Is American Civilization in Decline?

Inspired by a Wednesday update to a 2004 La Shawn Barber post arguing that American civilization is deteriorating in ways very similar to the way Edward Gibbon described the fall of the Roman Empire, Dean Esmay responds with two posts arguing that the Romans were never all that hot, didn’t decline due to sexual perversion anyway, and that America is mostly getting better. Rusty Shackleford notes, too, that the Romans weren’t even all that great an empire and that America rocks.

I’m with Rusty and Dean on this one. While I share some of LaShawn’s concerns about cultural problems in the country and harbor plenty of nostalgia for certain aspects of the days of yore, we’ve somehow managed to be the richest, strongest, most dynamic society in the history of the planet and show few signs of giving up our lead. And Dean’s right, too, that the causal link between moral decay (mostly related to sexual mores) and civilizational collapse is purely mythological.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. My concern isn’t “moral decay”, but the large percentage of Americans on the left who simply hate their country and everything it stands for. How long can a civilization function if a good 20% of it is actively working on its decline?

  2. Herb Ely says:

    We can argue for a long time as to the extent that sins of commission, particularly sexual sins contribute to the decline of society. However, in the case of Katrina, there was a long string of sins of omission that led to the failures of the levees and evacuation plans. All levels of government, local, state and federal, failed to prepare for a hurricane. This in spite of a FEMA table top exercise in July 2004. If America declines it will be, I suggest, much more due to lack of integrity in our leadership than due to sexual immorality in the culture. While we can link the two, we as voters, journalists and bloggers can do more about leadership integrity than sexual immorality.

  3. DL says:

    Anyone who thinks America isn’t in decline is too young to remember the moral culture prevalent before the sixties.
    I won’t debate the obvious, but I will remind people that there is more than one way to fall! We are on several paths toward that mtaphorical cliff and have been for years. That it is not noticable to so many, is evidence as to how far down we’ve already come in this post-Christian world. As to those who think it’s turned around: as a one time stockbroker, I learned quickly not to view markets by short term up-ticks. 40 Million innocent lives shuffed out and even conservatives refer to abortion as a “single issue” not to get sidetracked by. Nothing more easily attests to the level of decadence acceptable today. Marriage, as an backbone of society,is an institution that needs deathbed nutrients quickly. Our courts make law -our politicians make comedy of the process, our media has come out of the closet, as caring not a bit for their profession or their country -just their ideology. Our ghettos not only have not improved, but we think rebuilding after a flood will solve the problems so endemic to the culture will disappear. Our conservatives spend faster than their liberal counterparts. Our border are like seives with the willing help of a conservative administration. Generations of propagandized citizens believe that the environment is sacred and that animals have the the same value as humans. Our media and music turns out vile far more dangerous to us than those contaminated NO flood waters. Europe, a continent every doughboy proudly risked their lives to save, was saved a second time by those doughboy’s sons. Holland sanctions the very euthanasia we saved them from. Most of the rest pursue a godless socialism that so dehumanises man. And half our politicians and judges want to emulate them. We are attacked by an enemy that is capable of our destruction and half our politicians and Mainstream media use it as an opportunity to gain power.

    We are in deep trouble. It is way past time to shout “ENOUGH” and begin to become INTOLERANT of the things destroying us. Let’s start with political correctness and toss it, in favor of good old fashioned decency and manners.
    Let’s stop looking for the government to solve all our problems. Let’s preach wise use of the environment and let’s demand that people live according to the dignity they were blessed with by their Creator.

  4. Dean Reese says:

    America in decline, yes.

    I believe, as a I wrote Demise Of Modern Democracy, it is democracy that is in decline.

    Absolutely, many moral and social values have eroded. Also, the some have expanded, specifcially civil and womens rights.

    The bias and divison that was born 150+ years ago during the Civil War exists today in more extreme forms. The ’60s were an ugly extension that stoked the fire.

    Without a return the foundation, our democracy is doomed. Leaders are needed. Unfortunately, I have seen few the embody the forethought and understanding to embrace the challenge.

