Decline” is as American as apple pie, a cyclical theme antedating even the birth of the American Republic, and popular among Americans and foreigners alike. Its modern, homegrown version dates from the Sputnik scare of the mid-1950s. History records five waves of American…let’s call it “hasbeenism”, in as many decades.1 What is the moral of this oft-told tale?
There are many, but all share a common theme. “Decline Time in America” is never just a disinterested tally of trends and numbers. It is not about truth, but about consequences—as in any morality tale. Declinism tells a story to shape belief and change behavior; it is a narrative that is impervious to empirical validation, whose purpose is to bring comforting coherence to the flow of events. The universal technique of mythic morality tales is dramatization and hyperbole. Since good news is no news, bad news is best in the marketplace of ideas. The winning vendor is not Pollyanna but Henny Penny, also known as Chicken Little, who always sees the sky falling. But why does alarmism work so well, be it on the pulpit or on the hustings—whatever the inconvenient facts?
Since biblical times, prophets have never gone to town on rosy oratory, and politicos only rarely. Fire and brimstone are usually the best USP, “unique selling proposition” in marketing-speak. In our days, the looming-disaster strategy carries even more heft thanks to the dominant historical trajectory of recent centuries. There was a time when historical optimism ran rampant in the West, roughly from the Enlightenment of the 18th century to the eve of World War I. Adam Smith and Karl Marx—one the father of liberalism, the other of communism—were historical optimists, and so were the French philosophes like Condorcet and Turgot. History was the march out of misery, its end point a secular version of Eden. Yesterday was the vale of tears and oppression; tomorrow, the age of reason and freedom would dawn. Young America stood in that vanguard of Enlightenment optimism. From its very beginning it enshrined the triumph of progress in its Great Seal: Novus ordo seclorum. Now on every dollar bill, the motto is from a poem by Virgil: “The great order of the ages is born afresh / And now justice returns, honored rules return.”
Reason, a shorthand for science, technology and man’s mastery over nature, did indeed triumph, along with industrialization and explosive economic growth. Freedom took a few falls along the road, but the revolutions of the 19th century, even if they failed, showed that freedom would never stop banging on tyranny’s door.
Then the serial massacre that was World War I marked the turning point, revealing the evil face of technology triumphant. The knowledge that raised the Eiffel Tower also birthed the machine gun, allowing one man to mow down a hundred without having to slow down for reloading. Nineteenth-century chemistry revolutionized industry, churning out those blessings from petroleum to plastics and pharmacology that made the modern world. But the same labs also invented poison gas. The hand that delivered good also enabled evil. Worse, freedom’s march was not only stopped but reversed. Democracy was flattened by the utopia-seeking totalitarians of the 20th century. Their utopia was the universe of the gulag and the death camp. Their road to salvation led to a war that claimed 55 million lives and then to a Cold War that imperiled hundreds of millions more.
Despite the ultimate defeat of 20th-century totalitarianism, Enlightenment optimism as the reigning creed of the West was pushed aside by pessimism. After World War I, Oswald Spengler, the German high priest of doom, ranted in his best-selling The Decline of the West against an “unbridled optimism that sets at naught all historical experience.” It was folly to try to “discover in the accidental present” a “striking progression-series” based not on “scientific proof, but on predilection.” It didn’t get much better after the rubble of World War II had been cleared. The irony is quite thick. Flat or modest for millennia, economic growth rebounded strongly in the middle of the 20th century, yet pessimism increased as well. Or more accurately: “Surveys consistently reveal individuals to be personally optimistic yet socially pessimistic.”2
One by one, the great heroes of the 18th and 19th centuries ended up on Western culture’s “Most Wanted” list: industry, technology, science and, indeed, the very idea of progress itself. Suddenly progress had “become a lethal idée fixe, irreversibly destroying the very planet” mankind needed for its survival, growled Bernard James’s The Death of Progress (1973), a book that typified the tone of the 1970s. Another killer app was Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb, a 20th-century remake of Malthus that predicted hundreds of millions dead because food production could not keep up with the teeming masses about to inundate the globe. According to the Club of Rome, whose Limits to Growth (1972) sold 12 million copies, growth itself was the Faustian deceiver. He would send the world to hell by devouring its resources, energy first (though the soothsayers did not set a fixed date).
