USA on the decline?

I have just finished reading Orson Scott Card’s new book Shadow of the Hegemon - which makes an excellent read, but that’s another topic - and in his Afterword, where he explains his motivation and research, he makes the following comments (emphasis mine):

I was astounded to read these comments - is this by any means a popular train of thought? Certainly voter apathy seems to be a real issue in the USA (and not only there, but in the United Kingdom and Germany as well) at the moment, and if the people can’t be bothered to vote, then could Card’s comments be said to be valid?

What do you think?



For “wellled” in Card’s quote read “well led”. That makes a bit more sense…


I’m not sure if a decline is the right word. But I suspect there will be some serious uprisings in the next few years in the US.

I think many of the US people have become lazy and the giant “melting pot” needs to be stirred a bit.

In a recent Diversity class, I was told America is no longer considered a “Melting Pot”, but more of a “Salad Bowl”. In this way, we all blend together to make a yummy treat, but each of us also retain our individual characteristics.

I like to think of myself as a crouton.

I think Card is seeing a philosophical decline, rather than a decline in military might, say, or economic influence.

It seems fairly clear to me that Joe Sixpack has very little investment in politics of the way his nation is run. He is more interested in titillation than in substance, in labels than in solutions. He doesn’t vote, he doesn’t volunteer, he is not an activist. He’s not involved–socially, politically, or economically, in shaping his nation. He cares about getting his dinner and his Survivor. He like to complain, sometimes loudly and rudely, about things that make little or no difference, comforting himself in polemic instead of striving for understanding.

Now, whether that’s a new thing or not is another matter. Card seems to think so. I don’t.

I am always somewhat amused when someone states an opinion that the USA in decline, or falling apart, or just isn’t what it used to be. Usually the person making the statement is relatively young, or is just not remembering the past or putting the present into context.

Let’s look at my formative years… the 1960s. If ever there was a time when things appeared to be on the decline, that was one of those times.

Let’s see… we had the assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy. We had anarchy at the 1968 Democratic convention. We had the Long Hot Summers of violent and destructive race riots in Harlem, Watts, Detroit and elsewhere. Militant groups like the Black Panthers. The nightly news had a graphic of how many soldiers were killed that day in Vietnam. The National Guard on campuses across the country, attempting to quell the war protests with billy-clubs and tear gas, culminating with the shooting and killing of students at Kent State. Pollution ran rampant. It took Rachel Carson writing Silent Spring to wake us up. The Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation hung over us menacingly, threatening our very survival as a species. And, to a very large segment of the population, the ubiquitous presence of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll was a clear indication that we were going to hell in a handbasket.

On the other hand, we did have hot pants and mini-skirts. ~grin~ Oops. I digress. It is hard to describe to people who didn’t live through that time, how bleak it all seemed. I was one of the flower children who wanted to change the world, but I have to confess that most of the time I felt like it was hopeless. It was a world gone mad.

How about the years leading up to and including the Civil War? How about prohibition and the Great Depression?

Compare and contrast with the USA today. Relatively speaking, we are calm and united, with a strong economy and a strong military. In the decline? I don’t buy it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a flag-waiving patriot who is blind to my country’s faults. I just don’t think the evidence supports the supposition.

Our whole culture is in decay, but that’s not all bad news. Besides what makes Card an authority on the subject?

Who said he was?

Note that Card is not that young - graduating from University in 1975… so at school through the sixties…


Isn’t that the point that he is making, that in times of crisis, leadership comes to the fore and communities and countries grow and change the world, but the USA has become complacent and reliant on its past to carry it into the future…

Also, a thought, this was written before Sept 11 2001, I wonder whether his opinions would have changed?


I alsol read Shadow of the Hegemon and if you read the entire book, which puts the Afterword into perspective, he most definitely does not mean a philisophical decline, he means it in the crumbling Roman Empire sense of decline. In the book the US is a minor power that is China’s lapdog with enough weight to throw around, but weak enough to follow whatever China wants. Kind of like the UK if the UK were just a little bit weaker than it is now.