  5. DC Loser says:

    My worries concern the decline in educational standards and the overall decline in the number of technical degrees awarded in this country. The USA’s wealth is built on technical innovation and business. Business leaders worry about the lack of a native talent pool. Where are the technical innovations going to come from tomorrow? After 9/11, the immigration rules were tightened for those wanting to come to this country to study and perhaps stay after getting their training. Now they’re just going to stay in China, India, and Europe and help their countries build up their wealth, whereas in the past we offered them incentives to immigrate and stay here permanently.

  6. Fersboo says:

    I was wondering if Herb and those who agree with him if there is any correlation between the decline of leadership integrity and the decline of social norms and morality. I believe that the decline in leadership integrity is in direct proportion to the decline of our social norms and morality.

  7. Mark says:

    I think DC Loser nails it in his comment.

    The public schools may not give a damn about teaching the kids reading, writing, and arithmetic, but at least they will know how to put a condom on!

  8. DC Loser says:


    I’m not sure it’s all the schools and teachers’ fault. My kids go to a wonderful public school system with great teachers, and they’re held to very high standards. I’m a product of the NYC public school system, and damned proud of it. My take is that many parents think schools are nothing but a big daycare service and they could care less what their kids are learning and whether they are held to any standards. I think with parental involvement and sufficient funding for good teachers (and that’s another sore subject – teachers pay) and technology, schools can be great. Problem is most people don’t believe in paying for good schools.

  9. odograph says:

    Moral decline? Yes.

    Mainly because we have abandoned moral aspirations. Ozzy and Harriet were never America, except in aspiration. People miss the point when they dismiss the past as hypocritical, and failing to reach proclaimed standards. There is a value in having a goal, and reaching to-wards it in one’s public behavior every day. And of course, that improved public behavior has a value for us all.

    We accept (Married with Children, Simpson’s, South Park) to be bad, and so rarely get off our backsides (it would be easy to use another word, but that would not be aspiring to better public behavior) to even try.

  10. odograph says:

    Another thought … the movie “Pleasantville” was a stylized version of this American transformation, in which “being bad” is seen as liberation.

  11. DL says:

    As an ex -teacher union head who entered teaching when school custodians actually made more money, I can (ignoring the heresy) suggest that the quality of teaching today, because of much better salaries, is neither better nor worse than before -money -is not the factor in poor education. Too many students today have poor motivation -parents today will sue at the drop of a hat (their kids will remind you of that.) Political correctness is rampant -administrators are afraid to take charge (unless a 1st grader shows up with a dull plastic butter knife in his lunch pail -then the cops are called to CYA)
    Text books are contaminated with leftist eco-weirdness and all kinds of social indoctrination.
    Teachers are too often victims of the NEA mentality that only bigger gov’t. can save them.
    Few understnd economics, real environmental science, American history, (we were evil -Indians good) and are are easily led to teach misinformation without even being aware of it.
    There are ,however, many top teachers and many top parents, with beautiful children who make great students. Special ed., noble as it is, is too often comprised of lithium stuffed students, who have been given little in the way of expectation and less in the way of self-discipline.
    Teachers are under pressure to prove their worth with testing systems that pretend to measure growth, while being oblivious to the subtleties of the average classroom – half full of divorcing parents, drugs at home, and negative learning attitudes fostered at home, etc. I watched this environment change along with the anti-authority sixties and the offspring of those rebels.
    Much good is being done today – in spite of the common misconceptions by the public. Trashing teachers, when they have little to say in what happens in education won’t help. Attack, if you must, the elitists in the colleges that mold their minds in all thing leftist. Challenge the resume’ building administrators who seek to make names for themselves by instituting “change” for the sake of change. Give them the professional room they need -work with them -offer help – a few bucks for that extra wall map, etc.
    Education today is merely a reflection of a larger disfunctional culture.

  12. ken says:

    I remember that the decline of education began in the sixties when conservatives began their unrelenting attack on teachers and all public spending on education. This idealogical attack against public education has never let up and as a result we have nearly achieved what conservatives really want: universally lousy public schools.

  13. Mercutio says:

    Sexual mores carry little weight but consider the parallels with Rome in decay:

    a) an increasing urban population demanding more bread and circuses

    b) an increasing disrespect for the institutions and principles of the republic

    c) a (deserved) disrespect for the pols of the day

    d) disenfranchisement of the yeoman

    I smell Goths in the wind…..