In the 1980s, the nuclear bargain with the devil moved to the fore. In his bestselling Fate of the Earth, Jonathan Schell predicted that the only “class of animals” that would survive nuclear war was the “insect class.” Another curse of Faustian Man was “nuclear winter.” Following a nuclear exchange, a smoke- and particle-laden atmosphere would thrust the world into a new ice age. By the 1990s, nature would inflict the opposite revenge on the children of Prometheus. Having unleashed the fossil-fueled fire of industry, they were now reaping global warming. Their punishment would be melting ice caps, drowning coastal cities on a scale that would dwarf the Deluge. Grossing $125 million, The Day After Tomorrow, Hollywood’s 2004 take on the end of the world, had it both ways: First, global warming would inundate the globe, and then deep-freeze it. It was death by fire, water and ice—and the demise of logic, as well.
he “death of progress” has pierced the historical optimism that is a pillar of the American creed. The country’s founding ideology was the liberalism of the 18th century, the belief in the perfectibility of man, state and culture. Conservatism, which holds to a tragic view of history, was always liberalism’s sickly little brother in America. This ideological tradition could never grow strong enough to overshadow the mental landscape as it did in Europe, and no wonder: Wasn’t America progress incarnate? The historical twist is that Left and Right have today linked up on the common ground of pessimism. Twentieth-century American liberalism, social-democratic rather than Lockean, now shares the dour Weltanschauung of conservatism.
A weighty element of the Liberal-Left’s pessimism is a direct import from Europe: the Frankfurt School, transplanted during the Nazi era to the United States. There it was represented during the war by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, and in the 1960s by Herbert Marcuse. The Kritische Schule injected the deeply pessimistic views of Sigmund Freud into Marx, and gone was the classic Enlightenment optimist who saw man and society ascend to ever-higher levels of well-being and freedom. Technology and plenty, the critics of the Enlightenment argued, would not liberate the common man, but enslave him in the prison of “false consciousness” built by the ruling elites. The new despair of the former torchbearers of progress may well be the reason that declinism flourishes on both Left and Right. This new ideological kinship alone does not by itself explain any of the five waves of American declinism, but it has certainly broadened its appeal over time.
Actually, “the sky is falling” motif should not be a very lucrative pitch. Such alarms stoke fear and panic; why invest in the future if the clock is running down? But the message has worked wonders since time immemorial because doom, in biblical as well as political prophecy, always comes with a shiny flipside, which is redemption. Darkness is the prelude to dawn. The gloomy forecast reviles past and present in order to promise the brightest of futures. Start with fire and brimstone, then jump to grace and deliverance. Listen to Jeremiah as he thunders: “Turn from your wicked ways and reform your actions; then you will live in the [promised] land.” Jeremiah may have been the father of modern campaign politics.
Preachers and politicos take naturally to this one-two punch because ruin followed by renewal is the oldest narrative in the mental data bank of mankind. The device is even older than the verdict of doom. Start with the Deluge, a universal theme played out over four chapters in Genesis (but found much earlier in Sumerian and Babylonian myth), which comes as punishment for mankind’s vicious behavior but ends with redemption symbolized by the rainbow. Exodus then adds to the trope. The Children of Israel are punished for the sin of the Golden Calf, yet if the next generations prove true to God, they will be rewarded with the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And as the Resurrection follows the Crucifixion, so misery segues into salvation.