As for the decline of the US, I think it’s inevitable, however I think we are living in that time of unparalleled prosperity, kind of like the time of Julius and Augustus Caesar. In otherwords we are at the Apex of our rise. However, we have a lot of power, we will keep it for a long time, and the more likely outcome is not that we will fade into weakness, but that new power structures will arise elsewhere that will make our type of power irrelevant.

Cultural Hegemony is what makes the US powerful on the world stage, that hegemony is propped up by our corporate interests abroad. As those corporate interests take on international partners it will be come more and more irrelevant that they came from the United States. They will look more toward what the EU is doing to hurt/protect their interests when doing business in Europe and look to the powers in whatever region they do business in, and being an American company will become increasingly unimportant.


I notice while re-reading my post, that I focused entirely on an internal perspective rather than a more encompassing world-view.

I’d echo much of what mswas has said. At some point in time, our society will, like all dominant societies of history, become a secondary player on the world stage. And it also could be argued that we’ve already achieved our apex and the only remaining direction is down (ie- if we’re no longer rising, we must be falling). However, that assumes a long plateau of prosperity and power does not occur.

Again, while I hate to keep bringing up the 1960s, there was great fear at the time (manifesting itself as paranoia) that Communism was going to be the conquering society and that our Capitalistic society was going to “fall”. Obviously, that scenario is no longer feared like it once was.

I think andros has a good point that needs to be examined further.

Most references I see to “US on the decline” come in one of two forms:

The first form is the ‘other countries are fast approaching!’, which is undone by the fact that it takes a current situation and extrapolates it to last indefinitely. China, by this ideal, shall shortly become the greatest economic power in all the world, dwarfing the U.S. and any attempt at a Euromarket, simply because of its size and its incredible growth. Of course, twenty years ago we were told that the Japanese would shortly own all of the U.S. because of their superior business practices and long-term thinking. Then their economy collapsed, and you rarely hear discussion of how Japan is going to economically dominate the world. This doesn’t mean it’s not possible for the theory to pull out- Japan may get back up, China may continue its growth, the US might fall into a serious depression following a tech stock bust- but odds are against it.

The second form is the ‘we’re getting stupid and weak!’ form that Card seems to be taking above. The problem is trying to sort out the truth from the alarmist lies, and trying to determine what’s merely holding ourselves to an unattainable ideal. For example, when I was in high school it was accepted as simple fact that US schoolkids were idiots. After all, a study had been done, and half of the kids couldn’t find the US on a map- ergo, our schools weren’t teaching at all well, and by 2020 the average adult probably wouldn’t be functionally literate. Except. Except that the study that everyone was citing, the one that stated that US students couldn’t find the US on a map, had a bit of a trick to it. Y’see, 98% of the students found the continental US on a map. It’s just that about half of them either forgot to also mark Alaska and Hawaii, or misidentified which chain of islands were Hawaii. Doesn’t seem nearly so dire now, does it?

What Card talks about is apathy and political illiteracy. However, the question is whether the ideal he holds us to was ever actually met in the years we were theoretically in our glory days. Does Joe Sixpack understand the issues surrounding him today? Most definitely not; he is probably uninformed and bases his views on either which slogans sound snappier, or by what his friends tell him to think. The question, though, is did Joe Sixpack’s father or grandfather actually understand the issues of their day any better? Given the lack of education of previous generations, part of me wants to state it as obvious truth that they didn’t; Josep Sixpacski probably didn’t comprehend the real facts regarding tariffs, the rise of American imperialism, and the transfer of regionalism to federalism that occurred during the late 19th century. But one could also argue that Sixpacski didn’t have quite so many issues to worry about; since the FDR New Deal and our burgeoning expectation that the federal government deal with every little matter we face, I expect that the number of issues Joe Sixpack is expected to have basic understanding of number about fiftyfold what his grandfather cared about. Sixpack is exepcted to have a reasoned position on abortion, feminism, gay rights, equality in divorce cases, systematic sexism, and political correctness. Sixpacski was expected to have a reasoned position on whether women should be allowed to vote.

