Decline on the Mind

No matter where you live in America today, or where you fall on the political spectrum, decline is probably on your mind. Politicians may still offer the compulsory cant about America being the “greatest nation in the world” and “our best days still lying ahead of us,” but even they seem to lack conviction, and their audiences are certainly skeptical. It is long since a nation could confidently cheer Reagan’s declaration that it was “morning in America” or half-heartedly will itself to share Obama’s “audacity of hope” in “change we can believe in.” Even the demagogic jingoism of the Trump years admitted the reality of decline by insisting that it was time to “Make America Great Again!” As America emerges from a long pandemic winter in a state of denial and division, it is hard not to feel that our best days may indeed lie behind us.

With decline on everyone’s mind, and renewed attention these past four years to the neglected but indispensable concept of “the nation,” Joseph Johnston’s new study The Decline of Nations: Lessons for Strengthening America at Home and Abroad is a timely contribution. It joins a long line of “decline and fall” studies in Western literature, from Gibbon to Spengler to David Goldman, attempting to glean lessons from history in order that our now-ascendant civilizations might not be doomed to repeat it, following Greece, Rome, France, and Britain on the path from hegemony to mediocrity. Johnston, however, couples his study of history with a detailed and unapologetically conservative analysis of what has gone wrong in America in recent decades—and how we might yet turn the ship around.

Unfortunately, The Decline of Nations (no doubt unintentionally) imitates the trajectory of its subject matter in the arc of its own argument. Beginning with energy and insight, it unfolds promisingly in an attentive study of the histories of Rome and the British Empire, proposing lessons to be learned from each of their sad stories. But here it plateaus, and already by the end of Johnston’s consideration of the British experience, cracks and creaks are appearing in the argument. The subsequent diagnosis of American infirmity, occupying fully two-thirds of the book, becomes increasingly stale and unimaginative, until the book ends rather wearily in a recapitulation of our litany of troubles and the vaguest of prescriptions as to what should be done about them. Ultimately, the book serves most effectively as an object lesson in why conservatism in America today is in decline—and in how imaginative conservatives of the future might offer more compelling diagnoses and prescriptions.

Johnston’s laundry list of what ails America is a long one, including, among other things: illiteracy, over-regulation, low fertility, high federal debt, social security spending, lack of military readiness, freeloading allies, nihilism and relativism, fake news, multiculturalism, redistribution of wealth, lax immigration, the administrative state, Obamacare, judicial deference, judicial activism, the marginalization of religion, and class-action lawsuits. Admittedly, there is little on this list that most conservatives would disagree with, but even the most enthusiastic head-nodder may find himself feeling a bit empty by the end. For one thing, as this sample of Johnston’s concerns suggests, he shows little attempt to distinguish causes from effects, underlying conditions from presenting symptoms. Without such a fine-grained diagnosis, it is hard to know where to begin in trying to nurse our civilization back to health. Readers might also wonder, “Who is this book for?” Traditional conservative readers do not need to be told that most of these things are problems; while progressives will be almost entirely put off by the presentation, dismissing the book as just another “cranky old white man” diatribe. Most frustratingly, though, readers who have ridden the political roller-coaster of the past four years may simply find Johnston’s account underwhelming and unimaginative; we have heard most of this for three decades, but if 2016 taught us anything, it was that the old diagnoses and free-market remedies were insufficient.

Can We Turn the Ship Around?

Suffusing the work is a deep ambiguity: is anything other than pessimism warranted? After all, in his introduction, Johnston introduces the paradigm of fourteenth-century Arab philosopher Ibn Khaldun:

The cycle of a civilization begins with the founding of a tribe or dynasty by hardy people who live simply and defend themselves vigorously. The frugality of their lives promotes discipline, toughness of spirit, enterprise, and courage… Eventually, however, the successful society becomes addicted to abundance, leisure, and luxury. Members of the tribe lose their vigor and hardiness.

Inevitably, decline ensues. Or is the decline inevitable? Johnston does not want us to think so, it seems, but given the sort of deep civilizational cycle that Ibn Khaldun and others have identified, it is hard to see how it might be reversed. Johnston concludes his account of Britain on a hopeful note, suggesting that with the rise of Margaret Thatcher, Britain reversed its downward slide and is now well-positioned to flourish anew. But this looks like mere wishful thinking: Britain’s economic growth since 1979, which Johnston attempts to spin as a great success story, has been notably slower than the pre-1979 period that he so laments, and in all of the other important cultural indicators, such as religion and education, her trajectory remains steadily downward.

If indeed deep civilizational weariness and cultural anomie lies behind every decline narrative, it is hard to see how our own decline could be arrested. If, however, particular policy choices determine the success or failure of nations, there may yet be hope for us. And Johnston does indeed seek to identify specific mistakes in both the Roman and British experiences that America must avoid—or must cease imitating before it is too late. These include military overstretch, the failure to sustain and celebrate national traditions and symbols, and failure to invest adequately in education.

