Declinism is the belief that a society or institution is tending towards decline. Particularly, it is the predisposition, possibly due to cognitive bias, such as rosy retrospection, to view the past more favourably and future negatively. “The great summit of declinism,” according to Adam Gopnick, "was established in 1918, in the book that gave decline its good name in publishing: the German historian Oswald Spengler’s best-selling, thousand-page work The Decline of the West."
The belief has been traced back to Edward Gibbon's work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published between 1776 and 1788, where Gibbon argues that Rome collapsed due to the gradual loss of civic virtue among its citizens, who became lazy, spoiled and inclined to hire foreign mercenaries to handle the defence of state. He believed that that reason must triumph over superstition to save Europe's superpowers from a similar fate to the Roman Empire.
Spengler's book The Decline of the West, which gave Declinism its popular name, was released in the aftermath of the First World War and captured the pessimistic spirit of the times. Spengler wrote that history had seen the rise and fall of several "civilizations" (including the Egyptian, the Classical, the Chinese and the Mesoamerican). He claimed these go in cycles, typically spanning 1,000 years. Spengler believed that not only is Western Civilization in decline, but that decline is inevitable.
The United States in particular has a history of predicting its own downfall, beginning with European settlement. So called American declinism has been a recurring topic in the politics of the United States since the 1950s.
“America is prone to bouts of 'declinism,'” The Economist has noted. Historian Victor Davis Hansen has identified several successive stages of American declinism. During the Great Depression, out-of-work Americans viewed the proud, dynamic “New Germany” with envy. In the 1950s, the success of Sputnik 1 and the spread of Communism led Americans to fear they were falling behind the Soviet Union. In the 1970s, Americans fretted over Japan's economic boom; two decades later, the European Union seemed the wave of the future. In the 21st century, America's worries have focused on the rise of China, with its massive exports and new megacities. Yet one after another of these concerns, Hansen points out, proved unfounded: “Fascism was crushed; Communism imploded; Japan is aging and shrinking; the European Union is cracking apart.”
In a 2011 book, Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum argued that the United States was in the midst of “its fifth wave of Declinism.” The first had come “with the 'Sputnik Shock' of 1957,” the second with the Vietnam War, the third with Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” and the rise of Japan, the fourth with the ascendancy of China.
American declinism can suddenly overtake commentators who had previously taken a sanguine view of the country's prospects. Robert Kagan has noted, for example, that the pundit Fareed Zakaria, who in 2004 “described the United States as enjoying a 'comprehensive uni-polarity' unlike anything seen since Rome” had, by 2008, begun “writing about the 'post-American world' and 'the rise of the rest.'”
Declinism has been found to be rather widespread in the United Kingdom. In a 2015 survey, 70% of Britons agreed with the statement that “things are worse than they used to be,” even though at the time Britons were in fact “richer, healthier and longer-living than ever before.” However, it was also mentioned that many of the things that older people mourn from their youths were no longer existent in modern society.
British historian Robert Tombs suggested that the United Kingdom has faced several 'bouts' of Declinism, as far back as the 1880s when German competition in manufactured goods was first felt and then again in the 1960s and 1970s, with economic worries, rapid decolonisation and a perception of dwindling power and influence in every field. Tombs however, concluded that "Declinism is at best a distortion of reality" and denied suggestions that Britain was no longer the great power it once was.
In France, declinism has been described as a "booming industry" with popular authors such as Michel Onfray writing books and articles exploring failings of France and the West. French Declinsim has been related to the counter-Enlightenment of the early 19th century, and also to the late 1970s with the end of three decades of post World War 2 economic growth. In modern times, the phenomenon has picked up velocity and cut across the political spectrum with several variations of “déclinisme” emerging, from Catholic reactionaries to nonreligious thinkers questioning national identity and political corruption.
Declinism has been described as “a trick of the mind” and as “an emotional strategy, something comforting to snuggle up to when the present day seems intolerably bleak.”
