I was born in 1964, in a country that most people, inside America and out, regarded as the greatest on the planet. Indeed, many felt that America in the early 1960s was the greatest country there had ever been.
There was little reason at the time to question this consensus. Americans enjoyed a standard of living that no other country could match and that most could not even imagine. Americans’ strong belief in their country was not significantly challenged by either the Great Depression or World War II, and America emerged from that terrible war stronger than when it went in. It had the most powerful military the country had ever known, an economy producing an unprecedented share of the world’s wealth, and a popular culture that produced movies, music, and books enjoyed the world over and which exert an influence that is still felt today.
The only significant alternative to the American model was communism. The failures of communism were demonstrated by the bodyguards needed to prevent Soviet athletes and artists from defecting whenever they were outside the Iron Curtain, and by all the border walls communists needed, not for the usual reason of keeping intruders out, but for the novel reason of keeping natives from leaving.
All of this seems far away from the depressing reality of 2020. A few statistics bring home how precipitous our decline has been since that period of peak America. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, America’s total public debt more than doubled from 40 percent of its gross domestic product in 1966 to 108 percent in 2020. In 1964, America ran a trade surplus of $6 billion; last year, we ran a trade deficit of $577 billion, the 47th year in a row in which America bought more from the world than the world bought from us. In 1964, only 6.9 percent of children were born out of wedlock; last year, 39.7 percent were, and a smaller percentage of Americans than ever before were married.
The assault on the family has been economic as well as cultural. The Manhattan Institute’s Oren Cass calculated that the average male wage earner could earn what it took to purchase the necessities of middle-class life by working 30 weeks in a year as late as 1985. By 2018, it took 53 weeks, which is more weeks than there are in a year.
In 1964, only communists regarded America as a fundamentally flawed country. Today, millions of Americans share that view. This includes the country’s newspaper of record, as shown by The New York Times’ “1619 Project,” as well as a substantial percentage of elected Democrats and the majority of professors in the country’s leading universities. The emerging elite consensus is that every part of American life is shot-through with “systemic racism” so pervasive that it is hard to see what was accomplished by enacting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or spending hundreds of billions of dollars to alleviate black poverty since President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, or by electing and reelecting President Barack Obama. The most significant national figure who opposes this consensus that America has never been great is President Donald Trump, who could not have been nominated for any significant office in 1964, despite his real political skills.
This journey from Camelot to COVID was the result of many wrong turns. When it began, the foundation of American life had already started to rot, but the rot was largely hidden and resisted by still-powerful beliefs rooted in traditional ideas of duty and self-sacrifice. Today, though, the rot is unmistakable. The termites have been busy indeed since the 1960s, as one American institution after another was captured by the devotees of the New Left, and as more and more Americans came to accept fatuous promises of “liberation,” running the gamut from “if it feels good, do it” to “greed is good.”
As we Americans grope for solutions to the myriad problems we face, we would do well to recall the words of a wise Englishman writing at his nation’s zenith. Rudyard Kipling, asked to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, wrote a poem of admonition, not celebration. In “Recessional,” Kipling warned his countrymen that they risked going the way of “Nineveh and Tyre” if they forgot the religious basis of their civilization: “God of our fathers, known of old/Lord of our far-flung battle-line,/Beneath whose awful Hand we hold/Dominion over palm and pine—/Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,/Lest we forget—lest we forget!”
We are much further down the road to Nineveh and Tyre than the British were in 1897. But it is hard to see how we avoid going still further down that road, much less reversing course, unless we remember what the British never did. Otherwise, a wise American will end up saying about our nation’s 21st century what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said about his nation’s 20th century: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”
Thomas Piatak is a contributing editor to Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He writes from Cleveland, Ohio.