The veteran American broadcaster Andy Rooney had a neat rebuttal for those who suggested that his homeland was in decline. 'It's just amazing how long this country has been going to hell,' he would remind them, 'without ever having got there.' A permanent fixture of the CBS show Sixty Minutes since the late 1970s, Rooney died late last year at the age of 92. He first came across this 'going to hell' quote in one of his high school textbooks.
Just as US declinism has provided a common thread of American history – the progressive era at the turn of the 20th century came partly in response to rising fears that the country was falling badly behind Western Europe – declinist rhetoric has been a common feature of American presidential campaigns. This has been especially true of post-war elections, when candidates have been speaking from a position of US pre-eminence.
In 1952, Dwight Eisenhower resolved to deal with 'Korea, Communism, and Corruption', having come to the conclusion that America risked falling behind the Soviets. In 1960, John F Kennedy played on anxieties aroused by the launch of Sputnik 1 three years earlier, as he warned of a 'missile gap' that in reality did not exist (Moscow had just four ICBMs at the time, but Eisenhower did not want to reveal this for fear of compromising secret U2 flights over Soviet territory).
In the bloody wake of the Tet Offensive early in 1968 and the urban riots sparked by the assassination of Martin Luther King a few months later, Richard Nixon highlighted both the decline in US prestige abroad and its moral degeneracy at home.
In the tawdriness of Watergate, Jimmy Carter identified yet more evidence of American regression. For Ronald Reagan, it was the sight of blind-folded hostages in Tehran and Soviet tanks rumbling into Kabul. During the 1988 election, when George HW Bush saw off Michael Dukakis, the most talked-about book was Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. Published the previous year, it warned of 'the relative erosion of the United States' position'.
Victory in the Cold War did not end declinist campaign rhetoric. Instead, candidates merely turned their attention to the rise of new global competitors. Amid fears that Pax Nipponica would replace Pax Americana, Bill Clinton attacked President Bush in 1992 for the record high trade deficit with Japan. The need to defend American jobs had overtaken traditional calls to defend American ideals.
For all the celebrations marking the turn of 'The American Century' and for all the boasts about being the sole superpower in a unipolar world, even the 2000 election had declinist themes. While George W Bush stopped short of using the phrase 'imperial overstretch', the term popularised by Paul Kennedy, he did think the US military was riskily over-committed. He argued that US forces should not be involved in nation-building and should end its role as the policeman of the world.
Post-9/11, post-GFC and post-Iraq, declinist rhetoric obviously resonates more loudly. It helped Barack Obama win election in 2008, and is now being deployed against him by his opponents. All of them are disturbed by the rise of China, a rival with a much more efficient economy than the Soviet Union and a much larger population than Japan. There is also the 'red menace' of the country's colossal debt.
In what still remains a determinedly optimistic country, no serious presidential candidate would proffer an entirely negative view. Bleak assessments of the American present invariably come with morale-boosting promises about the American future. Clinton believed in a place called Hope, while Obama vouched for its audacity. From the troughs of the valley, Reagan promised a return to the shining city on a hill.
This kind of rhetoric serves a purpose. Elections, after all, are a diagnostic exercise, where problems are identified and remedies proposed. Had it not been for Eisenhower's fears about the Soviet threat, he might not have pushed so hard for what turned out to be the greatest landmark of his presidency: an interstate highway system.
Problems have arisen, however, when the prognosis has been too grave, at which point a candidate's exaggerated sense of US decline can lead to exaggerated policy responses in office. Kennedy's fears about being bested by the Soviets led in part to the disaster of the Bay of Pigs within months of him taking office. He became a victim of the Cold War machismo that only a short time before had made him look so muscular against Nixon. Pessimism can also nurture isolationism, and a reluctance to project American power abroad.
In this year's campaign, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have sounded especially gloomy about America's prospects without a change in government, and would claim to give voice to what might now be called the 'despondent majority'. After all, the view has taken firm hold that most American children will not be materially better off than their parents.
But it is worth remembering that the country has traveled similar routes before: where the road to the White House has weaved its way through the valley of national despair.
Photo by Flickr user Shawn Clover.