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Declinism is the belief that a society or institution is tending towards decline. Particularly, it is the predisposition, due to cognitive bias, particularly rosy retrospection, to view the past favourably and future negatively.[1][2][3]

Declinism is a rather widespread phenomenon. 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."[4]

"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.'"[5]

American declinism

The United States in particular has a history of predicting its own downfall, beginning with European settlement.[6] 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."[7]

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.[8]

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.'"[9]

In a piece which appeared in The Nation on 13 June 2017, author Tom Engelhardt described Donald Trump as America's "first declinist candidate for president".[10]


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."[4]

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."[2] 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."[4] 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."[5]

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."[2]


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."[11]

Josef Joffe, on the contrary, emphasizes the fact "that obsessively fretting about your possible decline can be a good way to produce it."[5] 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."[9]

Declinist literature

Below is a list of Declinist literature:[12]

  • 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. 

See also


  1. ^ The Oxford Dictionary of American Political Slang edited by Grant Barrett, p. 90.
  2. ^ a b c Etchells, Pete (January 16, 2015). "Declinism: is the world actually getting worse?". The Guardian. Retrieved 2016. 
  3. ^ Steven R. Quartz, The State Of The World Isn't Nearly As Bad As You Think, Edge Foundation, Inc., retrieved  
  4. ^ a b c Lewis, Jemima (January 16, 2016). "Why we yearn for the good old days". The Telegraph. Retrieved 2016. 
  5. ^ a b c Gopnik, Adam (September 12, 2011). "Decline, Fall, Rinse, Repeat". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2016. 
  6. ^ Funnell, Antony. "American Declinism: has collective fear finally become reality?". ABC Radio National. Retrieved 2015. 
  7. ^ Hanson, Victor (November 14, 2011). "Beware the boom in American "declinism"". CBS News. Retrieved 2016. 
  8. ^ Joffe, Josef (December 9, 2011). "Declinism's Fifth Wave". The American Interest. Retrieved 2016. 
  9. ^ a b Kagan, Robert (January 10, 2012). "Not Fade Away". New Republic. Retrieved 2016. 
  10. ^ Engelhardt, Tom (June 13, 2017). "Donald Trump Might Set a Record--for the Biggest Decline of American Power in History". The Nation. Retrieved 2017. 
  11. ^ Dowd, Alan (August 1, 2007). "Declinism". Hoover. Retrieved 2016. 
  12. ^ McCormick, Ty (8 Oct 2012). "Declinism Is America and Mitt Can Too". Foreign Policy. Retrieved 2015. 

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