American Decline has been the background music of my life. The spiraling fortunes of a once-great superpower provides popcorn and panic for citizens and onlookers alike, as do all great powers in their time. But in these latter days, a particular genre of horror narrative has acquired too grim a currency amongst public intellectuals struggling to describe the American trajectory through the fallout from the Cold War. The increased bombast of the doomsayers has risen in tandem with equally unhelpful counterweight. The replies to these thinkpieces tend to nitpick the superficiality of only some parts of American Declinism, ending up as cheap in analysis as the potshots they seek to address, straying all too easily and frequently into jingoism. Against this background, when the Atlantic writes that we are no longer the country we like to think we are, the intonation rings both deep and hollow in the same instant.
The messiness of language harms us here. We say “decline” while thinking of the kind most familiar to us: our bodies. We waste our youth, mature, flourish, then tread a descending path into the grave, shedding irreplaceable vigor, capacity, and dignity at every step. But “decline” also carries a mundane meaning: that things can get worse at something they were previously good at. Muscles atrophy if you neglect them, whether you are ten or a hundred. Countries can lose their ability to fight wars, build infrastructure, conduct successful politics, etc., decades or centuries after they were first founded. Once vibrant capacities can be lost before you know it. Despite the singular word carrying them, these are categorically different things: the former an established pattern that dooms something, the latter something that any existing thing knows and can prevent, mitigate, or reverse. I will distinguish between them with a mere, mighty capital letter: Decline vs. decline.
Culture plays a major part in our sense of Decline, which is American as baseball and far older. We are so very Protestant, doubly Declinist: the Reformers snatched the failing Church from Babylonian whoredom on top of a world slouching ever towards Gomorrah. Precipice opens our story. Desperate revolution. The Founders had to justify a republican experiment to a world of mostly absolute monarchies, who asked, reasonably, why this failed form of government, entombed in pagan Athens and Rome, was now the path forward. The answer was, indeed, Decline: Republics can work, but always slouch toward failure without safeguards, railings, and ever-vigilant wardens. A Republic, ma’am, if you can keep it. Outside America, the fates of Powers are a bright, familiar lamppost in history. In the West, Rome’s fall is our guiding star, the greatest calamity its identity has ever known, one it has never truly recovered from. Those less blessed by the West’s hegemony can cite such stories with more meaning to them than those around some distant inland sea. Powers come and go; it is the order of things.
This narrative has practical benefits. We have enough to worry about in our own lives before considering what troubles our government, let alone a Great Power. A Decline soothes dissatisfaction by inevitabilizing it and highlighting its ephemerality. Complications and subtleties, the frustrating friction of reality, can be sidestepped. If you are concerned for America’s fate, Decline imbues that concern with clarity and volume, naturally aligning with those aforementioned cultural instincts that stride partisan lines. American movement conservatives tend to be “prouder” of America’s strength than liberals, but from a crooked place, preferring to deny or paper over the sharpening salience of the criticism levied against the object of their affection. Pat Buchanan simply insists America is not lagging peer nations in the many ways it clearly is, hoping flag-waving will take over. John Bolton has the mind of a spike-helmed Prussian, for whom any notion of Decline is easily soothed by a glance over the shoulder at Minuteman missiles. Then there are more “sophisticated” Transatlantic conservatives, such as Anne Applebaum, who subscribe to a different form of American Declinism, one less eager to buy its national mythmaking and more concerned with “America’s place in the world” as it relates to their own experience. This anxiety reaches leftward to Matthew Yglesias, who uses it as a base to argue for tripling America’s population, and Noah Smith, who remains optimistic and committed to believing in America, but troubled by these spreading signs. To leftists frustrated with America—or happy to see it fall—American Decline is irresistible. How could the fall of the American Empire be bad news? These just desserts let one skip the exhaustion of fighting for a more perfect Union, indulge in venerating other countries, and experience being rid of the idiocies of the Pax Americana. It matters little what the thing is or whence it came if it is about to die.
American Declinism is awash with such motivated reasoning, from natural human proclivities to sinister intentions. There is little cost to playing into it, and all this fuels its dearth of evidence and rigor. It is, in short, a fantasy manufactured for consumption, foreign and domestic. One of its mainstays is the Rise of China, which has deliberately painted itself at home and abroad into an antipole to the West: free of political infighting and the chaos of democracy, united under a totalizing vision, knit by discipline and self-sacrifice. In the propaganda floated by both the Chinese and ourselves, China serves as a neat, yin-yang counterweight speaking to the sins with which we preoccupy ourselves in our own backyard. It has feasted on our counter-chauvinism, weaponizing our own cruel, crude stereotypes against us, our rampant bias that the outsider necessarily possesses that which we lack. They’re so respectful of authority, while Chinese history is replete with bloody rebellion. Their leaders are educated and clear-eyed, not like Ours, untrammeled by bickering, delusion, ambition, cowardice, boorishness, and stupidity.
