The Future of Decline
Anglo-American Culture at Its Limits
Jed Esty



In August 2008, Americans watched the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, marveling at Zhang Yimou’s spectacle of a newly confident, abundantly creative nation. Commentaries popped up all over the US media, noting that the impeccable organization, the daring aesthetics, the avant-garde architecture, and the massive scale of project management in Beijing heralded the arrival of a new Asian superpower. A month later, Lehman Brothers fell and tipped the world into financial crisis.

By the time 2012 rolled around, an economic recovery had been engineered in the US with the indispensable aid of Chinese capital. Over in London, the Olympics kicked off again, this time with an opening ceremony masterminded by Danny Boyle. Boyle’s films, Shallow Grave and Trainspotting as well as Slumdog Millionaire and Steve Jobs, tell stories of cold poverty in the UK, hot wealth in the colonies. His “Isles of Wonder” show seemed forced even on the spot. It confused spectators. Flashes of imperial glory jangled against dashes of social-welfare pragmatism. Dancing health-care workers as a global sign of Britishness? The grandiloquent blend of past and present, with its hipster revisionism and blenderized ideologies, seemed to signify everything at once about the UK and therefore nothing at all. It highlighted the UK’s unfinished business of reckoning with an imperial past and a European future.

Beijing 2008 and London 2012 struck a nerve for American viewers. The rising superpower across the Pacific and the fading empire across the Atlantic seemed to sandwich an American Century on the wane. The glamorous techno-futurism of Beijing and the zombie wax-museum antics of London threw America’s uncertain fate into relief. With Wall Street so recently in free fall, the US media was divided between faltering belief in national power and swaggering insistence on American greatness.

For those of us who came of age in the 1970s, the two Olympic ceremonies simply rekindled what I suspect was a familiar sense of diminished expectations. For Generation X, political awareness began with Vietnam and Watergate. After the end of the gold standard, the oil crisis, stagflation, the drug wars, and the crime waves, the 1970s ended with the Iran hostage crisis and Carter’s so-called national malaise speech. Where young Baby Boomers saw American greatness embodied in the Apollo missions, we saw the fiery failure of the Challenger crash in 1986. The 1980s and 1990s—the time of our youth—featured a strange subterranean battle between the slow steady ebb of national confidence and the resurgent rhetoric of “Morning in America,” victory in the Cold War, and the tech boom. Those signifiers of American renewal often seemed stagey and brittle, more bravado than strength. Twilight and morning, autumn and apex: for my generation, the rhetoric of American destiny felt like a game of bad metaphors, a partisan opera played over a deep bass note of loss.

The twin crises of the Bush II era therefore hit like a return to the norm of national decline. 9/11 revealed the fragility of American security. The subprime crisis revealed the fragility of American prosperity. Both brought back familiar anxieties of a tottering superpower. They marked an Islamophobic and Sinophobic reboot of aggressive political sentiments that had already been aimed at Russia in my childhood, Japan in my youth.

As a graduate student and young scholar, I spent the last half of the 1990s studying literary culture in the UK’s age of imperial contraction. Looking back now, I can see that my research was a refracted and delayed investigation into a problem closer to home: American decline. It was also an intellectual evasion of the racial and colonial problems underlying American supremacy. Back then, I wanted to know if Great Writing in English—the ability to capture whole worlds in a novel or a poem—depended on Britain’s status as a Great Power. My research eventually took the form of a book somewhat misleadingly entitled A Shrinking Island. What it suggested was that British contraction produced a number of effects, not all of them negative, nativist, or scarcity-driven. The era of decolonization, of modernizing sex and gender norms, and of the Keynesian welfare state represented a step forward for many in the UK. Imperial contraction was not pure loss. Nor did the shrinking of the British domain translate into social backwardness. It was part of a modernization process, not a tumble back through time. To cede the pretensions of global hegemony—then or now—is not to regress or decline, except in the minds of those in thrall to superpower nostalgia.