But the evidence that Card comes up with I find sorely lacking. He cites a decline in voter participation as “apathy”; in fact, there are other, less malignant causes. Voter enrollment itself is dramatically greater than it was a hundred years ago due to the enfrachisment of a great number of the populace; thus, part of the reason that the percentage of voters who actually vote has dropped is because the percentage of those we call ‘voters’ has risen. Likewise, trusting the numbers of the 19th and early 20th centuries in comparison to the numbers of the late 20th century… I mean, how much of “turnout decline” in Chicago is because the dead aren’t showing up to vote in alphabetical order for Mayor Daley Sr.? How much of the decline in Boston is because Mayor Curley isn’t around to get some of his supporters to vote ten to twenty times each?

And as for being “well led”- I emphatically disagree with that. We are more cynically informed than our predecessors, and that leads us to believe we were once better led. But that’s because todays press considers it more important to jump in with leading indicators rather regardless of the actual truth of the matter while forty years ago the press was perfectly happy to keep politician’s foibles under wraps if they felt it would hurt the country. Whatever people want to impugne about George W., he is smarter, more honest, and more of a leader than many of his predecessors.
I do agree that there is a chance that the US is actually in decline, and that in fifty years we’ll be a second-string player to a European Union or a Pan Asiatic Alliance or some such. Or, perhaps, in fifty years the US per se will be no more, having been absorbed into a larger North American Union with Canada, or perhaps some actual functioning world government will have emerged. But I don’t see any actual evidence of decline; what I see evidence of is that we’re not living up to a mythical ideal that we never lived up to previously.

But as with the Roman Empire, the first most assuredly leads to the second. And given Hegemon and the remainder of Card’s body of work, it’s quite obvious he believes the latter cannot occur without the former. That’s the whole point to nearly everything he’s written–the ability to alter people’s perceptions is ultimately the ability to change worlds.


Ah, but Card didn’t say we are less well led, but that we are unwilling to be well-led.

Still arguable, but a different point, I think.

Ah, andros, my mistake.

Question- as I have never read Card’s works- is he implying that we have always lacked this resolve, or that we have lost this will? That’s a major difference.

I feel that there has only in extreme circumstances been a desire to be “well led”; during war-time, or major economic travail, for example. Otherwise, we are perfectly happy and willing to be led by lesser lights- I cannot see anyone claiming that either of the Bushes, Clinton, Carter, or Ford were actually the best that their time had to offer as President. Best of the people actually willing to run, sure. But actually the best person to have the job?

Somehow, we manage to get the best Presidents when we need them most. Is it that we have the will, but do not summon it until necessary- in which case, the lack of obvious will does not mean anything towards a decline, as we will do the hard searching when the time comes- or that we’ve been remarkably luck (Gods, fools, and democracies), in which case fall is inevitable once calamity strikes while the unfit lead. Unfortunately, I can’t really answer that. Sometimes it was obvious will- Washington, FDR. Sometimes it was luck of the draw- TR, Truman. And at least once the will to a great leader brought the problem along with it- Lincoln was the man who could restore the country, but it was his own election that sundered it.

In my opinion, China has a long way to go before becoming a world economic power. I’ve read several articles in the Washington Post newspaper that corruption is rampant in the ownership and management of companies and several million low ranking workers are getting squeezed out of their share of the gravy. The ruling elite will have to deal with their plight instead of brutally putting down worker’s strikes.

I tend to think we are being overtaxed and too many people are using the safety net as a hammock. This will lead to our downfall as way too many resources are spent on such problems that tend to ‘lower’ society and not enough to ‘raise’ society.

Just my humble O

Good question. I’m not sure, TBH. But I think he is of the latter opinion.

A lot of people throw around the Roman Empire as some kind of model of decline, when even its declining phase took a couple of hundred years. The Empire lasted what, half a millenium? And the Republic a half a millenium before that? I’m sure I’m oversimplifying, but you get the idea.

If there’s any comparison with ancient Rome to be found here, maybe it’s the smack in the middle of its history–the decline of the Republic and the rise of the emperors. If that’s the case, we might have a couple of centuries left to go, but not in a happy sense.

“Democracies usually collapse not too long after the plebes discover that they can vote themselves both bread and circuses . . . for a while.” - Robert Heinlein