But upon closer inspection, its sins are the same as those levied against America to explain its descent. China is a power built on unrepentant racism, jingoism, aggression, and colonialism, a legacy unbroken for millennia, which it has made no attempts to rectify. It believes itself exceptional, One of the First Ones, with an imperial birthright. It acts unilaterally and with increasing impunity in defiance of the international community, wasting energy and treasure on conflicts that are mere points of pride. If these are why America ails, China should too. Yea, it is: from existential demographic decline, a vast and widening wealth gap, worse social mobility than America’s, and opportunity clustered in select cities suffocated by skyrocketing costs of living. Every ill America has, moral or economic, China bears in equal or greater measure.
This is mostly a shared and human fate rather than a tale of two Declines. The bitter truth is that these are general problems that apply to everyone. We are entering an age of famine in which such bedrock assumptions as the climate and reproductive patterns are foundering. Claims that X is falling inexorably while Y is rising inexorably cannot withstand the rapidly shifting realities of our era. All lands, all nations, all peoples, are in deep trouble, no matter how good things may seem in the moment. We can point to nations in serious Decline due to them—China, South Korea, and Japan—where the demographic arbitrage created by reducing infant mortality is closing as the contraceptive incentives of modern life catch up. But even this Decline was preventable, or might at least have been checked or moderated. Far from inevitable, it was a collective policy choice by these nations, who eschewed very uncomfortable conversations on immigration, gender equality, and other cultural values until bearing their costs, with interest, became unavoidable. These deeper issues are now totally eclipsing the wise, enviable investments made in infrastructure and urban design. In other areas, they are even worse off: Japanese society has generationally retained unhealthy trends and is paying dearly for it while less flashy social infrastructure frays. How many of you know about shibal biyong, the senseless hedonism in which South Korean youth indulge to momentarily escape the hopelessness engendered by their prospects in their country’s own two-tiered employment market?
The asymmetric nature of hegemony feeds into this. The volume of our presence drowns so much else out. With its intimidating language and opaque culture, Americans struggle to judge Japan with clear eyes; the reverse is much less difficult given American cultural and linguistic dominance worldwide. Of course those who live in America’s shadow are going to be more casually familiar with its warts, flaws, crimes, and sins than the reverse. But now the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. Things like the horrible reality of American suburbia are worthy of our anger and discontent, in context. They are a symptom of lower-case decline, the kind of atrophy that results from neglect and coasting. They are an instrumental indictment of our past rather than a metaphysical indictment of our future. America’s capacity to teach children, build roads, enrich its people, or work through political problems has not departed forever like the vigor of youthful fingers. America is not regressing to barbarism simply because Germany’s trains or Denmark’s education have done better by comparison. The “America is not a developed country” shtick plays cute for memes, but it is not true and it does not help us fix anything, nor is it right (or analytically other than misleading) to toss out the many areas where America continues to lead. The power of American culture remains second to none. We continue to be a bold vanguard on race, pluralism, and social justice, with laws frequently and literally decades ahead of our supposedly progressive European comrades (look at a US vs. EU timeline on gay marriage, trans rights, or the War on Drugs!). A growing majority of Americans are rejecting the simplistic cultural tropes and original sins we have clung to for so long. Obsession over the entirely fixable holes in our healthcare and transportation infrastructure, while ignoring the flourishing and reimagining of our potential and spirit, is the ultimate and ultimately short-sighted triumph of presentist doom over justified hope. We are ahead and have even widened our lead in ways that don’t show up in life expectancy statistics. America remains a good place to live, the walkability preferences of more affluent liberals like myself notwithstanding. We have a very long way to go, but we are coming a very long way still.
States are not bodies, etched in biological stone. They do not “live,” “age,” or “die.” In truth, we know little about them. The story of each has been peculiar, informed harshly by circumstance and luck. We still do not understand what happened to Rome; citing it as an example of a rise and fall has become a cliché, more distracting than informing. The Ottoman Empire fell over a very long time and was carved up at an opportune moment by predators. Byzantium went through extended periods of decay and renewal. The Mongols were a flash in the pan. The Aztecs and Incas were clad in glory when doom washed ashore. Just as many states, such as France in the Hundred Years’ War, Prussia after the Battle of Kunersdorf, and America before and during the Civil War (as well as the Great Depression), have survived times of chronic and acute crises only to experience revival and dominance. Examine the tapestry of empires and you will find yourself left with a morass of disparate threads weaving more questions than answers.