It would be a grave mistake to conclude that Johnston is an unvarnished libertarian. On the contrary, he repeatedly emphasizes the central importance of community, identity, tradition, and the rule of law.

However, Johnston also fails to apply some of the most insightful lessons that he might have gleaned from these historical narratives. In treating of the decline of the Roman republic, he mentions in passing the rise of inequality and the proletarianization of the poorer classes as a factor that severely undermined Rome’s political stability. But he never recognizes the importance of this lesson for analyzing the contemporary tearing of the American social fabric; when he does briefly mention inequality in America, he does so only to pooh-pooh the problem and warn against the evils of government redistribution. Likewise, the devastating decline of American manufacturing does not even register on Johnston’s radar, although he perceptively notes the harmful absence of manufacturing in the Roman economy. In his survey of Victorian England, Johnston attends closely to Carlyle’s warnings about the need for the new entrepreneurial and industrial elite to take on the societal leadership duties of the aristocracy rather than simply indulging in conspicuous consumption. However, he fails to apply this insight to the vacuum of authentic elite leadership in American society.

Laissez-Faire is Not Enough

Indeed, the biggest lesson that Johnston seems ready to draw from the British experience is the most unconvincing one. Britain declined from hegemony to insignificance in the twentieth century above all, Johnston argues, because of the stifling taxation and regulation of her welfare state. Certainly I do not wish to exonerate the mediocre statesmen of post-war Britain from the charge of chronic economic mismanagement, but surely this cannot be the whole story, since other European economies dramatically outperformed Britain during the same period while also establishing large welfare states. Johnston’s insistence on viewing everything through the lens of “big government” vs. “individual freedom” distorts his ability to effectively diagnose the forces of decline that he chronicles, and indeed stands in considerable tension with his deeper insights about the cultural and communitarian roots of national strength and national malaise.

In one particularly frustrating passage we see Johnston trying to come to grips with the grievances that fueled Trump’s victory in 2016, and failing to capitalize on the insights that it offers. Citing Salena Zito and Brad Todd’s analysis in The Great Revolt, he observes that the most disenchanted voters were those whose jobs were sacrificed to the influx of Chinese imports beginning in the late ‘90s. But beyond this brief passage, the issue of trade, the greatest elephant in the room of American politics over the past decade, is almost invisible in the book. On the rare occasions when trade is mentioned, it is only to celebrate the glories of free trade and low tariffs—flatly ignoring the protectionist policies that accompanied both Britain’s rise to empire and America’s subsequent ascent to global economic hegemony.

The other great elephant in the room, of course, is China, which receives scant mention throughout the book. Johnston finds himself, like his fellow laissez-faire nationalists, in a painfully awkward rhetorical position: “Communist China is rapidly overtaking us through their unfair subsidies and state investments in technology. We must move quickly to get big government out of our economy so that America can compete and win.” Granted, Johnston is more nuanced than many, conceding the importance of government R&D spending and the need to invest in science education. Still, he misses many opportunities to offer a more fine-grained account of how government policy can retard or spur on national prosperity. Viewing the economic landscape through the binary of government and individual, he fails to offer a serious treatment of intermediary institutions or the role of business leaders. Thus, after summarizing FDR’s “economic bill of rights,” Johnston remarks sarcastically, “If these hopes and desires are deemed      to be ‘rights,’ then someone has an obligation to provide them. That could only mean the US government, supported by the taxpayers.”      

But why could it only mean that? Might not it rather be the duty of employers to provide many of these things? And if so, how might we frame policy that encourages the private sector to take more responsibility for workers? One useful resource for us here might be the thought of 19th-century social reformer John Ruskin, who reflected deeply on the mutual responsibilities of capital and labor, community and individual in his 1862 Unto This Last, a text that Johnston unjustifiably dismisses as an example of utopian state socialism.

All this said, it would be a grave mistake to conclude that Johnston is an unvarnished libertarian. On the contrary, he repeatedly emphasizes the central importance of community, identity, tradition, and the rule of law. In one of the most insightful passages of the book, he observes that the basic dilemma of modern civilization is that of “balancing individualism against community and rights against duties. As a free people, we properly favor individual liberty and self-realization. On the other hand, the society needs cohesive communities with shared values in which civility, honor, and self-discipline can be sustained.” “Free social mobility,” he admits, “tends to work against the traditional values that support stable communities,”      and we must work hard today to reinvigorate such communities—but from the bottom up, rather than the top down. Even in this bottom-up cultural renewal, he grants that government will have some key role to play.

Ultimately, however, Johnston fails to convincingly integrate his call for deregulation and dynamic private industry with his concern for cohesive communities and civic traditions on the other. At the center of this creative tension lies the challenge for the rising generation of conservatives: to take up in deeper and broader historical detail the empirical study of what enables nations to flourish and what spells their decay, and to imaginatively transform these insights into sustainable policies for social, economic, and moral renewal in 21st-century America.