Professor Jed Esty in the Chicago Tribune
October 25, 2022
The rapid meltdown of former British Prime Minster Liz Truss, who resigned after only 44 days in office and is being succeeded by former Boris Johnson Treasury chief Rishi Sunak, should alarm Americans. She is the supply-side ghost of Christmas future, a long-distance warning from an ex-empire to an aging superpower. If the American mainstream — conservative and liberal — does not pull out of its nostalgic tailspin soon, we will fall prey to the same affliction that has bedeviled the United Kingdom: wealth concentrated at the top and political aspirations concentrated on the past.
Considering the messy exit of Boris Johnson, the fall of Truss and even the royal funeral, it has been easy for Americans to get the wrong idea about the U.K. “Look at Britain,” say the complacent among us. “A Lion in Winter, all failed policies and nostalgic rituals.”
But “aging superpower syndrome” has already begun to fossilize American political culture. We, too, have been clinging to national symbols and economic policies that are shopworn relics of the 1980s. Even though the U.S. is still a top cultural, military and economic power, its position of global dominance has been ebbing for 50 years. Slow economic decline and regressive policymaking have flattened household incomes, driving too many into the arms of “Make America Great Again.”
But decline itself is not the main problem for either the U.S. or the U.K. No country stays on top of the global economy forever. America’s loss of paramount status has been steady, slow, inevitable and noncatastrophic. Becoming No. 2 will not cause Americans to lose prosperity or security. In fact, most U.K. citizens saw their standard of living rise as their nation shed its global empire after 1950. The U.S. can move forward confidently into a multipolar world.
Decline is not the problem. Declinist thinking is, and it brought Truss down. Many commentators have noted that Truss tried to channel the ghost of previous Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, counting on her iconic status to evoke Britain’s Victorian heyday and to stoke the fires of nationalism and free-market fundamentalism. Brexiteers have long banked on a combination of deep nostalgia and financial magic to save the U.K. from a diminished role in the world. No wonder Truss tried to dust off the old mantra: “Look backward and deregulate!”
But fewer commentators have noted that American declinism takes the same form. Declinist thinkers on our side have the same playbook. They tell uneasy voters that American supremacy is a birthright and a destiny — and that to accept the rise of other powers is a failure of the national will. This view underlies the conservative framing of both Republican and Democratic politics today, keeping us hostage to lost national greatness. It governs the mainstream media and tugs at voters older than 50. Most importantly, it keeps the swing vote locked into a default setting that leans right because it looks backward. When Democratic leaders invoke the Cold War version of American greatness, they feed the MAGA beast. True optimism demands an appeal to the American future: We can become a better society without worshipping the doddering and distracting idols of an old global supremacy.
The most dangerous symptom of our “aging superpower syndrome” is not gerontocracy itself — though The New York Times’ Jamelle Bouie has a point in a June column on the subject. It’s the fossilized grip of Cold War thinking on American culture. American politics is still shaped in 2022 by leaders who see 1945-65 as the historical norm for U.S. power and growth.
The politics of toxic nostalgia are not exclusive to the U.K. and the U.S. But the drive to restore imperial glory in Russia, Turkey or China is different. The old Atlantic powers share a distinctive form of backward thinking that weds a failing model of market freedom to the poisonous brew of lost greatness. Here is the vital link between nostalgia and economic policy. Both Trumpism and Trussonomics express a deep-seated yearning not simply for lost power but also for global supremacy freely won and fairly held.
The real loss that U.K. and U.S. elites have not accepted is the loss of paramount status framed in the language of universal freedom. From 1820-2020, the two Atlantic superpowers could project their supremacy as the ultimate expression of democracy and liberty. Apex nations believe in free peoples and free markets when they dominate the playing fields they call level. But massive strategic advantage and state policy made the U.K. and U.S. wealthy. University of London lecturer Kojo Koram has diagnosed this problematic legacy as a British one, but it’s also American. The American peak was presided over by a high-tax, high-control state. The anti-Keynesian prophets of the 1980s were not bringing laissez-faire back; they were inventing a deregulated past that has hobbled the economic present.
Nostalgia grips most tightly when it refers to an ideal that never existed. Imaginary homelands, British American novelist Salman Rushdie called them: their lure is more powerful than reality. Declinists in the U.S. are still yearning for the imaginary homelands of the Camelot of Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy just as declinists in the U.K. keep circling the icons of Victorian crown and empire. On both sides of the Atlantic, declinism is the opioid of elites who fear their own loss of power and privilege.
None of us wants to live in the shadow of lost greatness. Declinism has taught generations of American voters to see the essence of America as supremacy rather than democracy. But here is a historic opportunity. If the U.K. looks broken today, perhaps we can use the angled mirror of its history to change our political culture for the next generation. Leaders can stop promising to restore “what we lost” and start pointing voters to “what we can be.”
Instead of making the U.S. great again, let’s make it good in a way it has never been before.
Jed Esty is the Vartan Gregorian Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. He has written two books on superpower nostalgia, including “The Future of Decline.”