But there has to be a leader—spiritual or political—to show the way: Moses or Jesus, John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan, or Barack (“Yes, we can!”) Obama. The pairing of doom and deliverance defines the eternal archetype. Here, for example, is a modern-day version of the classic. At the end of the 1970s, at the height of Jimmy Carter’s “malaise”, American social critic Christopher Lasch published The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, a generic lament, requiring only minor editing to make it timeless:
Hardly more than a century ago after Henry Luce proclaimed “the American century”, American confidence has fallen to a low ebb. Those who recently dreamed of world power now despair of governing the city of New York. Defeat in Vietnam, economic stagnation, and the impending exhaustion of natural resources have produced a mood of pessimism in higher circles which spreads through the rest of society as people lose faith in their leaders. [America] has lost both the capacity and the will to confront the difficulties that threaten to overwhelm it.
Substitute “Afghanistan and Iraq” for “Vietnam” and “global financial crisis” for “economic stagnation” to bring the indictment up to date. “Exhaustion of natural resources”, “pessimism” and “loss of faith in leaders” need no refurbishing; these themes are timeless. But hold the despair! This is merely the first paragraph of the book. True to the ancient model, the book ends with the promise of redemption: “The will to build a better society . . . survives, along with traditions of localism, self-help and community action that only need the vision of a new society . . . to give them new vigor.” In all instances of declinism, there is this double-whammy of damnation and deliverance—if only we repented and reverted to the best traditions we have betrayed.
In all these narratives, ruin is the means and rescue the end. Terror is the teaching device that will change the course of history. “Declinism is a theory that has to be believed to be invalidated”, explained Samuel Huntington.3 It is the opposite of the familiar “self-fulfilling prophecy”, a term coined by sociologist Robert Merton. The alarum starts out with a “false definition of the situation” and then triggers “new behavior which makes the original false conception come ‘true.’” To predict a bank failure is to unleash a run that will actually cause the collapse.
Declinism markets a “self-defeating prophecy.” Since these predictions deal with humans, and not planets or protozoa, they are designed to trigger reactions that lift the curse. Merton puts it thus: Evil does not come true “precisely because the prediction has become a new element” that changes the “initial course of developments.”4 So to foretell is to forestall. Take the “impending exhaustion of natural resources” from Malthus to the Club of Rome, which foresaw the end of global growth some forty years ago, especially because of dwindling oil reserves. A myriad change in behavior followed—from conservation to exploration—causing oil gluts on the market in the 1980s and a gas glut in the teens of the 21st century. The world economy grew twenty-fold in this period (nominally). Would that all catastrophes have such a short shelf life.
None of America’s declinists over the past half-century actually wanted the country to suffer its foreordained fate, any more than Jeremiah wanted Israel to suffer two and a half millennia ago. The prophecy is designed to be self-defeating, and the structure of augury is always the same: This will happen unless… Holding up another nation as a model is to correct one’s own, not to condemn it—from the Sputnik Shock of the 1950s to Obama’s “Sputnik Moment” in the 2010s. To praise others is to prod America. Russia, Europe, Japan or the generic “rest” will overtake the country, unless Americans labor to change their self-inflicted destiny. The basic diagnosis remains constant, only the prescription will vary according to the ideological preferences of the seer.
In politics, “the sky is falling” has yet another purpose. It is no accident that the figure of the prophet—in legend or on the stump—stands at the center of the narrative. We have to believe in the messenger so that he can rise above us and guide us to a better tomorrow. Hence dramatization and exaggeration, fibbing or even outright falsehood are part and parcel of the prophecy. To hype is to win. Never mind that the “missile gap” or the “window of vulnerability” were myths. Expediency beats veracity in campaigning and sermonizing. And so, hyperbole paves the road from the vale of tears—or to the White House. “Follow me, and ye shall be saved!” is the eternal message. Or in Kennedy’s words, borrowed from Churchill: “Come then—let us to the task, to the battle and the toil . . . .”5
Prophet or politico, the strategy is to paint the nation in hellish colors and then to offer oneself as a guide to heaven. The country is on the skids, but tomorrow it will rise again—if only you, the people, will anoint me as your leader. It worked for both John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, who rode all the way to the White House on non-existent Soviet missile superiority. Shakespeare wrote the original script. To “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels” was Henry IV’s advice to his son and successor. The democratic equivalent is to scare up votes with foreign threats.
