The Debate over Decline

Annual Fall Symposium Probes Where America Is Heading

On December 4, 2010, the Heights Room at Boston College was abuzz with reflection, conversation, and healthy controversy. For the seventh year, Mass Humanities offered a provocative debate for citizens of the Commonwealth, this time on the question: Is America in decline? Moderated by author and blogger Ross Douthat, the Fall Symposium featured two panels, each presenting some of the country's most incisive thinkers and their points of view. After each panel discussion, in a robust Q&A, the program then gave the 250-plus audience a chance to consider and confront the direction American civilization is charting. We've excerpted some of the highlights here: from the perspectives of our panelists to the great questions members of the public posed.

We invite you to address these observations and questions, or share your own thoughts on the matter, by joining the conversation on our Facebook page: www.facebook.com/masshumanities. Enjoy!

Gregg Easterbrook“I think the 21st century will be the American century. Of course, there are things that could go wrong—national debt, national hubris—but in the main, America's influence in the world is a positive one. We're winning on most of our points: The world is becoming more democratic, and we're still the model of the world. America will decline in importance only in the sense that China, Brazil, India, Indonesia will rise in importance, but that is as it should be.”
—Gregg Easterbrook, contributing editor for The Atlantic Monthly and author of Sonic Boom: Globalization at Mach Speed

Ta-Nehisi Coates“What does it matter to you whether America is in decline or not when the justice system in America doesn't necessarily treat you equally? I have a 10-year-old son and I tell him, when you're dealing with the police, be respectful, be kind, but they're not your friends. And I think: Is that the message you should send about the arm of the state, of the country you live in? So, when we have these conversations about whether America is in decline, I think we have to consider people who are totally alienated from that question.”
—Ta-Nehisi Coates, senior editor for The Atlantic Monthly, and author of The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood

Carol Graham“I'm neither an optimist nor a pessimist. I'm an economist, and on the one hand, we have a U.S. with long-term structural unemployment, an underclass, and lots of deficit problems. On the other hand, we have an incredibly dynamic economy, still some of the world's best innovations, the world's best universities, and immigrants keep coming to the United States.”
—Carol Graham, senior fellow and Charles Robinson Chair at The Brookings Institution, and author of Happiness Around the World: The Paradox of Happy Peasants and Miserable Millionaires

Alexis Gelber“Education is still the path to social and economic advancement in the United States, and we have to be sure that the thing that lures people here [American higher education] allows also for the best and brightest to remain here.”
—Alexis Gelber, former national affairs editor and assistant managing editor of Newsweek, and currently an adjunct professor at the New York University's School of Journalism

Peniel Joseph“Dr. King reminded America that the three greatest threats to American democracy were materialism, militarism, and racism. We are certainly in a precipitous decline from the dreams and promises of American democracy.”
—Peniel Joseph, professor of history at Tufts University and author of Waiting 'til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America

Peter Beinart“The United States has gotten too much in the business of defining success by the frontiers of American power. You should judge the success [of America] by how Americans are doing at home. If things are not going well domestically, it doesn't really matter how broad the frontiers of your power are. So, I think that is the language we need to recover; we need to ask ourselves: How are Americans benefiting from these vast resources we are spending in Iraq and Afghanistan? Once we start to flip the way we talk about American foreign policy and make it more centered on the concerns of average Americans—other than America's place in a global chess game vis-à-vis other countries—the closer we will be to recapturing a more realistic understanding of what America's interests are. And that's ultimately the best way to prevent America from being in systemic decline.”
—Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast and author of The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris

Reihan Salem“One of my deep beliefs about the problems we have in America is that America is a country that [always] lives in the future.”
—Reihan Salam, policy advisor at e21 and co-author of Grand New Party

Paul Starobin“I don't think the American model is what it used to be. I think it's been damaged. To me, this is an age of limits. What I worry about is the triumphalism, the denialism, the nostalgia that acts as a set of blinders and hurts our interests and what we need to do to make the best possible adjustment to this new phase of history.”
—Paul Starobin, contributing editor to the National Journal and author of After America: Narratives for the Next Global Age