From American Exceptionalism to American Declensionism
24 April 2012
The pages of Foreign Policy magazine are once again becoming agitated by the question of American decline. There is A Nation of Spoiled Brats: Financial Times columnist Ed Luce explains the real reason for American decline an interview by David Rothkopf in Foreign Policy dated 16 April 2012; a few days before this there was The American decline debate by Clyde Prestowitz, while for some background we have from last January Think Again: American Decline, This time it’s for real by Gideon Rachman. The latter, Gideon Rachman, also writes for the Financial Times, which also occasionally hosts pieces on alleged American decline.
I have written before about my distaste for declensionism, so I am not simply going to repeat my arguments the continuing vitality of US institutions and ambitions. For this, you can see The Revolution Without the Revolution and Expanding on a Comment. I will also like to point out the declensionism can be considered a special case of apocalypticism, so that arguments against apocalypticism (as, for example, in The End of the End of the World) also apply, mutatis mutandis, to declensionism.
Of course, one might accept or reject both exceptionalism and declensionism; the two are not mutually exclusive. One might well maintain that the US is unique and that it is now in decline — in fact, I believe that this is the position of many if not most on the political right — as one might equally well maintain that the US is not unique and not in decline (something closer to my own perspective). However, despite the possibility of simultaneously maintaining or rejecting exceptionalism and declensionism, what is interesting about the current spate of declensionist commentary is the shift in narrative that seems to have taken place.
At one time, American exceptionalism was the dominate narrative in understanding the US and its position in the world. I now wonder if we have turned the corner so that American declensionism has become, or is becoming, the dominant narrative by which society at large attempts to understand the US and its position in the world. Having the exceptionalist or the declensionist perspective matters, because each plays into a familiar context of related narratives. That is to say, one idea leads to another, so once you get started down a particular narrative path, the internal logic of the narrative is likely to guide your thinking more than any evidence or reasoning.
The American exceptionalist is likely to say something like, “Sure, things aren’t so good right now, but they’ll turn around; good ol’ American know-how will see to to that. And when things do turn around everyone will see that America isn’t just another country in the world, it is different from all the others, and it can continue to defy the critics and stymy its enemies, and it always will.”
The American declensionist likely to say something like, “No country can forever defy the laws of nature or society; it is time for simple realism and pragmatism in facing up to the fact of America’s finite resources. We need to reassess our position in the world and adopt more appropriate horizons for our actions, learn to learn our lessons, and avoid the kind of overreach that might make things even worse. Every empire in history has eventually joined that of Ozymandias, and we must prepare for the same.”
As I wrote above, I have little sympathy for the declensionists, who are quite taken with their own wisdom in soberly recognizing what they take to be the limits of US power and ambition. The declensionists are smug and self-satified in their own self-defined ghetto — but no more so than the exceptionalists. In fact, this is precisely what these two narratives — the exceptionalist and the declensionist — have in common: their parochial outlook. Both the jingoistic promoter of exceptionalism and the shrill prophet of declension are so wrapped up in their idea of American that this idea comes to supplant the reality. It is this very parochial outlook that is the true danger to the American experiment.
However, if I had to craft my own declensionist narrative, it would not look anything like the stock, off-the-shelf accounts of American decline. If there has been an American “decline” it is because the political class of the US does not believe in the Enlightenment ideals that were instrumental in constituting the US political system. It is not that the political class is actively opposed to Enlightenment ideals, but more a matter of disconnect and incomprehension. It wouldn’t take much to acquaint any intelligent individual with the Enlightenment tradition, but this is not being done. Without an understanding of Enlightenment ideals, there is political drift. The politically expedient takes precedence over all over considerations. With political drift, there is tension between competing visions of what ought to be taking place instead of drift. .
Even if the US political class could be acquainted with the Enlightenment tradition that gave us our constitution and out institutions, it is very likely that they wouldn’t know what to do with this understanding. How does one put Enlightenment ideals into practice in the 21st century?
This is why is probably better to speak in terms of political evolution rather than declension. The world changes, and we must change with it. Hopefully we can remain true to our ideals in the midst of change, but that isn’t always possible. Sometimes you must reach out for new ideals.
The Roman political system survived in one form or another from the founding of the city of Rome until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. That is a run of almost 2,000 years. The Roman Empire did not remain true to the ideals of the Roman Republic, and the Byzantine Empire did not remain true to the ideals of the Roman Empire. This exemplifies what I have called historical viability. If the American political experiment is to be historically viable, it too will undergo changes as profound as those experienced by any long-lived institution.
With this in mind, we can observe that the narrative shift from American exceptionalism to American declensionism is not evidence of defeatism or pessimism or decline, but rather evidence of American historical viability. As the American self-image is able to change from exceptionalism to declensionism, this change facilitates other forms of change, so that the American experiment is changing and adapting to changed times, and in so doing demonstrating its historical viability.
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