Declension narratives are stupid. They're just: nostalgia, nostalgia, nostalgia, fall off a cliff.
It's funny, I think, and no accident, that David McCullough launches into an Americans don't know no history rant at exactly the same moment there's this whole conversation going on via Andrew Sullivan's blog with the question When Did We Become Rome?, since, seriously, these declension narratives are entirely void of any historical perspective.
If McCullough wanted examples for his declension narrative, he could have used Sullivan's readers' declension narratives, as they think America fell off the cliff with Sarah Palin. Sarah Palin? Yes, everything was fine until 2010, and then it was all ruined by the pick of a vice presidential for the party that didn't win the election.
Spiro Agnew, you may be excused.
Looking for a moment when American politics "has become decadent," Sullivan and co. reach back a total of two years.
Other readers reached back farther than that, but only as far as the scuttling of the Kerry campaign, the Supreme Court's decision in Bush v. Gore, the Clinton impeachment, etc. The assumption obviously being that, until just a moment ago, things were fine.
Nostalgia, nostalgia, nostalgia, fall off a cliff.
But look, what about Lee Atwater and the work he did for George H.W. Bush. Was that not decadent politics? Was that not "Rome" to Sullivan's readers standards, whatever it is that "Rome" is supposed to mean? Or what about Nixon vs. Helen Gahagan Douglas? Or the Nixon's long history of Tom Eagleton?
Surely Eagleton wasn't the golden age of political seriousness, before everything got horrible.
This is all political decadence, no?
Or do we need to go back before the Cold War?
Well, what about the decadence of the James G. Blaine vs. Grover Cleveland fight, i.e., "Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, the liar from continental Maine," vs. "Ma, Ma, where's my Pa?", a reference to Cleveland's out-of-wedlock child. There's a political debate that rises above the baser, attack-the-man instincts to discuss the real issues. Or look at Blaine's compatriot's attack on Democrats as the part of "Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion"? Was that the golden age of "serious" politics?
There're whole histories of how "Romanism" has been used in the politics of distraction. Remember there was a whole chunk of a period there before the Civil War when, ignoring the issue of slavery, the burning question in politics was about Catholics.
Surely any account of decline of American politics and how bad we've gotten should include the burning political questions of early-to-mid 19th century American politics: whether or not Andrew Jackson was low class lunk head (Jackson the jackass, the drunkard, the roughneck) or if his wife was a bigamist; or whether or not James Buchanan was gay/too effeminate, with a live-in same-sex partner at the White House who got called "Miss Nancy" and "Aunt Fancy"; and attacks on Mary Lincoln, whether or not she spent too much money on the White House.
Is the Weiner scandal really so dramatically different in quality, after all, from The Petticoat Affair? Is that what we want to go back to, the good old days when a minor violation of a social more could cause a scandal and offense and all the political discourse would be caught up in the totally minor affair to the disregard of actually historically important issues?
Declension narratives are stupid.
There's a version of the Sullivan question that's worth asking, though, but it's not a declension question, and it runs the risk of an answer that would indict the asker, and not only political opponents. It won't have or need to have a narrative arc, and won't be about the moment of corruption of what was otherwise good, allowing us to end the discussion with a directionless and defeatist comment about how things suck.
I think there's a version of this that should be asked, but it should be something like, "How is it that we in our political discourse are deeply involved in and spend so much time on topics that no one really thinks are the 'real issues' or even very important?", instead of something about doom and Rome and decadence, asking whether it was this or that moment in recent memory.