I woke up this morning intending to get an early start. As always, I pulled out my phone before I’d even put on my glasses, and thumb-flipped through my RSS reader a bit. Then, just as my attention span was about to hit its limit, someone casually dropped a link to James Fallows’ cover story in the new Atlantic, titled “How America Can Rise Again.” Hook, line, sinker.
This might be the first Fallows story I’ve read that over-promises and under-delivers. Reading it doesn’t really give you anything in the way of insight about how America can rise again. This is about as close as Fallows gets to future-pointed pep talkery:
Our government is old and broken and dysfunctional, and may even be beyond repair. But Starr is right. Our only sane choice is to muddle through. As human beings, we ultimately become old and broken and dysfunctional—but in the meantime it makes a difference if we try. Our American republic may prove to be doomed, but it will make a difference if we improvise and strive to make the best of the path through our time—and our children’s, and their grandchildren’s—rather than succumb.
It doesn’t get much cheerier than that. The piece feels as though Fallows is trying — and failing — to convince himself he’s worrying too much about America’s decline. He brings up several reasons to discount pessimism about the country’s future, and then winds up delivering the most pessimistic argument of all. “Most of the things that worry Americans aren’t really that serious, especially those that involve ‘falling behind’ anyone else,” he says, by way of setup, and then continues: “But there is a deeper problem almost too alarming to worry about, since it is so hard to see a solution. Let’s start with the good news.”
When I finished it, my feelings were somewhat akin to those I felt after I read his September 2009 cover story declaring victory in Iraq. I’d been lured in by a bombastic cover treatment proclaiming, “We won!” At the end, the most resonant message to emerge from the piece was, “Let’s cut our losses.”
There’s a wealth of ideas threaded through Fallows’ latest — the worthy tradition of the American jeremiad, the “innocence” of Mancur Olson, the power of young, unproven scholars in American academia. I thought the most provocative invocation in the piece was his assertion that the situation in California is giving us a first taste of an impending public-private divorce. But there’s not really a big idea or a thesis statement. I didn’t really know what to do with it, so I brought it here.
PS: Sorry I’ve been so quiet lately. I’m somehow supposed to be moving to DC in three weeks. A post about that is forthcoming.