Michael H. Hunt: How to think about the end of the “American Century”

articles by Michael H. Hunt[This article is crossposted at the author’s website, michaelhunt.web.unc.edu.]

The whiff of decline is in the air, and everyone seems to smell it. The current debt ceiling impasse makes the odor impossible to ignore. My own nostrils began picking something up about a decade ago while preparing The American Ascendancy. With the troubled U.S. international position now so much in the news, it seems a good time to revisit the idea of an “American century.”

Media mogul Henry Luce popularized the phrase in a famous essay of that title that appeared in Life magazine in early 1941. With exquisite timing he heralded the dawn of an era of U.S. prestige and power. The essay is best remembered for its call for Americans to abandon “isolationism” and embrace their country’s destiny “as the powerhouse of the ideals of Freedom and Justice.” But this prophecy of an American age also perceptively identified the foundations on which the era of U.S. prestige and power would depend. Luce thus directs our attention to the multiple points on which dominance has depended and at which dominance can slip. His insight suggests a way to improve on current discussions that are variously diffuse, lacking in considered historical perspective, or narrowly conceived.

In Luce’s formulation, U.S. standing rested most obviously on its claim to represent a new political order — one responsive to the popular will and resistant to the abuse of governmental authority. The survival and then success of this model had by the nineteenth century come to command global attention. Foreign observers, whether they extolled its virtues or denounced its defects, had to grapple with this political experiment. That monarchists, developmental authoritarians, and a wide sweep of the political left offered critiques of the U.S. model is testimony to how large it loomed.

Democracy is now widespread, receiving lip service even in places where it is denied in practice. Americans can claim to be on the right side of history. But more to the point, today’s work-a-day U.S. political system has little to recommend it as a model. Voter participation has fallen significantly since the 1960s. Voter awareness of the issues is shockingly deficient. Underlying both low participation and awareness is a pervasive cynicism and alienation from the political process. This woeful state of affairs has been exacerbated by political polarization, big money elections, and lobbying that gives interest groups and corporations disproportionate power. One of the pillars of U.S. claims to greatness has for all practical purposes collapsed. There is, alas, considerable truth in Juan Cole’s dispiriting advice to democratic reformers in the Middle East to take American democracy as a negative example.

The second pillar supporting the American century was a large, vital, growing economy that created widespread benefits. Luce could dream of dominance in 1941 thanks to the resources generated by a growth rate unprecedented in human history. The United States had catapulted to the lead among world economies by the turn of the century. World War II coming on the heels of a European war and the Great Depression turned that lead into extraordinary dominance. Just as every other major economy suffered destruction, war brought prosperity to the United States and built up the industrial prowess and financial resources indispensable to Washington’s postwar program of global economic revival and reform.

This economic pillar, like the political one, is now in peril. In relative terms, the U.S. economic standing was bound to decline. Europeans and Japanese had gotten back on their feet by the late 1960s and 1970s. Since then a set of middle powers, known collectively as the BRIC’s, have further eroded the U.S. position.

Hastening this long-term relative decline are structural problems within the U.S. economy. The country is energy inefficient even as it becomes more heavily dependent on oil imports. Savings rates are low. A variety of stubborn deficits in international trade and government spending have had pernicious effects, not least a weakened dollar and credit worthiness. Non-economic sources of productivity and non-economic costs of production are neglected.

The third pillar — one Luce was keenly alert to — was a social model taking form around the beginning of the twentieth century. Rapid economic growth and rising levels of per capita income provided the spur to the creation of something new under the sun: a consumption-oriented economy. Burgeoning agricultural and industrial production required mass consumption to sustain it and inspired a host of innovative practices that we take for granted today, including nation-wide distribution of standard brands, pervasive advertising to waken and woo consumers, and easy credit to facilitate purchase of discretionary goods.