  14. RA says:

    You bet America is in moral decline. We are still the most prosperous nation in the world, but will it last?

    We are almost to the point where we are not willing to fight a war to defend our selves. Once the great, lazy, uneducated, unwashed become 51% of the voters, our prosperity will start to decline as they vote themselves money from ever shrinking coffers.

    Moral degradation has consequences and humanists don’t have a clue about it. By the time they figure it out it will be to late.

  15. ken says:

    RA, just how critical can a war be if the administration running it is unwilling to raise taxes to pay for it? It’s not like we just had billions of dollars sitting around in a savings account to be used in case of war. We either raise taxes to pay for it or we borrow the money or some combination of the the two. That is what happened with any past wars that were indeed critical.

    Why should anyone think that this war is critical if nothing has to be done to pay for it?

  16. Dean Esmay says:

    We’re in a moral decline? Bullshit. Yes, we put up with more swearing and are more open to sex outside of the tradtional marriage. We also frown a lot more on things like drunk driving and beating your children and public lynchings. On the whole I’ll take today over 1930, thanks.

    As for “bread and circuses”–my ass. The vast, overwhelming majority of Americans PAY for their bread and their entertainment. We are hardly a nation of welfare dependants.

    The “America used to be great but now it stinks” conservatives chap my ass as much as the “we’re a bunch of bullies who go to war for OIIILLLLL!!!!!” assholes.

  17. DL says:

    What country were you in to believe the conservatives destroyed education in the sixties. I remember liberal ecstatic principals telling us to create ANYTHING we wanted to TRY in our classrooms – she could get us all the money we want. So walls came down -pillows became the furniture -cute little contracts created by near illiterate kids became what they would try to learn -no more. the wild days of the liberal sixties and seventies were what brought about the conservative reaction -a reaction that demanded accountability. And so today because of that wild liberal educational joyride, we spend our time trying to prove that we are accountable – time that would be better spent teaching.

  18. Dean Esmay says:

    Oh, and by the way, do I detect a gigantic non-sequitur here?

    …just how critical can a war be if the administration running it is unwilling to raise taxes to pay for it?

    Waaah waaah waaah waah! Taxes are too low! Waaah!

    Running up deficits in order to fund a war is every bit as legitimate as raising taxes to do it. Neither is inherently superior to the other. Our national debt and deficits are nowhere NEAR the historical highs we had under Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman once you adjust for inflation and the GDP. Our debt is something on the order of 5% of our total national wealth. Get over it.

  19. DL says:


    I’m not surprised you prefer the rapidly disintegrating culture of today – it’s reflected in your obvious need to use cuss words to make a very simple point. If you can’t win an argument -cuss!

    By the way, the poverty of the great depression never caused men to behave as poorly as did those in New Orleans.

    Read some of the lyrics of the music of the thirties – probably too goody two shoes for you -but eons above the filth that our elementary children are being subjected to under your version of a great culture!

    Flip the remote through the cable channels -you won’t find Ozzie and Harriet, but you better move the kids out of the room first.

    I dare you to walk unarmed, down any inner-city street at night as we did in the “old days” without fear for our lives.

  20. ken says:

    Dean, taxes are indeed to low when budget deficits get too high. Get over it.

  21. Tom Cruise says:

    we’ve somehow managed to be the richest, strongest, most dynamic society in the history of the planet and show few signs of giving up our lead

    Then you are blind to China.

    civilizational collapse is purely mythological.

    No is just has to be modernized, it was seen as a myth during the event, we won’t see as such either, it is happens, it will be subtle.

  22. Herb says:


    What country are you from? It wasn’t the conservatives that degraded the schools in the 60’s, it was the liberals.

    Back in the 60’s when most of you were not born yet or were still in diapers, the yuppies, hippies,and flower children were going wild in the streets with their uncontrolled use of drugs and free sex that started this country on the downhill slope. Their anti war marches, their riots, their massive drug and alcohol induced gatherings, (Woodstock) and their anti American propaganda started with this group of misfits and Mal contents is precisely when this decline started and sadly, a lot of it remains here today.

    The only difference today is that now we have the self righteous, greedy, and sore losing political hippies, yuppies and liberal flower children doing the same thing on real time Liberal Television.