Will the United States Survive Until 2022?
by John Derbyshire (Jan. 2007)
“It is said of all great
The beginning of a new year naturally turns one’s thoughts in a numerical direction. Furthermore, as we look forward to 2007, our imagination is liable to overshoot and find itself contemplating the more distant future: the next fifteen years for example. Why fifteen? Permit me to explain.
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The ideas I am going to put forward here came about, as ideas often do, from the conjunction of two apparently unconnected events.
Event number one occurred as I was moving a pile of books from one inaccessible place in my attic to another. I turned up an old paperback titled Will the
Amalrik’s essay makes dull reading now. He speaks at length of the social stresses in late-Soviet society, and predicts a war with
I got to wondering whether some forecast as gloomy as Amalrik’s could be made for the present-day
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Then event number two came along. I got an email from a reader concerning one of my monthly columns in National Review. The column had actually been about American football, to which I am a newcomer, my 11-year-old son having joined a youth league team just this past fall. In that column I had said the following thing: “If a foreigner should tell you that a nation as young as this one has had no time to develop a unique culture, take him to a college football game.”
What my emailer objected to was my referring to this country as young. He actually said: “Politically speaking, of the 190-odd nations that clutter up this planet of ours, the
That’s rather a striking observation. At any rate, it is striking to a person from the
Yet of course my correspondent has a point. He did, after all, preface his remarks with the phrase: “Politically speaking.” Something recognizable as a Chinese nation may indeed have been around since the Bronze Age, but
From my correspondent’s perspective, then, the
This being so, if one of these artificial creations could collapse in a cloud of dust, after long decades of seeming to be a permanent fixture, why might not the other one? Abraham Lincoln, as we all know, wondered whether a nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, can long endure. It seemed for a few decades that the Civil War had settled the question. I am going to argue that it did not, and that the question posed by
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There are a number of objections to the line of argument so far that must surely have occurred to you. Permit me to address what I should guess to be the two most salient ones: an objection from the nature of the union, and an objection from the nature of the populace.
First, there is the rather striking difference between the
I mean no insult to my adopted country. (I am a naturalized
(For the particular case of
Plainly ethnic solidarity is not a sufficient condition for national cohesion, but it may be a necessary one.
A paleoconservative reader might raise a second objection: that in fact this nation was an ethnostate, or very close to one, until recently. The 1960 census showed our population as consisting of essentially two groups: one of white European ancestry, at 88.6 percent of the population, and one of black African or mixed ancestry at 10.5 percent. The remaining 0.9 percent were “other,” mainly American Indian and East Asian.
The counter to the paleocon’s point is an obvious one: that our country has changed considerably since 1960, taking in new citizens from all over the world. The
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So here is the question: Given that the present-day USA, like the old USSR, is a “proposition nation,” built around a Creed—a set of abstract ideas—and given that it lacks the ethnic solidarity, the sense of being descended from a common set of ancestors, that helps hold together old ethnostates like China or Egypt at least much of the time—given that even the idea of ethnic solidarity is contentious in the USA—can this country avoid the fate of the USSR?
Of course I don’t know the answer to that question, and I very much hope, first but not solely for my childrens’ sake, that the answer is “yes.” There are strong reasons to think the answer may be “no,” though. All sorts of fault lines have opened up in
I am going to list some of those fault lines under separate headings. (I have italicized the word “some” there because, having embarked on the following categorization, I soon got the feeling that I could continue generating topic headings indefinitely.) Following the late great political scientist Robert Wesson, these headings will all deal with one kind of failure whose consequences might contribute to the loss of our country. Here we go.
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Political failure. A few weeks ago we went to the polls to elect, or much more often re-elect, our representatives in the
Now of course Americans have always grumbled about the national legislature. “No man’s life or property is safe when Congress is in session”—that saying seems to go back at least a hundred years. A hundred years ago, however, the
If you graph various proxies for state power—the number of pages in the federal tax code (currently 16,845), annual federal spending per household (currently $22,000, at its highest level since WW2, up 7.4 percent last year alone), federal employment (up nearly 80,000 under George W. Bush, just in non-defense-related positions), and so on—if you graph these proxies across time, the curves are turning sharply upward.
And yet the constituency for smaller government is weaker now than it has been for 30 years. “Self-government means self-support” said Calvin Coolidge. Well, guess what: people aren’t all that keen on self-support. Welfare statism has caught the
The natural opposition to these statist tendencies is the conservative movement. The conservative movement, however, is in a shambles. My colleague Ramesh Ponnuru at National Review wrote an article titled “Conservatives on the Couch” for a recent issue of the magazine. In that article, Ramesh noted that ever since the Gingrich debacle of 1995-6, conservatives have been trying to re-invent their party without any of that scary talk about smaller government. Quote: “Pat Buchanan tried to throw out the free traders to bring in socially conservative union members. George W. Bush offered a ‘compassionate’ (read: more statist) conservatism. John McCain and his fans had a ‘national greatness conservatism.’ Conservatism has rejected each ideological novelty like a body rejecting a transplant.”
