Over at the Why Nations Fail blog Acemoglu and Robinson have two interesting posts, the first providing evidence for American decline. They cite high school graduation rates as flat for people born after 1950 or so, flat college graduation rates for those born after 1970 or so, and levels of incarceration that are hugely racially disproportionate, and stupendously high overall.
The other is arguing for American resilience.
But we have also argued that there are reasons for optimism: we have been here before, and rebounded. The most direct parallel is with the Gilded Age, when despite the huge economic and political power of the elite at the time, US institutions turned out to be more open and resilient than most feared (see here). The major reforms of the Civil Rights era, which ended the disenfranchisement of a large fraction of the population, are also grounds for believing that the US can rebound from the challenges it is facing today.They go on to talk about congressional corruption around the Civil War in terms of self-enrichment. They make interesting points, but given that their book argues that political institutions are the major determinant of a country's success, it's a bit strange they don't look more closely at politics, especially since that is the one time when the United States very nearly did fail. It's a long story, but I thought Ta-Nehisi Coates summarized it well with the following quote from Robert Byrd.
I am a typical American, a southerner and 27 years of age.... I am loyal to my country and know but reverence to her flag, BUT I shall never submit to fight beneath that banner with a negro by my side. Rather I should die a thousand times, and see Old Glory tramped in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels, a throw back to the blackest specimen from the wilds.
[...] But it must be said that there is stunning amount of hatred in those words. It can't be explained away by politics. This isn't the public "I'll never be outniggered again" race-baiting of Wallace. And it's much more than just hatred of black people; it's hatred of an America in which black people are allowed to fight with whites, voiced by someone who did no fighting himself.The Civil War happened because the political elite in the South were so attached to slavery and white supremacy that they would rather destroy the country than see them ended, and tried to do so.
Byrd's sentiment isn't original, It really is the same fear that led to secession. But it basically holds that one hates black people so much, that they would see their mother country fall, so long as black people stay fallen.
William Yancy, via Wikimedia
I'm no expert on American history, but I think it's fair to say that a lot of American political institutions have basically never worked. The Senate is and has been a logjam. The electoral college is an indefensible mess. Etc. What has allowed the United States to function this well for this long is a lot of norms, customs, and widely-shared beliefs (which can include things like white supremacy!) that allowed governance to happen with unwieldy tools. One of the most important of these is patriotism. The right has planted their flag deep in patriotism, which has discredited it on the left, but I believe it can serve a useful purpose, and is even sometimes justified. If elites really believe in a country, that it is worth saving and improving, then they are less likely to tear it to bits on some ideological bender, or strip it for parts to line their own pockets.
The debt ceiling crisis last year was, I think, a disturbing echo of the old secessionist story. I've been reading the latest book from Ornstein and Mann, and it's really shocking to go back through the story all in one place. Here we had a group of crazed zealots who held hostage the full faith and credit of the United States in order to achieve their ideological goals, trampling over longstanding norms and customs in the process. Some were openly calling for default. (Worth noting also that the Tea Party is overwhelmingly based in the South.)
[UPDATE: I forgot to mention the new nullification, whereby the Senate minority refuses to confirm the head of an agency (in this case, Richard Cordray to the CFPB) unless changes to the agency are made, which amounts to an unconstitutional refusal to implement a law passed by duly elected representatives.]
If America fails, it will be because our political institutions are unable to handle this kind of selfish, radical, unpatriotic behavior.