The Clinton impeachment, hands down. The long list of ridiculous investigations leading up to it were bad enough, but taking a step designed to remove an elected President over a personal affair showed that the view of politics over country now ruled the day. The proceedings were political Kabuki Theater at its basest.Well, maybe -- though I also must admit, net admirer of Clinton though I am, that I feel the force of Sandy Levinson's assertion that Clinton's "cold-blooded lying" (ultimately admitted) to constituents and Cabinet set an perhaps equally troubling precedent.
I am wary, though, of the decline narrative. It's hard to take the measure of an era, or put bounds around a given set of years as an "era," and harder yet to peg that era within a longer narrative. "You are too shallow, Hastings, much too shallow,/To sound the bottom of the after-times" (Henry IV, Part 2, IV ii). That's true for all of us.
I do fear that the U.S. has lost political functionality in two waves, one coming in with the Gingrich Congress in 1994 and the second with the Bush torture crew. The first destroyed norms that enabled the parties to work together, however adversarially; the second severely weakened our civil liberties and abused the powers of the executive branch. Still, U.S. politics has probably been in dysfunctional mode more often than not since founding; the one virtue of our democracy is self-correction, and I'm hopeful for another round of that under Obama's stewardship. (I admit though that there too my faith goes wobbly; I am susceptible to the Krugman view of the Obama administration, damned repeatedly by half measures and failure to strongly rebuff GOP lunacy. See, for example, Joe Nocera's frustration today with Obama's failure thus to take a stand for Elizabeth Warren to head the fledgling Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.)
Dysfunction and regeneration generally run in tandem on different tracks of social/political life. The late nineties, disfigured by Gingrichian cartoon politics, could nonetheless more plausibly be cast more as a golden age than a time of decline -- though as ever in human affairs, Camelot bore seeds of its own destruction. The Cold War was won, the budget was balanced, crime and teen pregnancy were way down, employment was full, inflation was low, income inequality was in brief reverse, technological innovation was in full flower (and still is). Clinton didn't make all this happen, but he deserves as much credit as any leader who rides waves of luck and taps reservoirs of strength in his society.
What ended the good times was arguably an aneurysm in our oh-so-sacred Constitution: the electoral college. As with any disaster, though, our Bush era bankruptcy came at the end of a FAIL chain: the right wing hate/attack machine, the Lewinsky circus, the crummy Gore campaign, the Florida fluke, the Supreme Court travesty, the 9/11 attack, the Cheney coup, the Iraqi Sicilian Expedition...
Over time we will see if we can pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off, as Obama said in his Inaugural, or if we find we're crippled getting up. I know I'm too shallow to tell just yet.
p.s. The two views of the decline narrative have, since the Seinfeld era, resolved themselves in my mind into this overchewed mental gum:
"Decay, decay, decay...
Decline, decline, decline."
Yada yada yada,
We're fine, we're fine, we're fine.