After the election, dawn always follows doom—as when Kennedy called out in his Inaugural Address: “Let the word go forth that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.” Gone was the Soviet bear who had grown to monstrous size in the 1950s. And so again twenty years later. At the end of Ronald Reagan’s first term, his fabled campaign commercial exulted: “It’s morning again in America. And under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder and stronger and better.” In the fourth year of Barack Obama’s first term, America was “back”, and again on top. Collapse was yesterday; today is resurrection. This miraculous turnaround might explain why declinism usually blossoms at the end of an administration—and wilts quickly after the next victory.
eclinism has served many objectives in American politics. It has helped to turn elections in 1960 and 1980. It has made careers. It has changed defense policy three times, triggering massive rearmament in the early and late 1950s as well as in the early 1980s. It has galvanized the nation into great undertakings intended to undo the curse—and did.
John F. Kennedy rode a self-made wave of doom all the way into the Oval Office. Twenty years later Ronald Reagan did the same thing. In between, Richard Nixon shrewdly purveyed a subtler variant of the same theme. Whereas for Kennedy and Reagan decline was the problem and boldness the solution, for Nixon decline was the diagnosis and modesty the medicine. Nixon and Kissinger rearranged the world’s power map in order to change America’s mental map. The rhetoric was exaggerated, but its purpose was to sustain American power in genuinely difficult times at home amid a Vietnam War faint in the Cold War. The French have a phrase for this: reculer pour mieux sauter. Take a few steps backward to gather speed and jump all the farther.
The Nixon Administration did not clear the Vietnam hurdle. Instead of serving as force-multipliers of U.S. grand strategy, Moscow and Beijing were happy to let Hanoi inflict defeat on America. Still, the Cassandras who predicted America would bow out were not vindicated, even though under Jimmy Carter the country seemed to sink into terminal decay. The American phoenix rose under Reagan and soared under Clinton as the Soviet Union disappeared from history. Fifteen years after the American retreat from Vietnam, the world was neither bi- nor multi- but unipolar. America was the last man standing, towering over the world.
Sputnik wasn’t just a Soviet satellite, but a Mene Tekel of biblical heft. In happy contrast to Babylon, though, the days of the American kingdom were not numbered, as the soothsayers of the 1950s had been shouting. The handwriting on the wall was a call to arms that galvanized the nation. One fruit of the alarmism was the National Defense Education Act less than one year later, financing an all-out campaign to improve American education. In the next ten years, Federal expenditures on education grew almost five-fold. This is what “Johnny can’t read” wrought.
Another fruit of post-Sputnik agitation was a huge investment in missile development that would catapult the United States all the way to the moon in 1969. At that point, the United States had around five strategic warheads for every Soviet one. The “military-industrial complex”, as Eisenhower had called it, profited handsomely. “It is vital to the national interest that we increase the output of scientific and technical personnel”, argued Werner von Braun, the director of the Army’s Ballistic Missile Program, in 1958. Congress was happy to oblige, plowing billions not only into strategic rearmament but also into research and development. One year after Sputnik, Congress established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1958. NASA’s budget request for FY 2013, approved by President Obama, was $18 billion.
