The Decline of the U.S. Has Already Begun

Richard Lachmann’s book manages to connect status and national choices — making us realize that some failures aren’t far from home.

All good things come to an end — including the global dominance of the United States. In First-Class Passengers on a Sinking Ship: Elite Politics and the Decline of Great Powers, Lachmann compares the United States with the Netherlands and England’s eras of hegemony as a way to explain why the U.S. will never regain its powerhouse status. The use of historical sociology to explore America’s loss of global standing allows Lachmann to point to the decline of great powers throughout history and predict the economic future of the U.S.

What inspired you to write this book? 

Signs of American decline were obvious even before the Covid pandemic. Life expectancy and school achievement were dropping, while a majority of Americans endured declining incomes. Americans do not have guaranteed access to health care even though the US spends far more per person than any other country on Earth.

Spending on infrastructure stagnates as bridges collapse, water and sewer pipes and dams burst. And the US has been unable to win wars despite having an unprecedented edge in military spending and technology. From my historical research, I knew the US was not the first dominant world power to decline. I wanted to explain why a country that is so rich and powerful can’t maintain its edge and to see if the trajectories of historical cases can show what is in store for our future.

What are your expectations for the country’s future? 

Dominant powers, like the U.S. today and Britain and the Netherlands in earlier centuries, did not lose power because of a lack of resources. They remained the wealthiest countries in the world with ample revenues. Instead, their falls were due to elites’ ability to command portions of the state budget and control state agencies to serve their interests. 

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We see how elite power creates a political stalemate in the current Covid crisis. Despite trillions of dollars of relief, millions of Americans are being plunged into poverty and are at risk of homelessness. The U.S. government can’t mobilize the most expensive health care system in the world to conduct enough tests and trace the infected as a range of other countries, from rich ones like New Zealand and Germany to poor ones like Vietnam and Cuba, have done.

A paralyzed political system leads ordinary people to withdraw from politics in despair or turn to extremist leaders and parties. Trump is a symptom, not a cause of American decline. Unless there is an outburst of political mobilization like in the 1930s, we can expect a further decline, interrupted by ineffectual reformers and authoritarian leaders. 

What indicators do you think best represent the decline of the US? 

The main indicator of decline in this country’s inability to respond to challenges. Our political system is gridlocked because elites have gained control over much of the government budget and the state’s regulatory power. As a result the U.S. government no longer has the capacity to respond to challenges. 

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We see that in the current Covid crisis. China tested everyone in a city of 9 million in 5 days when a single case was discovered. We can’t mobilize to produce enough tests to open our schools. After banks brought down the economy in 2008, no one was prosecuted, and the main response was to bail out those banks and provide pathetically small investments in ‘shovel ready’ projects that did little to deal with America’s collapsing infrastructure or to reverse adults and children’s declining prospects to lead healthy, secure and prosperous lives. 

What lessons can a reader take away from your book? 

My analysis in this book shows that openings to challenge capitalists through electoral politics were created first outside of parties by striking workers and strategically focused protests. Strikes and demonstrations are most effective when they make clear demands. 

The recent ‘red state’  teachers’ strikes and the ongoing demands for the resources needed to safely reopen schools force officials from both parties to come up with the money. These funds can be generated only with tax increases on the rich or by diverting governmental spending away from elite subsidies.

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As strikers and protesters widen the scope of their demands, they can build a virtuous political cycle. Elites undermined popular political agency and created mass cynicism and despair by robbing the U.S. state of the resources and ability to deliver social benefits. Activists can counter that process as they force the state to meet their demands. Each success in changing government policies and redirecting spending creates a picture of political efficacy and shows the benefits of electing progressives who can enact programs and block elite demands without waiting for people to mount yet another protest. 

What will the end of global domination mean for the average American?

Non-elite Americans will be better off as soon as our government gives up on trying to dominate the world and pushes for ordinary Americans’ economic interests instead of trying to enshrine elite desires into trade agreements. The end of U.S. global dominance will mean that most Americans will be better off. Then vast resources can be diverted from the military to domestic needs and U.S. trade with the world can be reorganized to meet popular interests rather than those of banks and a few enormous privileged corporations.

About the author

Richard Lachmann
Richard Lachmann

Richard Lachmann is a Professor at the University of Albany-SUNY and the author of Capitalists in Spite of Themselves: Elite Conflict and Economic Transitions in Early Modern Europe, States and Power and What Is Historical Sociology?

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Taylor Leamey

Personal Finance Reporter

Taylor Leamey is a personal finance reporter at The Simple Dollar who specializes in personal loans, student loans, mortgages, renters, and financial policy. Her reporting has also been featured at CreditCards.com, Interest.com, Reviews.com, MyMove.com, and elsewhere.

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  • Andrea Perez
    Andrea Perez
    Personal Finance Editor

    Andrea Perez is an editor at The Simple Dollar who leads our news and opinion coverage. She specializes in financial policy, banking, and investing.