One factor in declinism is the so-called “reminiscence bump,” meaning that older people tend “to best remember events that happened to them at around the ages of 10-30.” As one source puts it, “[t]he vibrancy of youth, and the thrill of experiencing things for the first time, creates a 'memory bump' compared with which later life does seem a bit drab.” Gopnick suggests that “the idea of our decline is emotionally magnetic, because life is a long slide down, and the plateau just passed is easier to love than the one coming up.” Citing the widespread love of “old songs,” he writes: “The long look back is part of the long ride home. We all believe in yesterday.”
Another factor is the so-called positivity effect, meaning that “as people get older, they tend to experience fewer negative emotions, and they’re more likely to remember positive things over negative things.”
Both of these factors can lead people to experience declinism. But so, contrarily, can the “negativity bias,” meaning that “emotionally negative events are likely to have more impact on your thoughts and behaviours than a similar, but positive, event.”
Alan W. Dowd quotes Samuel P. Huntington as saying that declinism “performs a useful historical function” in that it “provides a warning and a goad to action in order to head off and reverse the decline that it says is taking place.” Dowd himself agrees, saying that declinism at its best “is an expression of the American tendency toward self-criticism and continual improvement.”
Josef Joffe, on the contrary, emphasizes the fact “that obsessively fretting about your possible decline can be a good way to produce it.” Similarly, Robert Kagan has expressed concern that Americans are “in danger of committing pre-emptive superpower suicide out of a misplaced fear of their own declining power.”
- Fareed Zakaria (2008). The Post American World. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 9780393062359.
- Thomas L. Friedman; Michael Mandelbaum (2011). That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back. Macmillan. ISBN 9781429995115.
- Edward Luce (2012). Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent. Grove Press. ISBN 9780802194619.
- Oswald Spengler (1991). The Decline of the West. Oxford UP. ISBN 978-0-19-506751-4.
- Éric Zemmour (1991). The French Suicide. ISBN 978-2-226-25475-7.
- The Oxford Dictionary of American Political Slang edited by Grant Barrett, p. 90.
- Etchells, Pete (January 16, 2015). "Declinism: is the world actually getting worse?". The Guardian. Retrieved 20 December 2016.
- Steven R. Quartz, The State Of The World Isn't Nearly As Bad As You Think, Edge Foundation, Inc., retrieved 2016-02-17
- Gopnik, Adam (September 12, 2011). "Decline, Fall, Rinse, Repeat". The New Yorker. Retrieved 20 December 2016.
- Miller, Laura (2015-06-14). "Culture is dead — again". Salon. Retrieved 17 April 2018.
- J.G.A. Pocock, "Between Machiavelli and Hume: Gibbon as Civic Humanist and Philosophical Historian," Daedalus 105:3 (1976), 153–169; and in Further reading: Pocock, EEG, 303–304; FDF, 304–306.
- Funnell, Antony (2014-11-04). "American Declinism: has collective fear finally become reality?". ABC Radio National. Retrieved 29 June 2015.
- Hanson, Victor (November 14, 2011). "Beware the boom in American "declinism"". CBS News. Retrieved 20 December 2016.
- Joffe, Josef (December 9, 2011). "Declinism's Fifth Wave". The American Interest. Retrieved 20 December 2016.
- Kagan, Robert (January 10, 2012). "Not Fade Away". New Republic. Retrieved 20 December 2016.
- Engelhardt, Tom (June 13, 2017). "Donald Trump Might Set a Record—for the Biggest Decline of American Power in History". The Nation. Retrieved 14 June 2017.
- Lewis, Jemima (January 16, 2016). "Why we yearn for the good old days". The Telegraph. Retrieved 20 December 2016.
- Tombs, Robert (8 July 2017). "The myth of Britain's decline". The Spectator. Retrieved 17 April 2018.
- Donadio, Rachel (3 February 2017). "France's Obsession With Decline Is a Booming Industry". The New York Times. Retrieved 20 April 2018.
- Dowd, Alan (August 1, 2007). "Declinism". Hoover. Retrieved 21 December 2016.
- McCormick, Ty (8 Oct 2012). "Declinism Is America and Mitt Can Too". Foreign Policy. Retrieved 29 June 2015.