I dare ask my outrageous question ("Is America Dying?") after several decades in public life -- as a political scientist, public official, and "American Dreamer."
I have come to the disturbing suspicion that we may be drifting perilously away from the Great Experiment of American history. Anger, cynicism, extremism -- and a pernicious irrelevancy -- are taking their toll on our national democratic experiment.
With Election 2012, the American people re-elected a self-described transformational president; so it seems timely, and perhaps urgent, to revive a discussion I started a decade ago in The Future of American Democracy (2002).
National Democratic Distemper.
It is clear to me that America is developing national democratic distemper. American democracy seems to be experiencing dangerous disarray -- sometimes noisily, sometimes unconsciously, and often by popular decree -- as we journey into the 21st century!
We seem afflicted with a fundamental illness of body and spirit, coughing and wheezing and limping through the motions of disoriented democracy. Our historic national experiment -- which has made America great for two centuries -- no longer works the way it used to work, procedurally or substantively; and we seem to be losing our commitment to that experiment.
It is easy for me to express my personal concern about our nation's civic health. Perhaps more compelling are the sobering assessments of reputable "public citizens" whose lifelong service qualifies them for special status in any discussion about American democracy in the new century.
Turn-of-Century Reflections About Our Distempered Democracy.
As the 1990s unfolded, some prominent media, academic, and policy giants began expressing their own questions about the distempered state of our nation. These analysts, in written reflections on public life, articulated serious concerns about our civic health at century's end. Their individual assessments and perspectives varied, but their commentary conveyed similarly ominous overtones about the future of American democracy.
• John Chancellor -- a respected television anchorman whose comfortable style touched and informed Middle America throughout most of the past half-century -- penned a message of political despair in Peril and Promise: A Commentary on America (1990):
My frustration is caused by the realization that millions of Americans underestimate the enormous strength of the United States, by the fact that many appear to have given up the fight, and by the sad spectacle of an America that seems to be running out of steam. (11)
• Political theorist Robert A. Dahl, a leading analyst of American democracy, provided a normatively different but equally troubling systemic assessment in The New American Political (Dis)Order (1994):
Because the way the government works is largely incomprehensible to ordinary citizens, when they look for remedies for what they see as the defects of government their diagnoses and prescriptions are likely to be inappropriate . . . If in due time citizens discover that their cure for the ills of government is an ineffective nostrum, they may turn to other possible solutions, including fundamental changes in the structures of governance. (15-16)
• Veteran journalists Haynes Johnson and David Broder worried about the American system's ability to withstand the cumulative, destructive forces of cynicism (The System: The American Way of Politics at the Breaking Point, 1996):
Americans have always distrusted government, often for good historical reasons ... But at no point, we believe, has the cumulative assault on the idea of responsible government been so destructive of the very faith in the democratic system as now. A thoroughly cynical society, deeply distrustful of its institutions, leaders and the reliability of information it receives, is a society in peril of breaking apart. (639)
• Diplomatic stalwart George F. Kennan -- architect, statesman, and analyst of "The American Century" -- questioned the adequacy of our nation and its institutions for dealing with America's future (At a Century's Ending: Reflections 1982-1995, 1996):
But the fact remains that our present federal system is simply not working well--not well enough, in any case--in a number of areas of decision where the entire future of the country may be at stake ... It is idle to shrug these failures off with the comforting reflection that our institutions have worked well enough in the past. So great have been the changes in the physical and technological environment of our lives in this present century that there can be no assurance that what was adequate to the past will continue to be adequate in the future. (216-217)
• Similarly, Samuel P. Huntington -- another of the past century's most influential leaders in national policy and scholarly discourse -- warned Americans against simplistic visions of national immortality (The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, 1996):
A more immediate and dangerous challenge exists in the United States. Historically American national identity has been defined culturally by the heritage of Western civilization and politically by the principles of the American Creed on which Americans overwhelmingly agree: liberty, democracy, individualism, equality before the law, constitutionalism, private property ... Rejection of the Creed and of Western civilization means the end of the United States of America as we have known it. (305-307)
Developments since the aforementioned warnings have done little to lessen my concern about American democracy: 9-11, Iraq, Afghanistan, domestic terrorism, economic recession, the Tea Party movement, the Occupy settlements, partisan gridlock, and endless screeds against Bush and Obama.
Furthermore, serious thinking about America has continued along a dark course in the new century, including ominous pronouncements in the past couple years, from across the political spectrum, such as It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism , Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent, Suicide of a Superpower: Will America Survive to 2025 , and Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline.
The Central Public Debate of Our Time.
The possible demise of America is an unpleasant thought; but that is my compelling "what if" question for America as Barack Obama enters the legacy stage of his two-term presidency. I am not predicting national death; in fact, I have almost mystical confidence in America and American democracy. But I believe that analyzing America's democratic destiny -- thoroughly, critically, and perhaps terminally -- is the central public debate of our time.
Perhaps it is time for me to be more specific about my daring, outrageous inquiry. So, in my next post I will define what I mean by "America," "American democracy," and "dying."
Author's Note: This is the third in a series of discussions about Election 2012 and the future of American democracy. This series includes edited, updated material from my book, The Future of American Democracy: A Former Congressman's Unconventional Analysis (2002). I'm grateful to University Press of America for allowing me to borrow from that publication for my discussions on Huffington Post.