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.
A fun piece from the American Interest. Reminds me of the exposition you hear/read when loading a strategy game. Excerpts of the “Exceptionalism” narratives of a few nations:
The United States of America
Americans have always defined themselves in accordance with the Declaration of Independence’s stirring proclamation that all men are created equal, and endowed by God with an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Enshrined by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution, these values formed the bedrock of America’s unique and unwavering commitment to democratic equality, personal liberty and economic opportunity. This foundation made America a place where anyone can pull himself up by his bootstraps and achieve prosperity. The result is that the United States has become not only the most successful and powerful country in history, but also a beacon of hope to the world—“a city upon a hill.” Americans owe a duty both to themselves and to the world to continue to defend their way of life and their form of government, and where possible to encourage and enable others to follow their example.
The Russian Federation
From the moment Alexander II led Russia to the gates of Paris in 1812, thereby ending Napoleon’s campaign for European domination, Russia has always been Europe’s unappreciated savior. Never was that more true than during the Great Patriotic War, where Russia not only endured sacrifices far greater than other nations, as millions died fighting for the motherland, but also all but single-handedly defeated the Nazis. The self-sacrificial valor of the Russian people is rooted in values and culture that transcend the soulless materialism of the modern West. Russia must put an end to Western revisionism that fails to appreciate Russia’s great moral and military contributions to international stability. Russia must proudly proclaim the heroism and spirituality of its people, and demand the recognition and praise that is due them from the West, so that Russia can again be admired for the great nation it is.
The People’s Republic of China
China is an ancient and proud civilization that has played a central role in world history for more than five thousand years. Blessed with great ingenuity, the Chinese gave the world paper, printing, gunpowder and the compass. The Middle Kingdom was also a force for peace, symbolized by Admiral He’s voyage to India and Africa. Starting with the Opium War of 1841, however, Western and Japanese imperialist aggression led to a century of chaos and humiliation—a dishonor that ended only when Mao’s Revolution enabled China to “stand up.” To restore China’s unique and historic place on the world stage, China must focus on long-deferred economic growth and stability. China can then take on a greater role in the world and resume its rightful place as a dominant power at the center of the East Asian regional order.
The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela
After 300 years of colonial oppression, Simón Bolívar in the early 1800s led Venezuela to a triumphant victory over the Spanish, before going on to liberate Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama and Peru. Since then, Venezuela’s vast oil riches have enabled it to serve not only as the vanguard of Latin American independence, but also as a model of mestizaje (mixed race) racial tolerance and harmony. Today’s Venezuela must honor Bolívar’s legacy and fulfill the nation’s destiny to be a leader in shaping the region’s future. By uniting behind a courageous leader, the nation will reclaim its glory, gain the respect it deserves, and guarantee liberty and prosperity for both Venezuela and the rest of Latin America.
The Republic of Yemen
For thousands of years, Yemen flourished as a religious beacon among uncivilized peoples. Yemen’s tribes converted to Islam in its earliest days, and even the Prophet said that wisdom, faith and understanding all come from Yemen. For generations after, pious Sunni and Shi‘a alike honored their deep Islamic roots, sharing mosques, praying side by side, practicing tolerance toward each other and living peacefully alongside Yemenis of other faiths. Since the 1970s, however, a radical perversion of Islam has infiltrated Yemen’s stable Muslim communities, inviting strife and division, and threatening to destroy centuries of progress in Islamic thought. Yemenis must stand against this extremist threat that originates from outside Yemen and imperils Yemen’s Islamic heritage. By rejecting radicalism that attempts to pit Sunnis against Shi‘a, Yemen will safeguard the religious peace that provided Yemenis with stability for generations and showed the way to other Muslims.