The secret of American exceptionalism may very well be the uniquely American susceptibility to narratives of decline. From the American defeat in Vietnam and the Soviet launch of Sputnik to the quagmire in Afghanistan and the current financial crisis, naysayers proclaim the end of the American century. And yet the prophecies of decline are nearly always, in a uniquely American spirit, followed by calls for rejuvenation. Americans are neither pessimists nor optimists. Instead, they are darkened by despair and fired by hope.
Decline, writes Josef Joffe in a recent essay in The American Interest, “is as American as apple pie. “ The tales of decline that populate American cultural myths have many morals, but one common shared theme: Renewal.
“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?
Joffe, the editor of the German weekly Die Zeit, writes from the lofty perch of an all-knowing cultural critic. Declinism is, when looked at from above, little more than a marketing pitch:
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.
The origins of modern declinism, pace Joffe, are found in “the serial massacre that was World War I,” the rapacious carnage that revealed “the evil face of technology triumphant.” WWI deflated the enlightenment optimism in reason and science, showing instead the destructive impact of those very same progressive ideals.
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.
America, the land of progress in Joffe’s telling, now exists in a productive tension with the anti-scientific tale of the “death of progress.”
“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.
Joffe stands above both extremes of the declinism pendulum. Instead of embracing or rejecting the tale of decline, he names decline and its redemptive flipside the driving force of American exceptionalism. Myths of decline are necessary in order to fuel the exceptional calls for sacrifice, work, and innovation that have for centuries turned the tide of American elections and American culture.
[D]awn 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.
Over and over the handwriting that showed that decline was on the wall was, in truth, “a call to arms that galvanized the nation.”
Behind this long history of nightmares of degeneration and dreams of rebirth is Joffe’s ultimate question: Are the current worries about the death of the American century simply the latest in the American cycle of gloom and glee? Or is it possible that the American dream is, finally, used up? In other words, is it true that, since “at “some point, everything comes to an end,” this may be the end for America? Might it be that, as many in Europe now argue, “The United States is a confused and fearful country in 2010.” Is it true that the US is a “hate-filled country” in unavoidable decline?
Joffe is skeptical. Here is his one part of his answer:
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).
In short, if America is to decline it will be because America refuses to stay true to its tradition of innovation and reinvention.
As convincing as Joffe is, the present danger that America’s current malaise will persist comes less from economics or from politics than from the extinguishing of the nation’s moral fire. And in this regard, essays such as Joffe’s are symptoms of the problem America faces. Joffe writes from above and specifically from the position of the social scientist. He looks down on America and American history and identifies trends. He cites figures. And he argues that in spite of the worry, all is generally ok. Inequality? Not to worry, it has been worse. Democratic sclerosis? Fret not; think back to the 1880s. Soul-destroying partisanship? Have you read the newspapers of the late 18th century? In short, our problems are nothing new under the sun. Keep it in perspective. There is painfully little urgency in such essays. Indeed, they trade above all in a defense of the status quo.
There is reason to worry though, and much to worry about. Joffe may himself have seen one such worry if he had lingered longer on an essay he cites briefly, but does not discuss. In 1954, Hannah Arendt published “Europe and America: Dream and Nightmare” in Commentary Magazine. In that essay—originally given as part of a series of talks at Princeton University on the relationship between Europe and America—she asked: “WHAT IMAGE DOES Europe have of America?”
Her answer is that Europe has never seen America as an exotic land like the South Sea Islands. Instead, there are two conflicting images of America that matter for Europeans. Politically, America names the very European dream of political liberty. In this sense, America is less the new world than the embodiment of the old world, the land in which European dreams of equality and liberty are made manifest. The political nearness of Europe and America explains their kinship.
European anti-Americanism, however, is lodged in a second myth about American, the economic image of America as the land of plenty. This European image of America’s stupendous wealth may or may not be borne out in reality, but it is a fantasy that drives European opinion:
America, it is true, has been the “land of plenty” almost since the beginning of its history, and the relative well-being of all her inhabitants deeply impressed even early travelers. … It is also true that the feeling was always present that the difference between the two continents was greater than national differences in Europe itself even if the actual figures did not bear this out. Still, at some moment—presumably after America emerged from her long isolation and became once more a central preoccupation of Europe after the First World War—this difference between Europe and America changed its meaning and became qualitative instead of quantitative. It was no longer a question of better, but of altogether different conditions, of a nature which makes understanding well nigh impossible. Like an invisible but very real Chinese wall, the wealth of the United States separates it from all other countries of the globe, just as it separates the individual American tourist from the inhabitants of the countries he visits.
Arendt’s interest in this “Chinese wall” that separates Europe from America is that it lies behind the anti-Americanism of European liberals, even as it inspires the poor. “As a result,” of this myth, Arendt writes, “sympathy for America today can be found, generally speaking, among those people whom Europeans call “reactionary,” whereas an anti-American posture is one of the best ways to prove oneself a liberal.” The same can largely be said today.
The danger in such European anti-Americanism is not only that it will fire a European nationalism, but also that it will cast European nationalism as an ideological opposition to American wealth. “Anti-Americanism, its negative emptiness notwithstanding, threatens to become the content of a European movement.” In other words, European nationalism threatens to assume on a negative ideological tone.
That Europe will understand itself primarily in opposition to America as a land of wealth impacts America too, insofar as European opposition hardens Americans in their own mythic sense of themselves as a land of unfettered economic freedom and unlimited wealth. European anti-Americanism thus fosters the kind of free market ideology so rampant in America today.
What is more, when Europe and America emphasize their ideological opposition on an economic level, they deemphasize their political kinship as lands of freedom.
Myths of American decline serve a purpose on both sides of the Atlantic.
In Europe, they help justify Europe’s social democratic welfare states, as well as their highly bureaucratized regulatory state. In America, they underlie attacks on regulation and calls to limit and shrink government. These are all important issues that should be thought and debated with an eye to reality. The danger is that the European emancipation and American exceptionalism threatens to elevate ideology over reality, hardening positions that need rather to be open for innovation.
Joffe’s essay on the Canard of Decline is a welcome spur to rethinking the gloom and the glee of our present moment. It is your weekend read.