Do you believe, deep down, that the Western world is all but finished, its economic and cultural story in its final chapter? Or that the United States, or Britain or Europe are being eclipsed, or overtaken or invaded by stronger and more forceful countries, or peoples or civilizations?
Then you are probably very pleased with the angry new politics in the White House and in Europe’s opposition parties. If there is one big intellectual idea that motivates people to vote for far-right movements, it is declinism: the notion that your country’s best days are in the past and that its economy and culture are being defeated.
In a recent survey, Belgian sociologists Mark Elchardus and Bram Spruyt find that Europeans who support right-wing populists such as Marine Le Pen and Britain’s Brexit movement are not motivated “by a weak or uncertain economic position” – they tend to be reasonably secure – but by “a very negative view of the evolution of society – declinism.” This echoes exit polls that found that the biggest identifier of a Donald Trump voter was a belief that things were better in the past and that the United States’ time of “greatness” was over.
When people believe that their world has gone to hell – or, more to the point, that someone else’s world has gotten better – they tend to vote for equally pessimistic people.
Take, for example, Stephen Bannon, the presidential adviser who is widely regarded as the intellectual force behind the Trump presidency. Journalists Eliana Johnson and Eli Stokols, writing for Politico this week, looked at the books and essays Mr. Bannon recommends to politicians and fellow staffers (which he does a lot). Most are works by obscure right-wing authors, all united around one theme: “the view that technocrats have put Western civilization on a downward trajectory and that only a shock to the system can reverse its decline.”
Their authors include Curtis Yarvin (who argues that the Nazis weren’t so bad) and Michael Anton, who now sits on the staff of the National Security Council, and became known for a 2016 essay, The Flight 93 Election, arguing that “America and the West are on a trajectory toward something very bad” unless radical-right politicians are elected and “the ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners” is stopped.
Mr. Trump’s belief that the United States is being destroyed by the success of Mexico, China, Japan or “radical Islam” has brought a flood of declinists to Washington: Among those who now brief the White House are the authors of Stop the Islamization of America; The Post-American Presidency; Arab Winter Comes To America; and Adios, America.
Europe’s far-right parties have been ushered into prominence – and given a better-than-usual shot in the French, German, Dutch and Italian elections this year – by a flood of bestsellers with titles such as Germany Abolishes Itself; The Last Days of Europe; After the Fall: The End of the European Dream and the Decline of a Continent; Reflections on the Revolution in Europe; Decline and Fall: Europe’s Slow-Motion Suicide; and Submission. All argue that a weakened, feminized, coddled, birth-controlled Western culture has become too soft and impassive to resist invasion and dominance by supposedly more muscular, more fertile and more aggressive Asian and Islamic cultures.
History offers two lessons here.
The first is that declinism is never really about your own decline. Living standards and equality and security have all improved in most Western countries (or, if they’ve dipped, it’s been part of a worldwide slowdown); 2017 is no more a moment of Western decline than was 1918, when The Decline of the West first became a bestseller.
Rather, it’s about things getting better for other people. Mexicans, or Chinese, or immigrants and religious minorities in Europe and the United States, are having better lives, thriving, becoming more equal. For the declinist, their success must equate to our failure.
The second is that when Western countries actually do experience decline, it’s because people have elected a declinist. Pessimistic leaders tend to respond by doing things – closing borders to trade and immigration, restricting minorities, ending international co-operation, starting wars – that end up fulfilling their prophecies of decline.
That is the basic paradox of declinism: It’s simple-minded fiction, unless you believe in it and turn it into policy. Then, in your hands, it becomes history.
Editor’s note: This column originally misidentified the Belgian scholars who wrote a study of influences on populist-party voting. The authors are Mark Elchardus and Bram Spruyt.