Prophecy, to repeat, is not about truth, but consequences—all of them instrumental. Declinism spells out “repent and reform” in a secular vernacular. If Johnny can’t read and Mary can’t do her math, America must revamp its educational system. If the Soviets are first in space, Americans must catch up and propel a man to the moon. If the Soviets sprint ahead in the nuclear race (which they never did), the country must outspend and outarm them. Declinism is not about diagnosis but about the Deluge that must not come. The prophet wants to be wrong.
hat shall we conclude from half a century of American hasbeenism? First, once again, that it’s repetitive. Doomsaying comes in cycles, and has done so since the birth of the Republic. Decay and rebirth have followed a well-recognized rollercoaster pattern: from the near disaster of the War of 1812 to the consolidation of the continent; from the Civil War to a vibrant, empowering industrialization; from the “Long Depression” of 1873–96 to a newly muscular (and brash) America that bestrode the global stage, pocketing Cuba and the Philippines; from World War I and the emergence of the United States during the Roaring Twenties as arbiter of the international economy to the Great Depression; from Pearl Harbor to the United States standing in 1945 at the pinnacle of the global hierarchy; then Korea, rocket rattle and the five acts of modern American declinism we have just briefly chronicled.
The periodic rise and demise of decline from 1776 all the way into the 21st century ought to be good news—for what comes and goes cannot lead straight to the eighth circle of hell. Cycles, by definition, do not a trend make. Nor does the swelling tide announce the Deluge; it is in the nature of the tide to recede as regularly as it rises. But this is just a logical point. More interesting is the psychology of declinism. Transcending the many ups and downs, it drives an enduring narrative about America—abroad as well as at home.
Ever since America was discovered, as I once put it, it “has been an object of the imagination. Long before the Thirteen Colonies coalesced into union, America was a construct more than a country—a canvas onto which [the world] would endlessly project its fondest dreams and fiercest nightmares.”6 America has remained a split screen for the mind—a frightful dystopia like Brave New World or a heavenly place on earth like Thomas More’s Utopia. For the rest of the world, it has been either a magnet or a monster. Projection, be it of fear or fantasy, guides the hand that holds the brush. On the canvas that is America, two motifs have always predominated; call them “Babylon” and “New Jerusalem.” One stands for decrepitude and abomination, the other for boundless energy and hope. More recently, “hope” was the mantra of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, a vision cheered around the world.
Finis Americae of course comes in two basic varieties: glee and gloom. Glee is mostly celebrated abroad, and for good reason. Wanting America to falter comes naturally to smaller nations that must coexist with this real-life Gulliver, for he irks by just being there, and terrifies when he throws his weight around. To find solace, the lesser players will magnify the giant’s warts and count each new one as proof of terminal malady. It is hard to share the global neighborhood with Mr. Big, so every decade hope springs anew that he will be cut down to size by a mightier rival, be it Russia or Japan, Europe or China.
Such unkind wishes are actually a perverse way of paying homage to the giant’s fearsome strength. It is reassuring to see Gulliver stumble. But there is more. For declinists abroad, the American canvas also offers a chance to paint a dystopia for home consumption. It is a morality tale with a pedagogical message that says: Do not fall for the siren that is America. She may be seductive, but beware.
Thus the Swiss historian Jakob Burckhardt pointed specifically to the United States while praising the fruits of democracy and modernity in the last third of the 19th century: equality before the law, social mobility, freedom of industry, the beginning of absolute political equality. But then Burckhardt switched to the dark side of the canvas. “It is doubtful whether the world . . . has thus become a happier place”, for “money has become the measure of all things.” Life in Europe was somehow better in the Middle Ages, an era “without deadly competition, without credit and capitalism.”7 (This is an old trope that leaves out pestilence and poverty, short lives and long wars.) Capitalism is the threat, and America its vanguard.
This motif has been a classic of anti-modernism for two centuries in Europe. Naturally, it was painted in the gloomiest colors in the aftermath of the Crash of 2008. Thus in 2010 a German piece of political pedagogy carried the headline “Good Night, America.” Running on for ten pages, this Der Spiegel cover story dwelled on the nation’s economic plight two years after the fall of the House of Lehman. The moral read, in so many words: “America is utopia no more.” In the past, the United States had been “a radical, free, forward-looking and bold country—a triumphant country, or so it appeared.” It used to be “a country of limitless possibility.” Now the “dream” had degenerated into a “nightmare”, terms that replicated those Hannah Arendt had penned sixty years earlier.8 At “some point, everything comes to an end. The United States is a confused and fearful country in 2010.” Worse, it “is a hate-filled country” and “once decline has gotten underway, it isn’t easy to change direction.”9 So at last, the United States was finished.
