Published December 17, 2007
Fifteen years ago, a deep pessimism seemed to be stalking the American landscape. It arose from diverse quarters, took different forms, and cited a congeries of different symptoms–military, economic, social, cultural, and spiritual–in support of its dark diagnosis. For some, like the Yale historian Paul Kennedy, America's commitments abroad–dubbed by Kennedy a species of “imperial overstretch”–were a sure harbinger of impending national decline. Others, like the leftist literary critic Alfred Kazin, saw a broad collapse of domestic morale, partially disguised by our “unparalleled technological power and scientific advance.” Echoing Kazin from the other side of the political spectrum, James W. Michaels, the editor of Forbes, introduced a symposium marking his magazine's 75th anniversary by declaring the American condition to be a moral and cultural “mess”:
While the media natter about a need for economic change, these serious intellectuals [in the Forbes symposium] worry about our psyches. Can the human race stand prosperity? Is the American experiment in freedom and equal opportunity morally bankrupt? . . . It isn't the economic system that needs fixing. . . . It's our value system.
As for the social reality underlying this general feeling of decline, a number of conservative commentators, concentrating especially on the areas of crime, welfare dependency, and illegitimacy, undertook the task of quantifying and analyzing the available evidence. The most notable such effort was by William J. Bennett, who in March 1993 released a report entitled The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators.*