Patrick Allitt says that the infuriating but reassuring can-do spirit that once defined the United States is finally dying out. But what will we all do when it’s gone?
The first time I went to America, in 1977, I couldn’t believe how cheerful, peppy and purposeful everyone was. The late seventies were bad years by American standards, the Jimmy Carter era of stagflation and malaise, but to someone coming out of Jim Callaghan’s Britain the place seemed almost insanely upbeat. Strangers would greet you enthusiastically, with a ‘How ya doin?’ in New York and a ‘Have you taken Jesus as your personal saviour?’ in small Oklahoma towns, but always with a radiant goodwill. How to Win Friends and Influence People was still a bestseller and everywhere people worked hard, believed in the future, and talked incessantly about progress.
I felt as though I’d had a transfusion of red blood cells supercharged with espresso, and was fully awake for the first time. The sheer lack of fatalism was exhilarating. In Britain, when something broke in those days of strikes, paralysis and decline, everyone gathered round to take a look and said, ‘It’s broken. What a pity.’ In America everyone gathered around and said, ‘It’s broken, but we can soon fix that,’ and they did.
Where has that America gone? The United States are a little sadder and feel somehow deflated today. The burst of utopianism that greeted Obama in 2008 has disappeared with the return of everyday politics and the slow grind of two unwinnable wars. Now everyone talks about decline, recession and ageing. Admittedly I was a 21-year-old in 1977, eager to look on the bright side, whereas now I’m a 53-year-old who’s also declining, receding and ageing, but I think there’s more to it than that. The supreme confidence in the future that marked America throughout its first two centuries has begun to disappear.
America was optimistic almost as a matter of official doctrine right from the outset. Anyone setting up a republic in the 1770s had to be aware that nearly every republic in the history of the world had failed, usually under the iron heel of a tyrant or conqueror. No sooner had the American experiment got started than Napoleon repeated the pattern by snuffing out Europe’s frail republics. Yet this one, safeguarded by an ocean, prospered. British visitors in the 19th century, like Frances Trollope and Charles Dickens, found the Americans’ self-confidence, national pride and boastfulness almost insufferable, but they had to admit that the Americans got things done. Enterprising chaps like Andrew Carnegie emigrated from gaunt British poverty to amass Wagnerian fortunes on the other side of the Atlantic.
In the 20th century, too, a succession of visitors as different as Rudyard Kipling, Winston Churchill, P.G. Wodehouse and Alistair Cooke loved recharging their spiritual batteries with long trips to America. Cooke even made a career out of extolling America’s can-do attitude, albeit with an undercurrent of irony at its excesses. What would he make of its current moods and attitudes?
Today, recession-related jitters are widespread. Nearly everyone knows someone who has just lost their job and can’t help speculating whether they’re going to be next. Entire counties in the Sunbelt are stricken with failed mortgages, evictions and houses worth far less than they cost. Economic news stories increasingly compare America to China, very much to China’s advantage, and predict its increasing dominance. But the decline of American confidence isn’t just a temporary blip on the screen brought on by the recession — you could already feel it during the boom days of the mid-zeroes.
American gloom comes in highbrow, lowbrow and middlebrow forms. It has become characteristic of the wealthiest and most highly educated Americans to be pessimistic about their country. They fear the erosion of civil liberties at the hands of a metastasising security state, a loss of competitiveness and an inability to produce new generations of elite scientists. One of their favourite authors is the UCLA professor Jared Diamond, who became famous in 1997 with Guns, Germs and Steel, a lively book about how civilisations get started. But his sequel, Collapse (2005) marks the changing mood. It describes civilisations that went down blind alleys and foundered, ending with the clear implication that America might well be next. His subtitle, ‘How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed’, sticks to the traditional American promise of free will, but also implies that those who get to make a choice often choose wrong.
Middlebrow gloom shows up in Hollywood, where recent films tell a similar story. The success of Avatar, for example, is really rather odd. In its lumbering allegorical style it depicts an American way of life that consists in equal parts of cynicism, destruction and a brutal, galaxy-encompassing greed. You might think citizens would object to such demonisation, but they don’t. Instead, millions have flocked to it, apparently willing to make an emotional commitment to the crippled marine who symbolically rejects America to become, instead, the local blue people’s messiah.
Lowbrow gloom, sometimes veering over into self-contempt, is easy to find just by turning on the TV. Millions watch The Biggest Loser, a show in which hideously overweight citizens cast off their last vestige of dignity as they compete to shed rolls of fat. In Das Kapital Karl Marx made what was probably meant to be a bitingly ironic aside, that the bourgeoisie was becoming so bloated that it would soon be paying to lose weight. The joke’s on him; as it turns out, it’s the pro-bourgeois American proletariat that is paying millions to slim down, and taking a voyeuristic interest in others on the same quest.
Two further signs that America has lost its old confidence are vitriolic anti-immigrant campaigns and changes in the evangelical idiom. An America that once opened its arms to immigrants from all over the world, confident of its ability to transform them into harmonious, egalitarian, democracy-loving citizens, has hunkered down behind the floodlit, gun-swept, fortified wall that now marks the Mexican border. Many evangelical Christian leaders, meanwhile, who once described America as ‘God’s country’, now see it as a land occupied by the Devil and his minions, against whom the dwindling band of true Christians must fight their own Armageddon. These folks don’t read Collapse but their version of the same story is Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind books, in which Jesus has already whisked the really good people up to Heaven, while the second best have been left behind to fight Satan as best they can, until the apocalypse.
Where will it all end? You can still find vestiges of the old buoyancy, and I dare say the return of good times will give it a bit more lift. Habits as deep as American optimism don’t die out easily. On the other hand, America has experienced a prolonged dose of unpleasant reality since 2001; its influential and ageing baby boomers feel morose, not having lived up to their own promise, and much of the rest of the world has caught up with America, robbing it of the complacent sense of superiority that it could hardly help feeling 30 or 40 years ago. Ironically, some of America’s cheeriest people these days, me very much included, are immigrants who are acutely aware of what a good thing they encountered on crossing the Atlantic.
Patrick Allitt is Goodrich C. White Professor of History at Emory University, Atlanta.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated January 23, 2010