America’s Dominance and Decline

Just one substantial item today, compared to the several posted yesterday. If America is so great by some economic and military standards, why is our quality of life, compared to so many other countries around the world, so poor?

Concluding with Radiohead’s “Let Down”.

[Caption to the photo: “The parking lot is nearly deserted at Forest Plaza on March 24, 2020 in Rockford, Illinois. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)”]

Salon, Mike Lofgren, 5 Aug 2023: Why America is going backward: Being the richest nation in history isn’t enough, subtitled “America is the greatest economic and military power in world history — and our quality of life is garbage. But why?”

As in some previous posts, I’m reading this only as I sit down post about it. Before beginning to read, I’ll note the observation that, despite what the MAGA folks believe, in terms of quality of life the US is far from the greatest nation in the world.

And then I’ll begin by asking a question of the article before I read it: to what extent is this the result of partisan politics, or is it something peculiarly American that lies beyond politics? (Spoiler: the answer turns out to be: both.)

The article is about 10 screens of text long. Footer: “Mike Lofgren is a former congressional staff member and the author of The Party is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted.” (The book is out this month.)

The article begins with how the US still doesn’t use the metric system, or the 24-hour clock (i.e. saying 17:30 instead of 5:30 pm). Then notes statistics about the US ranks poorly, among many other nations, for internet connectivity and cost, health care costs, longevity, infant mortality, obesity, and average height.

Part of the thesis here seems to be that developments in basic infrastructure (the writer excludes Appalachia and the Deep South) from 1870 to 1930 (electricity, plumbing) had a far greater impact on the health and well-being of Americans than any of the inventions (TV, the internet, etc.) have had since then. Our grandparents’ homes of 70 years ago would have been recognizable; their grandparents’ of 70 years before that, very primitive.

But what about the international context? Other nations had similar economic spurts after World War II. And now they’ve pulled ahead of the US.

Perhaps the answer lies in the first items I mentioned, the metric system and the 24-hour clock; They are customs, rather than measures of standards of living or health. As such, they are symbolic of a deeper cultural attitude that determines our physical well-being. In 1975, Congress passed the Metric Conversion Act, stating that it was now government policy “to designate the metric system of measurement as the preferred system of weights and measures for United States trade and commerce.” And then nothing happened.

So yes, it is political. “The connection between U.S. backwardness and the triumph of the reactionary right …”:

That law could be seen in retrospect as the last gasp of a bipartisan progressive spirit in America, coming at the end of the high-growth era and at the dawn of the radical right. The connection between U.S. backwardness and the triumph of the reactionary right can aptly be summed up by the words of the founder of postwar American conservatism, William F. Buckley Jr., who said his mission was to “stand athwart history yelling, ‘Stop.'”

What caused this?

It is difficult systematically to disentangle the chicken-and-egg relationship between reactionary politics and the decline of intellectual and cultural life, but the evidence is staring us in the face.

The writer discusses the infusion of intellectuals from Europe after the war, and the American-born intellectuals of that era, for which there are no equivalents today. [[ I’m not sure I’d agree: they’re just different intellectuals, cf. the Two Cultures. ]]

The current anti-intellectual climate is such that more and more areas of science are rejected, and when it comes to the social sciences and liberal arts, the political hostility is unrelenting.

The writer quotes a Canadian psychologist, Robert Altemeyer, about his notion of the “right-wing authoritarian personality.” Quoting Altemeyer:

They are highly submissive to established authority, aggressive in the name of that authority and conventional to the point of insisting everyone should behave as their authorities decide. They are fearful and self-righteous and have a lot of hostility in them that they readily direct toward various out-groups. They are easily incited, easily led, rather un-inclined to think for themselves, largely impervious to facts and reason and rely instead on social support to maintain their beliefs. They bring strong loyalty to their in-groups, have thick-walled, highly compartmentalized minds, use a lot of double standards in their judgments, are surprisingly unprincipled at times and are often hypocrites.

Probably about 20 to 25 percent of the adult American population is so right-wing authoritarian, so scared, so self-righteous, so ill-informed and so dogmatic that nothing you can say or do will change their minds. They would march America into a dictatorship and probably feel that things had improved as a result. … And they are so submissive to their leaders that they will believe and do virtually anything they are told. They are not going to let up and they are not going away.

And of course this precisely matches descriptions of the current MAGA folks, and my own reading about the basis for evolved human morality.

Once again: I did not begin reading this essay looking for support for a predetermined position. The issue was, why is America so behind on so many quality of life measures compared to the rest of the world. But that this, yet another line of evidence, supports a position I’ve drawn from other sources, is significant. If so many lines of evidence converge on a conclusion, maybe there’s something there. Still. Here’s the end of the article. The writer doesn’t really try to explain why the US is an outlier.

His estimate of 20 to 25 percent of adult Americans was later supported by a Morning Consult poll that used a version of Altemeyer’s standard questions for determining whether a test subject held right-wing authoritarian views. It found that 25.6 percent of polled American adults scored high in that index, a figure two to three times higher than among adults polled in other developed countries.

That gap suggests that a genetic component of authoritarian behavior is only weakly present, if at all; there must be something distinctive about the American environment, something in our politics, culture and family life that results in such a high propensity toward authoritarianism.

Altemeyer has emphasized that the right-wing authoritarian harbors a peculiar mix of traits: aggression, submissiveness and conventionality. It may be this brew of behaviors that determines such disparate matters as America’s penchant for violence, its inability to reform itself politically and perhaps even its refusal to adopt the more rational weights and measures used by the rest of the world. Economic issues may play a role, but the jaw-dropping difference between the U.S. and other countries in the polling data suggests that deeper and more terrifying psychological forces are at work.

Genetic component only weakly present? Um, maybe. Something distinctive about American culture? I think the answer is here somewhere. Humans around the world have the same genetics, the same proclivities for cooperation or aggression, and so on through realms of alternate behaviors. The entire world is a laboratory of how differently genetics and circumstances play out in the real world; nature vs. nurture, in the simplistic take.

What is distinct about the US? That is was formed, rather quickly over a few hundred years, by immigrants from many other places around the globe? That it all but wiped out the natives already there, and imported slaves from Africa? And who somehow developed a sense of being special, more so than any of the nations they came from, whose history went back thousands of years? And yet there’s Canada, and South America, where nations formed just as quickly. But perhaps not from as many sources. I suspect there’s a core religious component to the American immigrants.

But even if that’s the explanation, this answer to the question of why the US fails so many ways along measures of human prosperity, suggests that America’s sense of superiority is not a virtue. It’s a sense that leads to complacency, and an unwillingness to learn how other nations have managed to build better societies than the one in the US.

And yes, the religious sense that America is perfect and can learn nothing from the rest of the world, is the core of the problem.


Listening to this album as I write this post. The best song? There are at least two alternates for best song on the album.

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