If glee is generally produced abroad, the gloom is basically Made in U.S.A., but with a very different thrust. The purpose is not to gloat, but to lament, and the parallel to the biblical narrative is unmistakable. The prophet Amos quotes God: “The virgin of Israel has fallen.” (Insert “America” here.) Then, in a striking contemporary analogy: “I will raise up against you a nation, says the Lord.” (Insert Russia, Europe, Japan, China.) But those who atone will be richly rewarded: “And I will return the captivity of My people Israel, and they shall rebuild desolate cities and inhabit [them], and they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine.” Finally, the central role of the prophet as redeemer: Obadiah proclaims, “And saviors shall ascend Mt. Zion . . . .” Or, translated into the American vernacular, the City upon a Hill.
John Winthrop’s “Cittie uppon a Hill” has been many things in American history as latter-day seers have deployed this image varyingly according to ideological coloration, be it liberal or libertarian, isolationist or exemplarist. For Alexander Hamilton, Theodore Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy, this city was a nationalist project—an exceptional America with exceptional power. At the very birth of the Republic, Hamilton invoked a declinist motif to make his point. “Poverty and disgrace” would descend on the young nation unless it established “one great American system” so “superior” to the rest that it would be “able to dictate the terms of the connection between the old and the new world.” (Federalist No. 11) How to make the nation rally around this “great system?” Raise the specter of American decline.
So Hamilton got the strong executive he sought, enabling Theodore Roosevelt many years later to ask with a purpose in mind: “Is America a weakling, to shrink from the work of the great world powers?” In that famous letter to John Hay in 1897 he answered: “No! The young giant of the West stands on a continent and clasps the crest of an ocean in either hand.” As Secretary of the Navy, Roosevelt got the ships, the money and the guns to launch the Spanish-American War and the country’s colonial career. For the nationalist school, America’s greatness demanded unity and exertion—assertiveness abroad and a muscular state at home. It was not such a long stride from 1897 to 1961 when the “survival of liberty” itself, JFK famously orated, could only be ensured if the nation stood ready to “pay any price” and “bear any burden.” This City would not just sit on its Hill, but venture forth to fulfill its mission. It would vindicate American exceptionalism through global activism.
The opposite blueprint was drawn by the Jeffersonians, the opponents of Hamilton and the strong-state Federalists. For them, the “survival of liberty” called not for empire, but for humility. The nation’s freedom was as fragile as it was precious, and the search for grandeur would poison freedom by bringing forth a “man on a horseback”, Jefferson feared. So the prescription was for small government and isolation from the world. The contemporary syllogism, repeated a hundredfold, runs like this: We must not play policeman to the world. The price is imperial overstretch, unbearable military expenditures, high taxes and Big Government. If we do, we risk peril and perdition. To reverse the downward spiral, we must get out of harm’s way and “walk humbly with our God”, as John Winthrop, quoting Micah, counseled nearly 400 years ago.
Jefferson picked up on this theme as did, later, John Quincy Adams. Folly cometh before the fall, runs the Jeffersonian conviction. This stance might be called “anticipatory declinism.” Decline is not yet, but beware. Unless the nation abjures grandstanding and power mongering, its body and soul will suffer. This theme is also part of the modern liberal faith, which is represented by most of the Democratic Left and its intellectual confrères. “Come home, America”, was George McGovern’s battle cry in the 1972 campaign against Richard Nixon—and retroactively against the expansionist tradition represented by old-style Democratic presidents like Truman, Kennedy and Johnson.
