Politicians learned long ago that optimism draws people much more than pessimists, regardless of what the facts say. This means that the Romney/Ryan ticket needs to convince Americans that our country was on a positive trajectory before President Obama and we can recover that lost momentum by returning to a Republican White House. Meanwhile, the Obama/Biden ticket is talking about progress that America has been making over the past few years, punctuated by Joe Biden's statement at the DNC convention that "America is NOT in decline."
Both parties are consciously choosing to ignore the longer term trend, one that isn't measured from term to term, but is measured over decades. It isn't expedient for them to discuss time periods that are much longer than election cycles, but that longer term trend tells a very clear story, one of declining comparative dominance in many areas of society and of the need to implement major changes.
In health, there has been little mention of the fact that back in 1987, only seven other countries had longer life expectancies that America but today, we're not even in the top twenty. In 1960, the United States had the twelfth lowest infant mortality rate in the world but today we are out of the top thirty.
In education, America truly was a world leader. As late as the 1930s, America was one of the few countries that provided free universal secondary education. Higher education was bolstered by government support through programs like the GI Bill. As a result, America once had the highest rate of college education in the world but we have now slipped out of the top fifteen.
In safety, throughout the world there has generally been a declining trend in violence, including murders, over the past few decades. This is a long-term positive trend that most of the world can share, yet the U.S. has its own peculiar phenomenon. Mandatory minimum sentencing laws, "three strikes" laws, and the criminalization of drug usage have resulted in America's incarceration rate being roughly four times more than it was in 1980. In fact, America's current incarceration rate is many times higher than other wealthy countries and is close to the Soviet Union's rate during its notorious gulag days.
In the area of equality, America has historically had higher rates of income inequality than most other wealthy countries but the disparity between rich and poor has increased more in the United States than nearly any other wealthy country over the past few decades. Moreover, this trend in inequality isn't merely a function of globalization since other wealthy countries including Belgium, France, and Spain all saw equality, not inequality, increase over the past few decades.
In the area of social mobility, our land of opportunity has a lower rate of social mobility than nearly every other wealthy country in the world, despite our staunch faith that our country is more of a meritocracy than other countries. From a trends perspective, America is suffering from a declining rate of social mobility as it becomes more and more difficult to achieve that American dream of rising from humble beginnings to achieving greatness.
In democracy, the recent attempts at voter disenfranchising under the guise of fraud prevention have failed to awaken Americans to how outdated our voting system is compared to other countries. Despite being targeted for white, male landowners, America's Declaration of Independence and Constitution placed it at the leading edge of democracy. But that advantage slipped as other countries developed better ways to elect representatives while we cling desperately to our 1789 technology, resulting in America having a comparatively low level of voter turnout and an average democracy rating by organizations such as the World Bank and The Economist. America ignores the fact that leading democracies use government-run population databases to develop voter lists so that voting is enabled, not disabled. We use winner-take-all elections that drive partisan politics, create gerrymandered uncompetitive elections and produce results that don't reflect the people's voice while nearly all other major democracies use some form of proportional or semi-proportional representation. Other democracies like Australia use preferential voting to enable third parties, a method we largely ignore. We gaze at chads while India has held national elections using government developed, owned and operated computer technology. We undermine the basic concept of 'one-citizen one-vote' with the Electoral College, an idea that may have seemed like a good idea in 1789 but has not been emulated by other countries for countless reasons. Lastly, we prevent Washington, D.C., residents from having a voting representative in Congress, while other countries chuckle at our disenfranchising of residents in our nation's capital.
All of these declining long-term trends are disturbing and need to be addressed in order to ensure a viable America on a time scale of decades and centuries, rather than election cycles. As politicians play fast and loose with the facts, they will continue to dance away from the long term declining trends unless the American people force a discussion on what leading practices can be adopted from other countries and how can America leverage its advantages to improve.
Note: Article drawn from facts published in The Measure of a Nation: How to Regain America's Competitive Edge and Boost Our Global Standing where original references are cited.