As a result, the conservative movement has turned inwards, away from being the promoter of smaller government, towards being the promoter of traditional values. It has always been both, of course; only the components of the mix change. With the anti-statist cause apparently lost, American conservatives have little to occupy their time but Right to Life issues, squabbling over
Yet can the federal government really run the
Certainly our federal government inspires little confidence. I have a sheaf of credit cards in my wallet, any one of which my local merchants can validate with a quick swipe. Why cannot a prospective employee’s social security card similarly be validated? Because private corporations are approximately 100,000 times better—more efficient, more capable—of doing anything than is the government.
In the 1990s I had a job which required me to make occasional phone calls to banks and investment houses, and also to the offices of federal regulatory agencies like the FDIC in
And can America cope without an active, occasionally successful, conservative movement?—a movement that is conservative in the William F. Buckley sense—distrustful of state power, committed to traditional values, patriotic and supportive of a strong national defense?
Let me tell you, it’s pretty lonely out here in conservative land. I live in the outer
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Social failure. It’s ten years now since Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone documented the great decline in social bonding among Americans—our declining participation not only in bowling leagues, but in friendly societies, charitable outfits, church groups, PTAs, and so on.
Aside from the negative effects on our individual lives, this drawing in to our own private spheres has an effect on our bonding as a nation. The Shriners, the Ancient Order of Buffaloes, the daughters of the American Revolution, may have been slightly ludicrous, but they brought Americans from different regions, and to some extent different social classes, into contact with each other. Conscription, too, helped us bond as a single people. Yes, of course I am aware of the libertarian argument against conscription, though I think it’s pretty moot, as the world of today simply has no use for huge standing armies—more on that in a minute. When we had it, though, it brought us together as a people.
Our biggest social failures have been our accelerating separation by race and class. The races—and I am speaking here of the two races that inhabit the USA, the black and the nonblack—are very nearly as segregated now as they were under Jim Crow. Of course, nonblack Americans take pride and satisfaction in the few successful, well-educated, middle-class black people they know. At the same time, we have created residential patterns all over our country in which schooling, social life, and house prices are driven by a single major factor: the very strong desire of nonblacks that they not live among too many blacks—most especially, that their children not have to attend majority-black schools.
It’s hard not to feel that what we have mainly succeeded in doing this past forty years has been to brush our racial issues under the carpet, where we don’t have to think about them. We got a glimpse under that carpet a year and a half ago, at the time of Hurricane Katrina. Here, in a major American city, was a huge mass of poor people, almost entirely black, gleefully looting stores when they might have been helping themselves and their neighbors—clueless, under-socialized, waiting passively for the government to come and help them.
Those of us who cheered on the US Civil Rights movement from abroad supposed that, when unjust laws were removed, race would disappear. Well, for the able and talented, it did, at least as a functional determinant of your life course. An able African American can rise to any position in American society. In some ways he can do so more easily than a nonblack American. Those corners of our society where African Americans are in short supply are desperate to avoid the appearance of discrimination, and they strive mightily to correct the balance. I have written two books about math, and spent considerable time hanging out with mathematicians. Let me tell you: If you are a black American with a math Ph.D., the faculty recruiters of American universities will beat a path to your door.
And yet, we are in other ways more separate than ever. Black Americans and white Americans watch different TV programs and go to different movies. We obsess about different sports and give our children different names. This is a separating out, a loss of national cohesion. We are becoming two nations, barely speaking to each other.
And now, with the importation of millions of Amerindians and mestizos from south of our borders, the whole wretched process is repeating itself with Hispanics. At the entrance to my polling place, when I went to vote in the November elections, there were several notices pinned to the wall, but the only one that could be read from a distance, the one that jumped out, said LUGAR DE VOTACION.
As with race, so with class. David Gelernter wrote a fine essay for Commentary a few years back, titled "How the Intellectuals Took Over (And What to Do About It)." In that essay he noted that in pre-WW2
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Economic failure. The economy, we are told, is doing just fine. Unemployment is down at four and a half percent. New home sales are strong, if not as strong as a year ago. Productivity is rising and inflation not really an issue, certainly not for those of us who remember the Carter years. Per capita consumption is up.
And yet… Median hourly wages have been well-nigh static for decades. Consumption is supported by borrowing—we have a negative savings rate. Income inequality is rising fast, and job volatility is up. (That means average length of employment—your prospects of having to switch jobs involuntarily.)
