Left, Right, or Center? Narratives of National Decline in U.S. History
The unprecedented downgrading of the U.S. credit rating has led to a rejuvenation of one of the handiest political billyclubs around: the specter of national decline. Decline narratives have been particularly useful for conservatives in the last several decades, but they appear in a variety of forms in U.S. history, including in terms of racial decline. (See, for instance, Frank Usbeck's post on racial purity, Native Americans, and U.S. and German nationalism.)
Casting debt-and-credit problems as symptoms of a pernicious, all-encompassing national decline is only one variant in this election season’s versatile lexicon of “declinism.” Columnist Deneen Borelli linked economic decline to “moral decline,” violence, and “flash robs” by poor, often African American, youth. (http://dailycaller.com/2011/07/14/obamas-policies-are-causing-economic-and-moral-decline/) For Tim Pawlenty, the country’s “murky” foreign policy signals the emasculating “shrink[ing]” of the country’s fatherly global stature. (http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0611/57900.html) (Would an adjective like “mushy” – see Usbek’s post and his use of Jacobson’s Barbarian Virtues – have worked as well as “murky” for the Minnesota governor?) More generally, both E.J. Dionne, Jr. and Politico.com have suggested that decline could be the main issue in the 2012 elections. (http://www.tnr.com/article/politics/american-decline?page=0,0); (http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0311/51309.html).
My NEASA paper, “Family, Country, and Foreign Competition: National Narratives and Union Reform in the 1980s,” will examine how the liberal and labor left brandished the decline idea in the 1980s. Decline, indeed, knows no partisan boundaries, and I will examine how unionists in the 1980s blamed “unfair foreign competition” for a variety of social and political ills, including, of course, “national decline.” Competition from businesses in East Asia, Germany, South Africa, and South America did indeed challenge a variety of unionized industries in the 1980s, and as the murder of Vincent Chen in 1982 suggests, nationalist narratives and specters of decline articulated themselves with racial and economic violence in tragic ways.
How and when have narratives of decline gained widespread political and social traction, and how and when have they remained the province of doomsdayers and eccentrics?
How would comparing U.S.-based narratives of decline with those of other countries enrich our understanding of U.S. history? In my own work on Mexican history, for instance, the gendered and sexualized nature of such narratives illuminates the power discrepancies between the two countries. Just as Pawlenty articulated U.S. decline as resulting from “shrink[ing]” from global challenges, a common narrative of decline in Mexican history is based on U.S. ascendancy – ascendancy in terms of its increasing economic, political, and cultural penetration of an open, vulnerable Mexican society.