Reviews | Is the American national character in decline?

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John F. Kennedy, a young war hero on his first campaign for Congress, gave a speech on July 4, 1946, at Faneuil Hall in Boston. It was mostly patriotic bromides about God and country. But it included a haunting meditation on the American soul.

“The character of a nation, like that of an individual, is elusive,” Kennedy said. “It is produced partly by things we have done and partly by what has been done to us. It is the result of physical factors, intellectual factors, spiritual factors. … In peace, as in war, we will survive or fail according to his measure.

What does our national portrait look like on this Independence Day? Many of us see an angry, traumatized face, rather than the radiant glow of the Founders. That’s the weird thing about this hyperpartisan moment: Almost every American, regardless of political outlook, has a feeling that the country they love is losing its way.

How great is the danger of national decline? The Pentagon’s internal think tank, which goes by the mysterious name “Office of Net Assessment,” commissioned a study of the problem from Michael J. Mazarr, a senior political scientist at the Rand Corp. It has just been published, under the title, “The Societal Foundations of National Competitiveness.” It’s not an upbeat summer read, but it’s free to download online, and it’s worth it.

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Mazarr’s troubling conclusion is that America is losing many of the seven attributes he deems necessary for competitive success: national ambition and will; unified national identity; shared opportunity; an active state; effective institutions; a learning and adaptive society; and competitive diversity and pluralism.

Let’s start with American ambition and confidence, once our most notable trait. “Writers and scholars…have argued that the spirit of adventure, experimentation, and determination to remake the future have all flowed back into the American character,” Mazarr writes.

He notes a poll that found three-quarters of people polled in 2019 were unhappy with the direction the country is heading. A 2018 study reported that more than 60% of respondents had “more fear than hope”. And Americans of all parties do not trust the institutions of our country. A 2018 poll recorded only 10% “very satisfied” with how democracy works; it also found that two-thirds of respondents agree that “officials don’t care what I think”.

National unity and cohesion are in decline, Mazarr believes. A country that has succeeded (sometimes brutally) in assimilating diverse groups is more fragmented, and the idea of ​​America as a “melting pot” seems archaic to many people. But our distinct identities come at a cost: “A country whose population is rapidly diversifying – though it derives competitive advantages from that diversity – will also face greater obstacles to maintaining a sense of cohesive national identity,” writes Mazarr.

America remains a society of opportunities, in principle, but Mazarr sees growing constraints there. He cites evidence of rising inequality. Between 2001 and 2016, the median net worth of the middle class fell by 20% and that of the working class by 45%. He notes evidence that in every generation since 1945, children have been less likely to earn more money than their parents.

These problems are obvious, but the government has been unwilling or unable to correct them. Mazarr cites a World Bank assessment of the gradual decline in “effective governance” in the United States over the past 20 years. It’s not just a government problem, however. Private sector productivity has been stagnating for decades and businesses are struggling with bureaucracy and bloat. Universities spend almost as much on administration as they do on education, and administrative costs account for a third of total health expenditure.

Part of America’s DNA is the idea that our problems can be solved. I am still in this party of optimists. But I found Mazarr’s conclusions frightening. When countries start to fail, he argues, “it’s a negative feedback loop, a toxic synergy.” The energy that could reverse the decline is being sapped by distrust and misinformation. Some people are so angry that they want to burn down the house and start over.

We are not at that cataclysmic point yet. I see positive signs in the slow but growing Republican willingness to challenge Donald Trump, and in the broad bipartisan anger over the extremism of recent Supreme Court rulings. But bad things can happen to good countries, as our modern history shows.

The American character was once easy to define. We were a young and optimistic nation, merging “one among many”, as the Latin phrase engraved on our coins says. Wherever they came from, Americans embraced the aspiration to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” written in the Declaration of Independence. May it always be so.


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