The examples and perspective in this article deal primarily with the United States and do not represent a worldwide view of the subject. (May 2017) (Learn how and when to remove this template message)
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.
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."
"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 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 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."
Below is a list of Declinist literature: