There's a debate just behind the Republican search for a winning candidate, just at the edges of President Obama's campaign for re-election, about whether America is finished. These debaters put it in the form of a polite academic question: Is America in decline?
The debate, as such intellectual exercises always are, is restricted so far to the small but influential magazines read by the chattering class. When New Criterion magazine called for a symposium on the subject last spring, the editors were surprised to find they had tapped into the "pulse of the zeitgeist." A headline in Foreign Affairs magazine asks bluntly, "Is America Over?" Both liberals and conservatives argue over how to stop what they perceive as the national slide.
This isn't the first time such a notion has been raised in such circles. During the Cold War, the pessimists, intimidated by Soviet superiority of arms buildup and the tight control of the countries behind the Iron Curtain, prophesied impending doom. This lasted right up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Jimmy Carter called it "malaise," and many Americans, frightened by the sight of America (or at least Jimmy Carter) held hostage by Iran, agreed with the president that America was beginning to slip and slide.
But the recognition of decline can enable a comeback. Ronald Reagan entered stage right, proclaiming that it was "morning in America." The sobered Iranians returned the hostages the minute the new president took the oath of office, and soon Americans saw themselves as residents once more in the shining city on the hill. We had been at risk of decline before. When the Soviets sent Sputnik into space and vaunted American technology was severely challenged, the nation was galvanized into getting its act together, and soon Americans were on their way to plant an American flag on the moon.
The threat today is both foreign and domestic, which might be summed up in a tweak of lyrics from the musical "Cabaret": "A lack of money, money, money." High unemployment, a collapsed housing market and astronomical debt contribute to the inability to live up to the nation's heritage. Abandoned cultural habits and attitudes, a loss of belief and pride in the very idea of America are enough to sow doubts in the heart of any patriot.