, including Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter.

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