VDH skillfully elucidates the historically obvious:
Does “decline” mean inevitable collapse, like an aging person whose mind and body have become enfeebled? That was certainly the view of the ancients, who felt civilizations had finite life-spans (see Jacqueline de Romilly’s The Rise and Fall of States According to Greek Authors.) Do environmental catastrophes, resource depletion, or foreign armies end societies? They can, as the complex pyramidal societies from the Minoans and Mycenaeans to the Mayans and Aztecs learned.
All that said, decline is far more often a choice, not a preordained destiny. There was no reason that Athens at 338 B.C. needed to lose to Philip at Chaironeia or even that the loss there meant the end of Greek freedom. Macedonian forces were a fraction of the size of a far larger Persian force that had swept from the north into a far weaker Athens in 480 B.C. No law said that drama of the quality of the Orestia, Oedipus, Ajax, Bacchae, and Medea had to give way to the sitcoms of Middle and New comedy of the fourth century B.C. By September 1945, England had far more of its industrial base intact than had Germany or Japan, and had suffered far fewer losses, both material and human, since 1939 than either of the defeated Axis powers whose entire national ideologies had been rendered bankrupt and their people reduced to global pariahs. Why, then, did a country that produced the sort of four-engine bombers en masse that its wartime adversaries could not, or a Spitfire fighter better than any produced by Japan or Germany until the advent of the jet, end up decades later with unsold Jaguars while Mercedes and Lexus swept world markets? And why did a bombed out Frankfurt and Tokyo (200,000 incinerated in March 1945 alone) rather quickly out-produce a less damaged Liverpool (e.g., 4,000 killed in the blitz) or Manchester? Clearly the UKchose a path in 1945-9 that a once flattened Germany and Japan did not.
If Rome was supposedly “doomed” by the 5th century A.D., why did the Eastern Empire last another 1,000 years? Why was 1978 America a very different place than either 1955 or 1985 or 1996?
What the deeply knowledgeable VDH fails to acknowledge is that America does not face a choice because America has already collectively made it. Decline is no longer merely an option, it is a strong probability.
VDH notes two of the most significant factors, but fails to note that they are done deals. The explosion of wealth he cites was largely fraudulent, being based on a massive expansion of debt on the part of the Greatest Generation, the Baby Boomers, and to a lesser extent Generation X that robbed from the following generations. The inevitable debt-deleveraging, combined with the tens of millions of largely useless immigrants, now all but guarantees decline. It doesn’t necessarily guarantee fall, however, only a retreat from a historically exceptional nation to an unexceptional one where the citizenry is helplessly subject to the whimsical rule of an aristocratic class. That this aristocracy is one of credentials and connections rather than blood and birth does not change its intrinsic lack of regard for the will of its subjects.