British Prime Minister Gordon Brown once told a joint session of the United States Congress that Americans are, at their core, "every bit as optimistic as your Roosevelts, your Reagans and your Obamas." Had he been more honest and less diplomatic, he might have noted that the United States also has a rich history of pessimism -- one that helps explain why fear of American decline has become a focal point of the current presidential election. As numerous writers have pointed out, the recent bout of "declinism" -- which produced titles like The Post American World, That Used to Be Us, and Time to Start Thinking -- is actually just the latest in a series of similar episodes dating back to the 1950s, when America first sensed the magnitude of the Soviet threat.
After the "Sputnik moment" and the Gaither Commission, successive declinist waves broke during Vietnam, the OPEC oil embargo, and Watergate. The rise of Japan during the 1980s touched off yet another round of doomsday prophesying as scholars like Paul Kennedy tossed around phrases like "imperial overstretch." But fearing decline is actually a much older and more quintessentially American pastime than most people realize. It seems strange, then, that "declinism" has become a dirty word in this election -- and even stranger that Mitt Romney has felt the need to paper over his own record of heralding America's doom.
Not 10 years after the Continental Congress ratified the Declaration of Independence, John Adams was beginning to fret about the future of America. His countrymen, he lamented in 1785, had "never merited the Charter of a very exalted virtue." To his friends, he allowed that there was "no special Providence for Americans" since "their nature is the same with that of others." He revisited this theme in his 1787 treatise, A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, in which he examined the rise and fall of past empires. In between the collapse of the "Western" and "Eastern" empires, he wrote, "republics without number" arose in Italy, only to "burst, like so many waterspouts upon the ocean." America, Adams implied, would eventually follow suit since all nations are "agitated by the same passions" and moved by the same "unalterable rules." A constitution that established proper checks and balances, however, could safeguard the country for a time. By 1814, Adams had grown increasingly gloomy, convinced as he was that "sects" and "factions" "threaten our existence in America at this moment."
Adams's descendants carried this "fear of America's collective moral failure" into the second half of the 19th century, as historian Arthur Herman recounts in The Idea of Decline in Western History. Adams's son John Quincy spent much of his career agonizing over slavery and what its abolition might mean for the union. But his two grandsons, Henry and Brooks, who co-founded the American Social Science Association, would write the most stirring prophecies of American doom. Like many patrician New Englanders, the Adams brothers were deeply unsettled by America's rapid industrialization and the rise of "machine" politics after the Civil War. Democracy itself seemed to be propelling the country toward an inevitable abyss.
For Brooks, the forces of "unfettered" capitalism were erasing the last vestiges of Jeffersonian agrarianism and propelling America toward an anarchic future, according to an immutable "law of civilization and decay." For Henry, the problem was populism, which misappropriated human capital and sidelined people of the "best class." In 1880, he published an anonymous novel entitled Democracy, in which popular sovereignty leads to the "atrophy of moral senses by disuse." One character even goes as far as predicting that Washington will one day be like Rome under the Medici popes. By 2025, Herman tells us, Henry thought the Earth would be a "cold and lifeless lump of matter hurtling through the nothingness of space."
Fear of unbridled capitalism and populism soon gave way to racial pessimism and concern about the social implications of immigration. The growing number of Jewish, Italian, and Slavic immigrants, in the view of many, threatened the very character of the nation. One of those who became most convinced of the immigrant threat was Henry Cabot Lodge, a Massachusetts senator who had been Henry Adams's student at Harvard. An adherent to prevailing theories of racial degeneration, Lodge was concerned about the implications of racial mixing. "If a lower race mixes with a higher in sufficient numbers," he said in speech on the Senate floor in 1896, "history teaches us that the lower race will prevail." This process, he reasoned, could destroy America, since "the lowering of a great race means not only its own decline, but that of civilization." Restrictive immigration laws eventually made it through Congress in the early 1920s, in part because of Lodge's passionate advocacy.