The optimistic idea driving this book is similar: the US can move forward while its power wanes. The questions that faced the UK on its historical downslope face the US now. Can the waning of global power reinvigorate domestic society? Will post-peak America be even more divided? Can a culture of contraction inspire citizens to find an inclusive, egalitarian, contemporary sense of national purpose? The Trump-Brexit era has dramatized with remarkable immediacy the doubt embedded in such questions. The questions are not new, but they are more urgent as America becomes—any day now—a second-place nation. The answers will redefine US culture and society in the decades ahead.

The Future of Decline is a short study of a long American twilight, informed by British precedent. The undisputed peak of US power started in 1945, and its fade began in the 1970s. Americans have now been on the downslope for almost a generation longer than they were at the superpower summit. And the UK, which was a global hegemon from the end of the Napoleonic wars (1815) through to World War I (1914) has now been, by that time line, in decline for more than a hundred years.

Decline, in other words, lasts a long time. Empires fall dramatically in our lore, but hegemony dies slowly in fact. And declinism—the rhetoric of once and future greatness—lasts even longer. One hundred years of ebbing force in the UK have not stilled its lingering dreams of glory. Can the US escape that fate, or will the morbid symptoms of declinist thinking—MAGA and melancholia—stay with us for the long haul ahead? In America, declinism is practically a way of life, a cultural birthright, from the Puritan Jeremiad to the paranoid hegemony of the Cold War, from the lost City on a Hill to the closing frontier of F. J. Turner, from Sputnik to Watergate, from oil crisis to climate emergency, from the subprime crash to the Covid-19 pandemic.

As this book goes to press, the perennial dark fantasy of American declinism is converging with a new structural reality. By most projections, the 2020s will be the last decade when the US economy is the largest in the world. China already leads the world in so-called purchasing power parity—one leading indicator of national wealth. Countless books about the American eclipse will quickly follow, glutting an already saturated market. Whether left-leaning or right-leaning, fatalistic or optimistic, such books share certain features. First, mainstream declinist writing in the US—dominated by economists, journalists, and political scientists—tends to battle over metrics and statistics while ignoring the decisive story lines that shape most Americans’ perception of decline. Second, such writing tends to filter decline anxieties through an elite worldview. Declinism in most of its forms overidentifies with elite fears of lost power and position. It underidentifies with nonwhite, nonmale, nonpropertied citizens. Third, the prophets and pundits of US decline too often use the specters of fallen Rome and shrunken Britain to shake rather than inform readers.

By contrast, this book uses UK history to advance the idea that the loss of national greatness is neither quick nor catastrophic, neither tragic nor avoidable. The UK experience provides suggestive examples—and counterexamples—for US citizens hoping to live good, meaningful lives in an ex-superpower. Rather than evoke British imperialism as a spectacle of diminishment, it considers UK history since Suez as a story about the struggle for unevenly distributed resources. British decline forced UK citizens to try to redefine their national identity without the governing narratives of crown and empire at the forefront. Brexit shows how far from complete that process is (Barnett, O’Toole, Ward and Rasch). But it is a cultural process, not shackled to the iron laws of global trade. An ex-hegemon can become something other than a shadow of its former self. In the coming decades, Americans will need to relinquish Cold War certainties about American power in order to reinvent the shared meaning of US society.

For now, the narcissistic goad of “lost greatness” still resonates for many Americans, and not just right-wing patriots. It will resonate even after the memory of Trump’s gross demagoguery fades. It resonates because there is a wide, bipartisan, and popular desire to stay on top after four decades of fading economic supremacy. Most of all, it resonates because Americans do not have access to a galvanizing alternative language for a common national purpose. It is time to shelve the old habituated language of US dominance, to face the multipolar world of the future, to tell new American stories. To find and circulate those stories is a difficult but necessary task. They will have to be vivid and visceral, dense with real US history, ripe for collective affiliation. They will have to make multiracial democracy and social welfare compatible with the lived experiences and popular culture of most Americans—not some, not half. That is a serious project for media, political, and academic elites—for cultural gatekeepers and knowledge workers of all kinds. To advance it, the traditional center must cede the language of US supremacy, and the progressive left must cede the language of anti-nationalism. America has to represent something more than global supremacy now. Eternal superpower status is a fantasy and—even were it true—it is a broadly anti-democratic desire, at odds with the nation’s egalitarian ideals.