For Jeffersonians (old-style Liberals), self-corruption and decline flow from over-commitment and imperial arrogance. But the new story line of the liberal Left comes with a different twist and purpose. In contrast to Jefferson and John Quincy Adams, the antidote is not small but interventionist government at home. Genuine strength demands less warfare for the sake of more welfare. The New Jerusalem of the Democratic Left is not the bristling armory, but the laboratory of an exemplary society. “Imperial overstretch”, which suffuses so much of liberal thinking, is at heart not a diagnosis but a device—as is the case with all variants of declinism. The specter of America’s fall from grace is a summons for a grand political design. It is the transformation of America in the name of equality and social justice. Retrenchment and self-containment, disarmament and withdrawal from distant wars of choice, as most recently practiced by the Obama Administration, is the first step toward America as it should be: ever stronger because it cares (and pays) for the weak.
hether on the Left or the Right, “the sky is falling!” is the call of the righteous that will make goodness triumph. Whatever the ideological impetus, declinism is about prophecies that must not come true so that America’s real greatness (and exceptionalism) may triumph. Hence, declinism is a political program masquerading as an empirical exercise, such as counting guns and measuring growth. The nice part is that these predictions cannot be empirically refuted because they invariably come without a due date. Or the date keeps receding into the future. While Sputnik was still careening through the American mind, the great economist Paul Samuelson predicted that Soviet national income might overtake the American one by 1984, but surely by 1997. In the 1980 edition of his Economics textbook, the dates of doom were pushed back to 2010, and then to 2012.10
How to gainsay those who either cheer or fear America’s demise? No soothsayer has ever been silenced by facts because prophecy is inherently unfalsifiable. If disaster does not strike tomorrow, it will next week or next year. So the doomsters always come back. They are often the same people, repeating what they predicted twenty or forty years before. A March 25, 2009 New Yorker cartoon gently poked fun at such recidivists. It shows a penitent with a placard proclaiming: “The End Is Still Coming”, and has a passer-by ask: “Wasn’t that Paul Krugman?” The sellers of doom usually do not yield to obstreperous facts; they choose only those that fit their plea. And these will always be found in a welter of fractious detail. This is the difference between human affairs and the orbits of electrons and planets.
Nor are prophets ever held to account; this is another nice part of the job. “Arch-pessimists”, muses Matt Ridley in The Rational Optimist (2011), “are feted, showered with honors and rarely challenged, let alone confronted with their past mistakes.” It helps to attach distant dates to predictions, as did the Club of Rome in 1972 when it gave the apocalypse a hundred years to come true. Dennis Meadows, the author of The Limits of Growth, keeps jetting around the world, pitching his rolling prophecies to rapturous audiences. As we have observed, the rosy view of history, celebrated from the Enlightenment to the early part of the 20th century, has yielded to a dim outlook on the future—first in Europe and then in America. Among the commentariat, Chicken Little routinely bests Pollyanna, and with no penalties attached.
Why is business so good? “The wonderful thing” about prophecy, notes Tim Harford, tongue in cheek, “is that both the forecaster and his audience feel that something profound has been expressed. And nobody will remember the forecast anyway.”11 Has our foresight improved with the explosion of scientific knowledge and the computer-driven revolution in data-gathering and processing? No. Modern-day prophets, be they gloomsters or hypsters, still are not very effective, concludes the psychologist Philip Tetlock after an exhaustive review of 82,000 predictions by 284 policy experts over twenty years. Whatever their political coloration, the vast majority performed worse than if they had blindly pulled their forecasts out of a hat. A reviewer of Tetlock’s Expert Political Judgment adds: “These experts never lose their reputations, or their jobs, because long shots are their business”—just like the ventures of their biblical ancestors.12
“Decline Time in America” is also a long-shot business, but above all, it is didactic repertoire theater, played out left, right and center not in order to analyze, but to agitate. It is like Brechtian drama, which is performance with a purpose. Unfortunately, to invoke cycles and unearth agendas, let alone to skewer the bloopers of yesterday’s Cassandras, does not dispatch the larger issue.
