Everybody was and is right. Krauthammer was right about Obama. Neocons were right about Trump the Candidate. Liberals are right about the damage Trump is doing to the American “brand” as president. And yet I find myself compelled to wonder: Compared to what?
This is the problem with our fears of American decline. Decline can be measured two ways—either against an absolute standard or relative to another thing. But there can be no absolute standard when it comes to a country like the United States, which has always been and will always be a work in progress. For example, you may prefer the levels of income inequality from the 1960s compared with now, but you wouldn’t choose to go back to the 1960s if you needed a statin to keep you from having a heart attack and dying at 60. Merck didn’t bring statins to market until the 1990s. (Between 1973 and 2010, deaths from heart disease declined in the United States by 63 percent.)
So are we worse or better than we used to be? We’re both better and worse; indeed, many of the things that have gotten worse (like our political culture) are an unfortunate by-product of things that have gotten better (like telecommunications, which made social media possible).
What’s clear is that we’re more inclined to say we’re in decline when we look at the parts of our politics or our culture that annoy or disgust us; our visceral negative response swamps our good sense and makes us forget or belittle the positive.