The following is an excerpt from E.J. Dionne’s recently published book, Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent.
Fear of decline is one of the oldest American impulses. It speaks, oddly, to our confidence that we occupy a lofty position in history and among nations: we always assume we are in a place from which we can decline. It’s why there is a vast literature on “American exceptionalism” and why we think of ourselves as “a city on a hill,” “the first new nation,” “a beacon to the world,” and “a light among nations.”
When they arise, our declinist sentiments usually have specific sources in economic or foreign policy travails. These apprehensions quickly lead to bouts of soul-searching that go beyond concrete problems to abstract and even spiritual worries about the nation’s values and moral purposes. When we feel we are in decline, we sense that we have lost our balance. We argue about what history teaches us—and usually disagree about what history actually says. We conclude that behind every crisis related to economics and the global distribution of power lurks a crisis of the soul.
Because of this, gifted politicians from Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy to Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama have been able to transform national anxieties into narratives of hope: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” “Get the country moving again.” “Let’s make America great again.” “Change we can believe in.”