Because all past prophecies of America’s decline have not come true obviously does not mean they never will. To believe that tomorrow will be like today, hence as good or better, is to fall for the same inductionist fallacy as the declinists, who also project the present into the future. There are neither logical nor historical reasons to assume that the tide will recede forever when it comes to human rather than lunar affairs. History is full of empires and nations whose debility was terminal: Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Rome, the Mogul and Ottoman Empires, Soviet Russia. Then there is that empire closest to America’s historical heart. In 1897, Britain celebrated Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, yet at this peak of British power, Rudyard Kipling penned this little elegy to empire in his oft-quoted poem “Recessional:”
Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dunes and headlands sinks the fire;
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Niniveh and Tyre!
He was off by a generation only. German and American growth rates were already outstripping Britain’s, and it never recovered from the bloodletting of the Great War. In the next forty years, Britain would lose its entire empire. Even a country of English settlement, Canada, dropped the Union Jack in favor of the maple leaf. Britain survived the Hitlerian onslaught only by grace of American power. Afterwards, Britannia no longer ruled the waves; its American offspring did.
So sometimes prophets of doom and decline are proven right. Will they be proven right in the case of America? Not likely. For heuristic purposes, look at some numbers. At the pinnacle of British power (1870), the country’s GDP was separated from that of its rivals by mere percentages. The United States dwarfs the Rest, even China, by multiples—be it in terms of GDP, nuclear weapons, defense spending, projection forces, R&D outlays or patent applications. Seventeen of the world’s top universities are American; this is where tomorrow’s intellectual capital is being produced. America’s share of global GDP has held steady for forty years, while Europe’s, Japan’s and Russia’s have shrunk. And China’s miraculous growth is slipping, echoing the fates of the earlier Asian dragons (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan) that provided the economic model: high savings, low consumption, “exports first.” China is facing a disastrous demography; the United States, rejuvenated by steady immigration, will be the youngest country of the industrial world (after India).
Previous empires were done in by their more dynamic rivals. To suffer terminal decline, America will have to be done in by America—if it shuts its doors, if it unshoulders the burden of global order, if it stops reinventing itself, if it loses the magnetism that has pulled in talent and ambition for 200 years. If it comes, decay will be made in the U.S.A.
1See my essay, “Declinism’s Fifth Wave”, The American Interest (January/February 2012).
2Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (HarperCollins, 2010), p. 294.
3Huntington, “The U.S.—Decline or Renewal”, Foreign Affairs (Winter 1988/89).
4Merton, “The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action”, American Sociological Review (December 1936).
5Kennedy, Strategy of Peace (Harper & Brothers, 1960), p. 45.
6Joffe, “A Canvas, Not a Country: How Europe Sees America”, in Peter Schuck and James Q. Wilson, eds., Understanding America: The Anatomy of an Exceptional Nation (PublicAffairs, 2008), pp. 597–8.
7Burckhardt, Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen (a series of lectures between 1868 and 1872, published posthumously). Quotes are from a facsimile (German), published by Arno Press, 1979, pp. 421, 425 and 254.
8See Arendt’s “Dream and Nightmare”, an essay on America and anti-Americanism written in 1954 and republished in her Essays in Understanding, 1930–1945 (Harcourt Brace, 1993), pp. 409–17.
9“Good Night, America”, Der Spiegel, October 30, 2010. The English translation used here is taken from “Superpower in Decline: Is the American Dream Over?” Spiegel Online, November 1, 2010.
10As related by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson in Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty (Random House, 2012), p. 128.
11Harford, “An Insatiable Desire to Peer Into the Future”, Financial Times, December 28, 2012.
12Louis Menand, “Everybody’s an Expert”, New Yorker, December 5, 2005.