Declinism Is America and Mitt Can Too

Doomsday prophesying is a favorite American pastime, but Mitt Romney wants no part of it (anymore).


British Prime Minister Gordon Brown once told a joint session of the United States Congress that Americans are, at their core, "every bit as optimistic as your Roosevelts, your Reagans and your Obamas." Had he been more honest and less diplomatic, he might have noted that the United States also has a rich history of pessimism — one that helps explain why fear of American decline has become a focal point of the current presidential election. As numerous writers have pointed out, the recent bout of "declinism" — which produced titles like The Post American World, That Used to Be Us, and Time to Start Thinking — is actually just the latest in a series of similar episodes dating back to the 1950s, when America first sensed the magnitude of the Soviet threat.

After the "Sputnik moment" and the Gaither Commission, successive declinist waves broke during Vietnam, the OPEC oil embargo, and Watergate. The rise of Japan during the 1980s touched off yet another round of doomsday prophesying as scholars like Paul Kennedy tossed around phrases like "imperial overstretch." But fearing decline is actually a much older and more quintessentially American pastime than most people realize. It seems strange, then, that "declinism" has become a dirty word in this election — and even stranger that Mitt Romney has felt the need to paper over his own record of heralding America’s doom.

Not 10 years after the Continental Congress ratified the Declaration of Independence, John Adams was beginning to fret about the future of America. His countrymen, he lamented in 1785, had "never merited the Charter of a very exalted virtue." To his friends, he allowed that there was "no special Providence for Americans" since "their nature is the same with that of others." He revisited this theme in his 1787 treatise, A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, in which he examined the rise and fall of past empires. In between the collapse of the "Western" and "Eastern" empires, he wrote, "republics without number" arose in Italy, only to "burst, like so many waterspouts upon the ocean." America, Adams implied, would eventually follow suit since all nations are "agitated by the same passions" and moved by the same "unalterable rules." A constitution that established proper checks and balances, however, could safeguard the country for a time. By 1814, Adams had grown increasingly gloomy, convinced as he was that "sects" and "factions" "threaten our existence in America at this moment."

Adams’s descendants carried this "fear of America’s collective moral failure" into the second half of the 19th century, as historian Arthur Herman recounts in The Idea of Decline in Western History. Adams’s son John Quincy spent much of his career agonizing over slavery and what its abolition might mean for the union. But his two grandsons, Henry and Brooks, who co-founded the American Social Science Association, would write the most stirring prophecies of American doom. Like many patrician New Englanders, the Adams brothers were deeply unsettled by America’s rapid industrialization and the rise of "machine" politics after the Civil War. Democracy itself seemed to be propelling the country toward an inevitable abyss.

For Brooks, the forces of "unfettered" capitalism were erasing the last vestiges of Jeffersonian agrarianism and propelling America toward an anarchic future, according to an immutable "law of civilization and decay." For Henry, the problem was populism, which misappropriated human capital and sidelined people of the "best class." In 1880, he published an anonymous novel entitled Democracy, in which popular sovereignty leads to the "atrophy of moral senses by disuse." One character even goes as far as predicting that Washington will one day be like Rome under the Medici popes. By 2025, Herman tells us, Henry thought the Earth would be a "cold and lifeless lump of matter hurtling through the nothingness of space."

Fear of unbridled capitalism and populism soon gave way to racial pessimism and concern about the social implications of immigration. The growing number of Jewish, Italian, and Slavic immigrants, in the view of many, threatened the very character of the nation. One of those who became most convinced of the immigrant threat was Henry Cabot Lodge, a Massachusetts senator who had been Henry Adams’s student at Harvard. An adherent to prevailing theories of racial degeneration, Lodge was concerned about the implications of racial mixing. "If a lower race mixes with a higher in sufficient numbers," he said in speech on the Senate floor in 1896, "history teaches us that the lower race will prevail." This process, he reasoned, could destroy America, since "the lowering of a great race means not only its own decline, but that of civilization." Restrictive immigration laws eventually made it through Congress in the early 1920s, in part because of Lodge’s passionate advocacy.

A little more than a quarter century later, one of those immigrants, a young man named Henry Kissinger, began work on his undergraduate thesis, in part, on Oswald Spengler’s 1918 book The Decline of the West. Not yet ensnared by the court diplomacy of Castlereagh and Metternich, Kissinger had selected the modest topic of "The Meaning of History," and so it made sense to begin with a man who had established its repetitive and law-like properties. According to Spengler, all cultures progress through stages of youth, maturity, and inevitable decay. As such, history is a "vast succession of catastrophic upheavals of which power is not only the manifestation but the exclusive aim." Western or Faustian civilization, in his estimation, was in its "early winter…instead of on the golden summit of a ripe Culture."

Kissinger ultimately rejected Spengler’s deterministic view of history, as one of his biographers notes, and so was not a proper declinist himself. But as McGeorge Bundy, John F. Kennedy’s national security advisor, once said of Kissinger: "He had an enormous capacity for gloom about the future of the republic when he was not in charge." Following the successful launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik 1 and the resultant hysteria over the perceived "missile gap," for instance, Kissinger became convinced that Dwight Eisenhower’s nuclear policy had seriously imperiled the nation. "Our margin of survival has narrowed dangerously," he wrote in The Necessity of Choice, published just prior to the 1960 election. "[I]f these trends continue, the future of freedom will be dim indeed." A year later, a report he worked on with other luminaries began with the following sentence: "The number and the depth of the problems we face suggests that the very life of our free society may be at stake."