The new economy encouraged individuals to think of themselves first and foremost as consumers. They were to judge themselves and be judged by the level and sophistication of their purchases, whether clothes, homes, vacations, or entertainments. By the time Luce wrote, this consumer society had made deep inroads into the middle class, and it would broaden and deepen its appeal in a postwar golden age of abundance for many Americans.

Like democracy, the consumer model has gained worldwide appeal — but not the America that pioneered it. Take virtually any international yardstick of social welfare, and the United States ends up anywhere from the middle to the back of the pack among advanced countries. Recent International Monetary Fund data indicate scholastic performance and life expectancy are dismal for a country that puts such stock in educational mobility and so much more of its GDP in health care than any other. The areas in which the United States is at the top — prison population, income inequality, and incidence of hunger — give no reason for pride. Far from standing out as a model to emulate, the United States better serves foreign observers as a cautionary tale.

Though not explicit in Luce’s scheme of things, a powerful executive acting with the appropriate vision was indispensable, as he well understood. State power was thus the fourth pillar of the American century. The burgeoning of the U.S. state, and with it presidential power, began around the beginning of the twentieth century as Washington commanded a growing proportion of GDP, promoted a regulatory bureaucracy, learned the skills to mobilize the public, and fielded a more professional, robust foreign service, army, and navy.

Foreign adventures did much to promote this trend. Muscle flexing in Central America and the Caribbean, in the Pacific all the way to the Philippines and China, and in a European war justified the power already in the president’s hands and laid the basis for claims to more. Intervention in World War II continued a trend toward a strengthened state and especially presidential authority already well advanced when Luce wrote.

But the strong state has generated problems. At the level of political principle, a presidency grown so powerful has deformed the Constitution. The Executive overshadows the Congress, with the president cast as king and prime minister rolled into one. The great powers and broad responsibilities now invested in the presidency raise the office up even as they crush the occupant with all its heavy obligations and incessant expectations. The situation accords with neither constitutional design of co-equal branches nor political common sense.

These reflections on decline inspired by Luce’s essay highlight the array of cracks weakening a once formidable structure. No single, simple fix will make things better. On the other hand, initiatives on any of a variety of fronts could begin to make a difference and ultimately recuperate some of the international luster Luce celebrated and is now lost.

Revitalizing the democratic model is one. A better informed and engaged citizenry and a reformed electoral process that makes participation meaningful is another. While continuing relative economic decline is inevitable, U.S. standing would benefit considerably from addressing deficits, boosting saving rates, and relating individual economic reward to economic contributions. The notion that consumerism creates a good society rather than representing a dysfunctional fetish has shaken the third pillar of the American century and begs the question, yet unanswered, of how Americans might envision a society that is sustainable and promises a modicum of stability and satisfaction for ordinary citizens. Finally, the American state as the fourth pillar should be brought into line with formal constitutional requirements and the limits of a single individual’s intelligence and energy.

While identifying ways to slow U.S. decline is easy, actually taking action on any of them is hard. Standing in the way of broad agreement, not to mention concerted action, is a badly divided public in the grip of three divergent conceptions of what what their country is fundamentally about (a point made in a previous post). With no agreement, policy paralysis seems more likely than resolute attempts at renovation.

This assessment is admittedly pessimistic. Something about the American experiment has gone seriously wrong and cannot be easily righted. To get beyond pessimism we need a sense that things can change, an agreement on what those changes are, and at least a vague understanding of where those changes might take us. Perhaps what we are waiting for is a manifesto that inspires, a social movement that mobilizes broad parts of the citizenry, or a leader who can point the way to a new American relationship to a world that has vastly changed since Luce wrote in 1941. But while we wait we should keep in mind that time is against us. The longer we wait, the worse our odds.

Michael H. Hunt is Everett H. Emerson Professor of History Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His ten books include The American Ascendancy: How the United States Gained and Wielded Global Dominance and A Vietnam War Reader: A Documentary History from American and Vietnamese Perspectives. His comments “on Washington and the world” appear here regularly and can also be found on his new website. Hunt would like to thank the UNC Program in the Humanities for the opportunity to test the ideas in this post.