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Declinism: The old, the new, and the ugly

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted December 7, 2009

One of the paradoxes of America is the fact that the world's most powerful nation, one that's been on the rise for well over a century, would have an enduring industry of decline. Declinism is bankable. Anyone who comes up with a credible reason why America will hit the skids often winds up with media exposure and a best-seller. If you're wondering why the greenies brushed off Climategate, and are preparing a sales campaign based on the "acidification of the oceans," you now know. They themselves know – through experience – that you can always get rich predicting that America will become poor. You can secure a life of ease by predicting general hardship.

The Old…

Back in the days when America was a minimal-government republic, people got along through what was meant by "self-government." Back in the olden days, it meant self-control. Instead of recourse to multifarious laws and multiplying regulations, people were expected to use common sense and customary norms. One of the secrets behind the growth of the mega-State is that living this way is hard for many. It's easiest for people who find it easy to pick up and live by unwritten rules and baldly-stated norms. It's a system that's particularly hard on the foolish person, who tends to see norms as 'mere prejudices' because of how they're communicated. It's also hard on people who are good at a completely different skill – sensitivity to social cues – but not so good at cultural sensitivity. They're likely to be pegged as "sleazebags," perhaps without knowing why.

America being a republic that was palpably religious, many of the norms were religious injunctions. Since religious norms are most needed in tines of distress, many people relaxed their self-compliance when times were good – they "went soft." Thus, declinism was welcome in religious circuits. Not as the main diet in America; there was also a Calvinist strain which united Godliness with wealth acquired morally. If not good with the timing, a religious declinist was easy to laugh at: the familiar crank proclaiming The End Is Nigh on a street corner.

If blessed with good timing, though, a religious declinist would get a wide audience. The details differed, but the template was the same: America is going into decline because Americans have lost their way. They have rejected Divine Law in favor of ungodliness. A preacher or other kind of cleric who nailed a time of troubles in the beginning, would end up swaying a lot of souls. Since self-government was a much greater part of America then than America now, "repent!" was seen as more useful then than now.

…The New…

There may appear to be a continuity between the old hell-fire preacher and the new-fangled author, but there's a subtle difference between the two that demarks one from the other. The old-style Jeremiah figure always believed that moral decay was the root cause of decline. His successors see moral decay as a symptom. The stereotypical moralist of old saw repentance, the return to a less sinful life, as the cure. The declinist of today usually proffers a political solution. The old jeremiad-thrower believed that a return to good morals would lead to better politics. Today's either ignores that causal chain or reverses it.   

Back in the olden days, it was easy to be a declinist without mentioning Rome at all (except, possibly, for the "Church of Rome.") Now, it's almost impossible to avoid dragging Rome in. The new declinist is almost inevitably an advice-purveyor: either pundit or investment advisor. They're even easy to categorize with a couple of questions: "Do you think I should buy gold?" and "Do you think that war is the ultimate evil?" Yes-yes: libertarian. Yes-no: old-style right-winger. No-yes: peace activist. No-no: some kind of industrial-policy purveyor. Religion need not even be mentioned.

Reading declinists gives an explanation to the paradox of declinism. None of them say definitively that decline is inevitable. Each and every one of them has some kind of action plan, whether individual, political or both, that would veer Americans away from the doom. The action plan is part of what they're selling, and its inclusion explains why so many Americans are buying. American declinism is really alt.improvement.

…And The Ugly

The greenies are a different breed of cat from the new declinists, even the industrial policy purveyors. The libertarian-oriented declinist eschews lobbying the government except by outsider's scolding. He or she prefers to directly appeal to the people. For the minimal-government advocate, this approach flows naturally from principle.

What's interesting is the fact that the peace activist takes the same approach. Few are libertarian; many are liberal. Yet, even those who think that government isn't doing enough appeal to the people. They eschew direct lobbying too.

More interesting is the industrial-policy advocate. He or she tends to be liberal too. Unlike the more idealistic peace activist, the industrial-policy booster thinks of him- or herself as a practical person. You would think that such a person wouldn't be averse to a lobbyists' approach. There's an argument to be made that direct lobbying is less messy, and possibly more efficient because miscommunications and misunderstandings are minimized. And yet, industrial policy supporters – even the truly wonkish – all take the populist approach. They place about as much emphasis on popular appeals as the libertarian breed.

The greenies are unique in their emphasis on lobbying. After all, what was the strategy of the core AGW mongers? It wasn't appealing to the people; it was storming the IPCC and packing it with their "boys." It wasn't launching protests; it was controlling the peer-review process. Climategate made this prioritizing very clear. Even their appeal to the public – "the science is settled" - suggests a fait accompli that was put together behind the scenes.

Al Gore is an exception. Despite his lack of bringing ancient Rome into his greenism, he's a regular declinist: a hybrid of new and old. He's obviously more comfortable with the populist option, is comfortable with issuing jeremiads, seems to prefer secular to moralistic warnings, and has dabbled in industrial policy. However, the real heavyweights in the movement are obviously used to the back stage and back rooms. AGWism is the first American case of "K street doomsaying." Given America's venerable tradition of declinism going hand-in-hand with populism, this K-streetishness makes them the ugly.

With the exception of Al Gore, of course. Given the lobbyist's known disdain for the populist, I'm beginning to wonder what the others really think of him…. ESR

Daniel M. Ryan is currently watching The Gold Bubble.


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