Kissinger’s language mirrored that of Kennedy, who, as LIFE magazine put it in 1963, ran for office "on a charge that U.S. influence was in decline." In 1957, the Massachusetts senator had warned that the United States "was fiddling as Rome burned" since "the nation was losing the satellite-missile race with the Soviet Union." For the first time since World War II, Kennedy said, America’s position of global dominance was being challenged. Not only that, America’s decline was the result of "complacent miscalculations, penny-pinching, budget cutbacks, incredibly confused mismanagement, and wasteful rivalries and jealousies."

So real was America’s sense of drift in the early 1960s that LIFE magazine ran a five-part series on "The National Purpose" that examined the connection between "the rise of nations and their great purpose" and "the loss of purpose and their decline." The fear, as columnist Walter Lippman articulated it, was that "for the time being our people do not have great purposes which they are united in wanting to achieve."

Subsequent bouts of declinism shared this fear of complacency — often compounded by the prospect of another nation’s rise. The end of the bipolar world and the emergence of a "pentagon of power," as Richard Nixon put it in 1971, and Japan’s rapid ascent in the 1980s both threw America’s relative decline into sharp relief. But other crises, such as defeat in Vietnam, Watergate, and the OPEC oil embargo, hinted more insidiously at America’s own internal decay and moral bankruptcy.

Both of these declinist traditions — relative and absolute decline — have been revived in recent years with the emergence of China as a global power. Indeed, there is little consensus about what explains America’s weakened position within the most recent body of declinist literature. Debt and foreign dependence are favorite targets of far-right declinists like Patrick Buchanan, as is "tyranny born of intellectual bankruptcy and dishonesty," as Mark Levin puts it in Ameritopia. Closer to the center, Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum suggest that Americans can blame some combination of globalization, technological advance, overspending, and addiction to fossil fuels. Fareed Zakaria, ever the diplomat, would prefer not to be labeled a declinist; "the rest" are just doing better, in his opinion.

Mitt Romney, who has spent much of the election season claiming the other guy is the declinist, actually made a modest, but thoughtful contribution to the genre with his 2010 memoir No Apology. In a chapter titled "Why Nations Decline," Romney admits that the "improbability of decline by the great has long piqued my interest." He goes on to observe that "No great power in history has endured indefinitely." The Ottomans, the Portuguese, the Spanish, and the British — all great powers in their day — eventually crumbled, one after another. In Romney’s estimation, each succumbed to some combination of isolationism, protectionism, profligacy, or cultural decay. Each ignored the warning signals of impending collapse, "turning their ears instead to the comforting voices that claimed continuity and comfort." Now, Romney argues, it is America that is spending too lavishly and borrowing too heavily. America’s culture — defined by hard work, educational attainment, risk taking, and religiosity, according to Romney — is "under attack." Indeed, he writes, "each of the conditions that existed in the failed great states of the past is present in America today. This alone is cause for concern."

The declinist, though he does not use this term, plays a critical role in preventing civilizational decay in Romney’s view. In the past, world powers failed to correct their course because of their "failure to see growing threats, the interests of the powerful in preserving the status quo, the short-term self-interest of common citizens, and the absence or forced silence of independent voices," he writes. There were "warning voices" among the Ottomans, Spanish, and British, he notes, but they were ignored. Had they been given due consideration, history may have turned out differently. Romney thus seems to agree with the scholar Samuel P. Huntington, who argued that "declinists play an indispensible role in preventing what they are predicting."

This is a reasonable enough theory. There is little doubt that the launch of Sputnik 1 spurred additional scientific research or that the 1973 oil embargo inspired changes in American energy policy (though as Henry Cabot Lodge demonstrated, fears of decline do not always lead to good results). But Romney has taken the curious step of disowning much of what was undoubtedly intended as a campaign biography, no doubt because declinism exists in tension with the idea of "American exceptionalism," the other great catch-phrase of this election. As President Obama learned the hard way in 2009, suggesting that American exceptionalism is in any way comparable to its Greek or British variants is bound to offend the sensibilities of a sizeable chunk of the population. The Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer put it this way: "if everyone is exceptional, no one is." Romney, of course, has committed the same transgression by intimating that America’s decline is analogous to that of previous powers. If everyone declines, then no one is special.

Conscious of this fact, Romney has sought to portray his opponent as the real declinist: "Obama thinks America’s in decline. It is if he’s president. It’s not if I’m president," the former governor charged last December in a debate with fellow Republican presidential contenders. A certain amount of, shall we say, clarification is necessary to sell his candidacy — backsliding under Obama is, after all, why he claims to be running but lately Romney has been careful not to suggest that America’s problems are larger than what the incumbent administration could have created. Even in his blistering Sept. 30 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Romney made sure to attribute the "atrophy" of American leadership specifically to the Obama administration. Ditto for the failure to "maintain the elements of our influence."

Romney’s pivot from the sweeping historical comparison of No Apology to the pointed criticism of Obama’s record is perhaps what you would expect in a presidential campaign. What is remarkable is that he’s managed to get away with it. Not only has Romney shed his declinist identity with ease, but he succeeded in pinning it on his opponent. That’s no small feat.

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