Our one peak—the well-established absurdity of such a notion notwithstanding—has not passed us by, in either moral or practical authority. Remember that half of us tried to violently secede rather than accept a President who merely failed to look kindly on slavery. Fifteen years on, American government succumbed to white sedition and terrorism. A hundred years later, half the body politic—our parents and grandparents—voted for Nixon and got enraged by black people being allowed to use the same restroom. Our economy was in deep trouble in the 1930s and 70s. There was never any Golden Age. Likewise, the permanent collapse of a state into something else is exceedingly rare. Political power abhors a vacuum. The French state technically “collapsed” in 1958, but France did not disappear. The collapse of the empires of the twentieth century, including the Soviet Union, was possible because there were constituent entities for them to collapse into, or, in the unique case of the Ottoman Empire, powerful external actors able to carve new boundaries out of whole flesh. America is nowhere near such a scenario. The fetish of a Second American Civil War belies a poor understanding of the first, glossing over the need for coherent sections of the populace able to pivot into collective postures against each other. The diffuse nature of America’s modern polarization, population, and economy precludes this. There are no realistic threats to the existence of an American state able to project large amounts of power abroad. That is rooted in America’s geography and lack of powerful neighbors, which is not changing. Consider the behavior of those with stakes in the matter. Nobody in Latin America is acting like the beast to their north will at last be sapped of the power to rampage about. No one in Africa or the Middle East is behaving as if America’s tide is about to leave them in peace forever. In the real world, America is not going away.
In the real world, America is not some backward pond of inbred gringos and ignorant dopes that stumbled into hegemony in defiance of some meritocracy. The caricature of a self-absorbed empire, convinced of its own superiority in the face of a knowing world watching in sadness as it gasps, unable to save itself, is a delusion crafted by self-interested parties. None of these describe the real country of America. It speaks to the unreality of this Decline that we should be rubbernecking the ruin of a vibrant centerpiece of our civilization like peeping voyeurs, as if this is just musical chairs for the board of directors at some cereal company. America’s collapse, balkanization, or permanent atrophy would be an unmitigated disaster. None in the whole earth would go unscathed. The world economy would take generations to recover. Representative government would lose its oldest and most compelling standard bearer. A reliable gadfly would go extinct. It speaks deeper that our saviors are to be skittish Eurocentrism, hypercapitalist Chinese nationalism, or the exhausted models of ethnostates and multipolar diplomacy acquiescing to “interests” / “realities”—all equally tired routes wholly insufficient to meet the epochal challenges of climate change and the post-industrial demographic bust. They too are Cold War relics, rebrands of the promises of détente or the Non-Aligned Movement, still based on a model that the past thirty years have long swept away.
America is far from invincible. All states are indeed mortal, which has become misleadingly interchangeable with “fragile.” Anything can be killed in an instant. But American representative government is almost two hundred and fifty years old. It has survived a civil war, grinding economic depressions, and long stretches of unaddressed inequality and injustice, crises that have felled countless monarchies and despotates in its time. We even made it through a coup this year. Armed men stole into our Holy of Holies, yet we are still here. It takes more than that to slay a democracy. Even if they had succeeded, America would have continued. We know this, because they have ruled us many times before. We are not in a glass menagerie dreading a strong wind.
Every country is indulging in fantasies about where they are, where they came from, and where they are going. We are unexceptional after all. I am not underselling the threats to America as neo-Confederates return. I am not one of the merchants who greets you past the doors of enlightenment, offering to replace the beloved you just lost. Interrogate your motives for believing in this story. It is often easier slumbering in a hopeless dark than stepping into a painful, clarifying, unhideable light and its beckoning to labor, but we know from experience that days are better and healthier faced upright. Things are not as dark as they seem. These fascists are a shadow of what they once were, a reviled and disreputable minority fading before our tide. We have won the conversation on healthcare, race, LGBT rights, drugs, the Forever Wars, American exceptionalism, and climate change, each of these tidings our past selves would be overjoyed to hear. Close that Google search of America’s symptoms and go to an actual medical professional, who will tell you that they are serious and complex, yet treatable. The educated masses of America cannot be described as “happy with the status quo” or hypnotized by some zombie-like admiration for its Constitution. They are agitating for change, the only way to thread the needle between life and death, for things that are to pass away without simply ceasing to be. You have to spend life to make life, to accept a little death to defeat the great one: that of hope.
A Decline is an apologia, a synonym for Despair. You do not get to throw up your hands and say “now, here, we are truly fucked.” China and South Korea are much nearer to a real Decline than we, and there is still so much they can do; we have by comparison no excuse. America is here to stay. No getting off the merry-go-round, neither in an individual, political, nor cosmic sense. We live in the world made by the actions of others before us. Your actions will determine the world to come. The wise man plants a tree knowing he will never sit in its shade because he has learned there is no human difference between the planter and the sitter; they are contiguous. When the world finally ends, we will be long gone together with the trees we have planted. Apocalypses have no need for audiences.