Michael Lind wrote a piece in Atlantic Monthly a year or two back about
The assumption here is that like the buggy-whip makers you hear about in Economics 101, like Ethan Frome, like the middle-class engineer of 1960, the Cube People of today will go do something else, creating a new middle class from some heretofore-despised category of drudges. But... what? What is the next term in the series: farm, factory, office,...? Which category of despised drudges will be the middle class of
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Cultural failure. When I was growing up in
Every kind of entertainment was basically American back then. Cliff Richard created a sensation when he showed up in 1957 Britain; yet we knew, in our hearts, that he was just a moon to Elvis Presley’s sun, just borrowing a little of that pale fire.
Is that still true? Well, yes, as a
Do you ever feel, as I do, watching some old movie, or listening to the pop lyrics of the 1930s and 1940s, like a kid who’s wandered into a room where grown-ups are talking? And again, there is a loss of cohesion, here perhaps more than anywhere. Do you have any idea how many different styles of pop music there are? Just under the single heading “Heavy Metal” I find the following schools listed: Black Metal, Christian Metal, Death Metal, Doom Metal, Grindcore, Hair Metal, Hardcore, and Power Metal. The days when any two people walking along the street whistling were quite likely whistling the same tune—a show tune, probably, by Cole Porter or Rodgers & Hammerstein—are long gone. In fact, nobody whistles any more. You just can’t whistle Grindcore or Hip Hop.
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Intellectual failure. A conservative—I had better say, paleoconservative—acquaintance of mine is fond of saying that the two body blows against the USA in the past half century were, first, the 1965 Immigration Act, which fired up the odious doctrine of multiculturalism, and second, the Griggs v. Duke Power decision of 1971.
The second of those is of course much less well known than the first. It essentially rules that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act forbids employers giving aptitude tests to prospective hires. In other words, it forbids an employer from trying to find out how smart you are before hiring you.
The result is, that employers need a proxy for smarts. The obvious proxy is a college degree. Our colleges and universities have therefore become credentialing institutions, whose purpose is to stamp a person as suitable for middle-class employment. The actual content of college courses has degraded accordingly. What does content
The consequences can be seen in our universities. Tom Wolfe’s 2004 novel I Am Charlotte Simmons is a good introduction to current American university life. After I had read that book I went around saying that surely Tom had exaggerating a lot there. No, people assured me—including people actually working and studying at universities—no, that’s pretty much what it’s like.
And a side effect of that is, because there is so little actual thinking going on in our universities, you get an ideological uniformity. Three years ago I wrote a book about math, and my publisher sent me off around the country to address university audiences about it. A couple of times, someone in the student body went and looked me up on the internet and found out I was a conservative. At the
This kind of thing is routine. We saw it a few weeks ago at
This ideological blight goes all the way down the educational system. A 1987 study of high school students, quoted in Samuel Huntington’s book Who Are We–a book that is indispensable in this context—found that more knew who Harriet Tubman was than knew that
Again, there is a separation, a fragmentation here. As
Before the Civil War… American history was primarily the histories of individual states and localities. National history emerged after that war and for a hundred years was central to defining American identity. Then in the late twentieth century, the histories of subnational racial and cultural groups rose to a new prominence comparable to that of pre-1860 state and local histories, and national history was downgraded. If, however, a nation is a remembered as well as an imagined community, people who are losing that memory are becoming something less than a nation.
Perhaps we can glimpse there the trajectory of American history from the beginning of this nation to its end. First, for ninety years, we were a loose federation of states or regions, with an occasional awareness of being under a single Constitution. Then, for a hundred years, we were a modern-style nation, a true
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Demographic failure. If you have read Mark Steyn’s new book, you will know that the USA is almost alone among Western nations in having a birth rate close to replacement level—that is, American women have an average 2.09 children in their lifetimes, not quite enough to keep the population stable (excluding immigration, of course), but higher than the number in almost any other advanced nation--Israel being the notable exception. There are some figures within those figures; differences between blue states, which have lower rates, and red states, which have high ones. Nothing much surprising there. I imagine if I were to tell you that women in Salt Lake City are more fertile than those of, say, San Francisco, you wouldn’t fall off your chair.
There are racial differences, too with white American women running an overall rate of about 1.85, black and Hispanic women at higher levels.
Now, birth rates are dropping all over the world, even in places like
The easy and obvious answer, if we want to keep our populations stable, is to let people from those poorer, more philoprogenitive countries, come and live in ours. Hence the mass immigration that has been a feature of the advanced world—except for
In the special case of the USA there is the issue of a large Third World country sharing a long border with us; and a US upper-middle class that would much rather have cheerful small brown people mowing its lawns and watching its kids, than large surly black people, even though the black people are our fellow citizens, with American ancestry going back, in many cases, further than ours; while the brown people are foreigners.
