The big political events of today; the rise of populism, Brexit and the surprise election of Trump all have something in common – they are underpinned by an argument that states society is not only broken but has been in decline from a golden age.
The idea that the West is in decline is implicitly baked into the political slogan of recent times – Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” The Brexit slogan of “Take Back Control” implicitly suggests that past glory can be restored. Across Europe, populists bemoan the impending collapse of western civilisation. The sense that progress has been supplanted by decline is pervasive and permeates much of the political debate in the West and beyond.
The World is Getting Worse
In 2015 a survey in the UK found that 71% of people thought the world was actually getting worse. The American Psychological Association found that in 2017 59% of Americans believed that this was the lowest point in US history that they could remember. Type the phrase “X is getting worse” into Google, replacing ‘X’ with a country of your choice and you will be bombarded with results that dissect every aspect of life and the overwhelming conclusion of most articles is that, not only are we in rapid decline but that the decline is unprecedented and worse than at any time in the recent past.
This tendency to view the past more favourably and the future negatively is called ‘declinism’ and it’s a lot older than people think. Many scholars point to Edward Gibbon’s work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published in 1776, as the origin of the concept, although I imagine classical scholars will point to examples from Roman and Greek times! However, it was Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, published in 1918 that really put the term on the map. Since then, successive waves of declinism have swept through the West – an example being the eclipse of Britain as a naval power led to a prolonged bout of declinism in the UK.
The 20th century has been marked by cyclical episodes of declinism. Each new crisis or period of profound change is accompanied by a plethora of an explosion of publications that heralded the decline of the West. The most recent incarnation of declinism in the West, especially in the US, has resulted from the economic and military rise of China.
If you add to this the forces of change that globalisation has unleashed then perhaps it’s no surprise that many in the West feel that Doomsday is on the horizon. What’s new is that the financial crash of 2008 has meant that the sense of decline that once permeated the west now has a global reach and is popping up in countries like Brazil and across regions like the Middle East.
How True is This?
So, are people in the West and across the world, really living lives that are worse than the past and is there any truth to these claims of it being the worst of times? Providing an answer requires that we interrogate ideas about what people consider are markers of progress. A word of caution is necessary here, as the concept of progress is often conflated with a very Anglo-Saxon version of what constitutes progress. However, that is a debate for another time and place!
To avoid accusations of cultural bias, we can focus on areas such as; health, wealth, rights, education, violence, poverty and it turns out that that social scientists have been collecting data on these areas for a long time. Listing all the data here risks this article becoming a novel but suffice it to say that on all these measures the conclusion is that life now is better than it ever has been. If you don’t want to take my word for it then I can point you to the Ted Talk given by Steven Pinker or the 80 charts at the end of the book Abundance: The Future is Better than you Think by Peter Diamandis, or if you want to be really comprehensive then you can look at the UN’s Statistical Yearbook, now in its 61st edition. What this shows is that whilst there are blips and localised setbacks, the undeniable trend is one of improvement.
If all this data doesn’t convince you then the findings of psychologists should as, despite our seeming inexorable march into the welcoming bosom of Armageddon, the truth of the matter is that declinism can be strongly linked to specific tricks of the mind. This isn’t just my opinion, it’s science.
Why We Believe This
Multiple studies have shown that we have a couple of cognitive biases that play a huge role in how we see the past, present and future. They are called the reminiscence bump and the positivity effect. Most people have pleasant memories and feelings of nostalgia for things that happened when we were adolescents and young adults. For most people, the world seemed to be a brighter, better, more carefree place, especially as we weren’t stressed about bills and jobs. That’s the reminiscence bump. As we age, most older people tend to forget the more negative memories and focus on the positive ones, effectively rewriting our own histories with rose-tinted ink. That’s the positivity effect.
The final factor is that in our day to day lives, we tend to take far more notice of negative outcomes than positive ones – people feel more strongly negative about someone taking a £10 note of them than they feel positive about someone giving them a £10. This makes sense in evolutionary terms as it’s a sensible survival strategy to be aware of things and events that may end up killing you. The people who make the news understand this and that’s why news stories are overwhelmingly negative and this stream of negative stories provides the mood music for declinism. Social media simply turbo chargers this effect.
Real World Effects
The effect of declinism goes deeper than why the news is filled with a stream of negative stories. It influences politics as well and lies behind the recent success of populist politicians around the World. Populism has always played a role in politics but an analysis done for the Guardian shows that one in four Europeans voted for populist parties. Across the World, we have seen Trump, Bolsanaro, Salvini, Duterte, Podemos, Jeremy Corbyn and the list could go on. What both left and right-wing populists have in common is a declinist narrative.
They all claim, to a greater or lesser degree, that that life is worse now and if you don’t follow their programmes the future will be a disaster. In trying to explain the populist wave that has spread through the West (and across the world) arguments are made that it is the losers from Globalisation that tend to gravitate to populist parties. However, research shows that socioeconomic factors have very little effect on why people vote populist. Instead, a belief that the World or society was in decline, was very strongly correlated with voting populist.
On the great issue dividing British politics, namely Brexit, there are some interesting insights to be found in Lord Ashcroft’s polling data, especially on the social attitudes of voters. For instance, the analysis finds that: a small majority of those who voted to remain think that for most children growing up today, life will be better than it was for their parents; leavers think the opposite by 61% to 39%.
Leavers see more threats than opportunities to their standard of living from the way the economy and society are changing, by 71% to 29% – more than twice the margin among remainers. Nearly three quarters (73%) of remainers think life in Britain is better today than it was 30 years ago; a majority (58%) of those who voted to leave say it is worse. What this shows is that declinism lay at the heart of what motivated people to vote leave and the phenomenon is a very real, powerful but often overlooked contributor to the politics of our times.
The Back in 1710 Gottfried Leibniz concluded that ours must be the best of all possible world and whilst that’s going too far, the simple truth is no matter how bad we think life is, we’ve never had it so good.