Conservative declinism blocks both the liberal goal of incremental progress and the progressive goal of social transformation. It tells its anxious adherents that America was once more truly itself than it is now. That is nonsense. America in 2020 is no less (nor more) America than it was in 1950. Heroic narratives of endless growth now obscure rather than reveal the meaning of America. We can no longer just light out for the frontier. The nation is no Huck Finn today, if it ever was. And even Huck was no innocent.

Rather than ape the nostalgia of the British governing classes over the long imperial twilight, US citizens might prefer—however much they are invested in social hierarchy—to abandon morbid and melancholy delusions. They might prefer to see the US as a decent society rather than a diminished hegemon. The American future need not repeat the Brexit present—a nation holding fast to its glory days like an aging quarterback. That’s a geopolitical sequel nobody wants to see. The loss of the hegemonic top slot is an economic given. But the culture and politics of the response is not. What has a pressing claim on American attention now is the story of British adaptation to loss, not the spectacle of the loss itself.

Yet declinism almost always sells as part of the epic historical cycle of imperial rise-and-fall. That mesmerizing epic is, in a way, the subtext of almost all modern historical thinking, from Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to Sid Meier’s Civilization VI. It has served as the subtext and context for almost every consequential discussion of arts, politics, economics, ideas, and social institutions in the US since 1975. The welter of fading-hegemony literature feeds a national fascination with how fast and far we will fall, or—for the hopeful—how long America will hold on to solo superpower status. Both sides—the tragic and the magic—obscure a fundamental question: What does decline mean? What is the significance, in experiential and everyday terms—in feelings and fantasies as well as in metrics and policies—of living in a country past its prime? We know plenty about rising and falling empires. But we have a fundamental—and bipartisan—deficit in our imaginative understanding of life after hegemony.

America is old enough now to have two archives telling the story of its destiny. One existed before it was a global power (but still a juggernaut of continental and colonial expansion). One came into being while it was a global power, in the twentieth century. At this new turning point in history, a third archive is beginning to emerge. What trajectories can we glimpse for an American future after its apex as a global power—even, perhaps, after Americans have acknowledged and adjusted to the downslope of history? In an effort to detach the national gaze from lost greatness, this book pursues four interlocking projects: (1) a critical overview of US declinism since 2000, outlining its bugs and features; (2) a list of ten theses for describing the future of decline without the pervasive drag of superpower nostalgia; (3) a comparative analysis of British and American thinking about national identity after global supremacy; and (4) a map of emerging narratives about American history and American destiny for the age of limits.

Growing up in the 1970s, I took in a steady stream of declinist images and narratives. By contrast, I believe that my grandparents, coming of age in the 1920s, saw the US as a nation on the rise and that my parents, coming of age in the 1950s, saw the US as a secure superpower. As this book goes to press in 2022, I’m not sure my children believe in a meaningful American future. Four generations, one arc: from upswing to peak to downslope to crisis. America’s season of global supremacy set the horizon of expectation for the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers. Even as they recede into historical haze, those expectations still define the outer limit of the public discourse. Few leaders or politicians will demur when asked if the US is the greatest country now, the greatest country ever. But the boomers are aging fast and the world is changing even faster. The old reflex to declare US greatness will stop twitching at some point, maybe sooner than we think.

Belief in US national superiority lives inside almost all the ordinary and available languages of American patriotism. It took a long time to build up this rigid version of nationalist feeling, and it will take a conscious effort to shed it. Belief in natural superiority was made in America—the military-industrial complex’s most successful product. It can be unmade, too, without destroying patriotic sentiment, without losing wealth and security, without ceding the idea of robust citizenship. It can be unmade unless the rhetoric of greatness stays lodged in the American mind, too sacred to be dispatched by the light and logic of history on the downslope.