Nobody, until very recently, was willing to think through the long-term social consequences of multiculturalism. When I started doing office work in
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Military failure. It seems odd to speak of military failure when we have the most potent, best equipped, most lavishly funded military in the world. If you got to the CIA factbook on the web and look at the list of military expenditures by nation, the
And look at the smashing success of the 2003 assault against
Unfortunately... well, you know what follows the “unfortunately.” The wars of the present age are not much like Operation Iraqi Freedom, not much a
When IEDs first showed up in
At the other end of the technological spectrum, we face nuclear proliferation. This was pretty much inevitable, in my opinion. Any technology gets easier and cheaper as time goes by, and there was never any reason to suppose that nuclear weapon technology would be an exception. Yet what a terrifying prospect we face. Go to Wikipedia and look up “Tsar Bomba,” the Tsar Bomb. That was the American designation—not, of course, the Soviet one—for the most powerful thermonuclear bomb ever exploded, by the
I am told that with microminiaturization of the electronics, and advanced techniques for enhancing yield, you could get something close to the Tsar Bomba into a reasonable-sized piece of equipment—a large domestic refrigerator, for example. Imagine the scene, ten or twelve years from now: You are walking down a street in central
(I had better tell you that when that particular scenario is discussed among conservatives, the mood is not always as somber as it really should be.)
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Spiritual failure. In his book After the Victorians, the British writer A.N. Wilson notes that the most astonishing thing about the mid-20th century, as seen by a time traveler from the early 19th, would have been the survival of religion. When Queen
Now here we are a century and a half later, and I read in my Daily Telegraph that a new religious think tank, Theos, has been established in
What happened? Well, it turned out that postindustrial man was not quite as able to cope without organized religion as the progressives of 1840 had hoped. Spiritual yearning seems to be a stock feature of human nature, though stronger in some than in others, and altogether absent in a few—very much like other aspects of human nature: musical ability, math talent, or athleticism.
There has, however, here as in other spheres, been a separating-out by class and IQ. It is this sorting, this separating-out, that is important for the future of our country. You read a lot about American exceptionalism in the
There was always some of that, of course. Mark Twain, born in 1835, was irreligious, but he was polite and careful about it, at least in public. H.L. Mencken, born 45 years later, was louder and ruder about his atheism, but he was still an oddity in the
I sometimes think, too, that American Christianity has developed problems of its own that are net negatives for our national cohesion. The yielding, self-abnegating, feminine side of the faith has been more to the fore in recent years. The present immigration catastrophe, is being cheered on, and to some degree actually funded, by all the mainstream Christian churches.
And look at this story from WorldNetDaily, about an auto accident in which three members of a family of six were killed by a drunk Mexican illegal immigrant. The father of the family, who survived the accident, had this to say:
Gary Ceran has said he is leaning on his faith to deal with this tragedy and to extend forgiveness to Prieto [i.e. the Mexican]. “He has to endure all the pain that I have to endure, plus knowing that he was the cause of it,” says Ceran. “I have hundreds of people coming to visit and thousands of people praying for me. But who's praying for him?”
The family are Mormons, but this sniveling, groveling, all-forgiving attitude towards evil-doers is very Christian. It has always been present to some degree in our majority national religion—it is endorsed in the New Testament, after all!—but it seems to be more and more prominent. The older, more robust American tradition—hang him first, pray for him later—seems to be slipping away. It’s enough to drive one to Nietzsche.
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And so on. Now of course any nation, at any point in time, displays some negative indicators. I don’t think I am alone in believing, though, that our own beloved nation, at this particular point in its history, is displaying far too many. There are too many fault lines, and the cracks are widening.
We are separating out, drifting apart from each other, withdrawing into gated communities, both literal and metaphorical. Some of this is the logical end-point of our long march to pure meritocracy, the downside of which, as Michael Young pointed out half a century ago, is a ruling class freed from guilt—secure in the conviction that they deserve to rule. Some of it arises from the dashed hopes of the Civil Rights movement, the hopes that race would disappear as a significant social marker in our society. Some, like the threat of nuclear terrorism, or the demographic cratering, is just a consequence of technological advance.
Much of the damage, however, has been willfully self-inflicted. We did not have to swallow the multiculturalist suicide pill; we did not have to open our borders to the
Why did we do those foolish things? From overconfidence, I think. It has been said that a nation can survive anything but success. Success is the one true lethal disaster. The
Not so. As Sanuel Huntington says in the aforementioned book: “A nation is a fragile thing.” And as he further says:
The [American philosophical-Constitutional] Creed is unlikely to retain its salience if Americans abandon the Anglo-Protestant culture in which it has been rooted. A multicultural
In time. In how much time? I do not think that fifteen years is an overly pessimistic estimate.
A nation that does not have the tribal bonding you get with a common culture—a nation that has actually, officially discarded the idea of a common culture as “exclusionary”—is more fragile than most. What happened to the
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