I. Flavors of Declinism
Three speculative flavors of political declinism, in order from most subtle to most immediate. Inspired by an article I can’t find anymore- it was a throwaway line in a conservative magazine (The National Interest?). I ought to find it and credit properly.
Falling Short: Dissonance between ideals and action. Common in mature religious and patriotic sentiment. To be clear, “falling short of ideals” does not require a Golden Age to fall from, or even a necessarily dour outlook. You can be forever reaching and not-quite achieving whatever virtues you’d like. This is why “falling short” can sometimes lack urgency. Also, so long as the virtue is accepted by the audience, this is the most agreeable flavor of declinist rhetoric.”Falling Short” can be subtle and meaningful, but in terms of urgency and drive, approval can be expected to be a mile wide and an inch deep. Falling Short tends to be more rhetorical than objective/factual (shooting bull on the “ideals of the Founding Fathers”)
Falling Behind: Benchmark-making, using others or past selves. Sometimes good for calls-to-action. “The Soviets/Japanese/Chinese are surpassing us in our traditional strength of X.” or “We used to be the best in the world at X, and now we have fallen to number N.” Simple, effective. Beware runaway benchmarks fueled by nostalgia or xenophobia. Good “Falling Behind” rhetoric tends to be loosely based on some metric, but still rhetorically malleable.
Falling Apart: Definite unraveling, destruction imminent. If “falling short” is disappointing/aspirational and “falling behind” is a competitive framing, “falling apart” is an absolute crisis.
Widespread, deeply-ingrained “Falling Short” seems healthy, and is often associated with American “Protestant Work Ethic”. “Falling Behind” is healthy in doses though perhaps not good for morale (every country ought to think of itself as exceptional, as a survival strategy- more below). Widespread “Falling Apart” is rarely good across populations, because large groups of people may share urgency but they likely won’t share diagnoses, poisoning the institution that is concerning everyone to begin with.
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