American Values

The Declension Narrative

The sixth post in the Volokh Conspiracy symposium on "Our American Story: The Search for a Shared National Narrative" (ed. by Joshua Claybourn).


Historians are storytellers. And cultural historians often tell stories about stories. That's why writing for this project appealed to me so much.

We're a country with a lot of stories, of course. They're the product of our diverse origins and our large, geographically varied land. We're going to be a brilliant mess forever, I expect.

And what story should I tell in this cacophony? As I thought about the project I'd been invited to write for, I imagined would probably be a lot of familiar and compelling stories that various people would champion for one reason or another—but which one would be mine? And whose story would be the truest?

Well. It wouldn't mine, anyway. I didn't even try to tell a true story. My chapter is about a certain type of false story, but one that we love to tell anyway. It's called the declension narrative. It's a familiar story, and it's always letting us down.

The declension narrative is simple to describe: There was a golden age, but we don't live there anymore. We live in a time of decay and decline, and the process of decline can at best be slowed. It cannot be stopped. The best we can hope for is to hold to the past, no matter what, even as it slips from our grasp. In every way that matters, progress is illusory, at least for us.

Humans have been repeating the declension narrative in one form or another since Hesiod and Homer, with help from Confucius, Plato, and the Buddha. Stories patterned on the declension narrative are everywhere once you start looking for them.

That might be the first clue that something's amiss: Suppose that human beings have innate cognitive biases. What would that look like? We wouldn't be able to recognize that they're wrong, because they're our cognitive biases. They look good to us, that's what makes them effective. Viewed from the inside, our cognitive biases probably look like stories that repeat themselves a lot, stories that turn up everywhere you look for them.

The truth does that too, of course, at least for some kinds of truth. Sorting the one from the other is perhaps for philosophers or psychologists, not historians. Can it really be the case, though, that the whole world has been going to hell since Hesiod? Some have thought so, including everyone from Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Unabomber.

If you've been thinking that the declension narrative only belongs to the other guys, I'm afraid I have some bad news for you. It's all over American culture too. Oddly enough, it's on the political left as well as the political right. I'm a libertarian, and even we've told it more often than we probably should. My chapter is about a familiar story, and it's about why and how to stop telling it.

NEXT: France Takes Aim Against Legal Analytics

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  1. The name could be improved. How about deterioratory?

    1. How about “decline?”

      “The Declension and Fall…” doesn’t have quite the right ring.

      The actual title sounds like the author is going to give us grammar lessons.

  2. It’s not the declension that worries me, or for that matter causes any real problems. The author should be rather more worried about Americans who seek to create a golden age here on earth.

    1. Yes, this. Fear most those who think they know what a future golden age will look like and think they know how to get there.

      1. I, too, and suspicious of religious people.

        1. You should be suspicious of those who seek to make heaven on earth in the religious sense, as much as those who seek to perfect the human condition in the secular sense (usually by trying to change human nature). Don’t be obtuse.

  3. M_K, I hope you’re not mocking Bartholomew’s scheme in Rollerball (1975).

    1. Okay, I had to watch the trailer…looks fun. I have to set aside time to watch the whole thing.

  4. Maybe we just get rid of liberals and then it won’t be hard to have an American story and identity since those who hate America have been given the boot.

    1. And how do you propose to get rid of us, JtD?

      1. With a small “t” that means “time to leave”.

    2. That’s big talk from a guy whose side — backward, intolerant right-wingers — has been getting stomped by America’s better citizens throughout our lifetimes.

      Open wider, clingers. More of this damned progress, shaped against your wishes and efforts, is on the way.

      This is a free country, so guys like Jimmy get to mutter bitterly as much as they wish, and the Conspirators are welcome to continue to try to recruit supporters for the Republican platform of intolerance and stale thinking. Good luck with all of that.

  5. The title led me to believe that the post was concerned with the role of grammatical case in American history. Apparently not.

  6. It is not the narrative that fails us, its the inability to compartmentalize. Sometimes a culture can be in decline even as it prospers off the latent capital it accumulated before.

    I am not sure whether we are in such a time, but dismissing it offhand is foolish.

    The saying goes: “A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit.”

    Yet, Mr. Kuznicki and many others point to an unprecedented amount of shade existing right now as evidence that we need not fret about tending the forest.

    1. This is a good point. Scientifically, and as measured by standards of living, things are grand. Culturally…we are on fumes, as this whole series of posts is evidence of.

      1. Which part(s) of the continuing changes in America — less rural, less intolerant, less white, less religious, less backward — should we regard to be most culturally negative, in your judgment?

      2. How are we culturally “on fumes,” in your opinion?

        I’m old enough to remember the 50’s and 60’s. Why were things culturally better then?

        1. There are several reasons why society is worse off now:

          1) a simple and good idea to treat all races as equal has metastasized into some dangerous and antithetical idea that we must classify by race and other characteristics and make separate policies for people based on some immutable characteristics and some mutable behaviors.

          2) the growth of single parent families has been outright destructive to American families

          3) the inability to prioritize Americans first. This seems to be based on moral relativism. If there are no moral absolutes then saying one thing/action/situation is better than another is treated as heretical.

          4) unsustainable federal spending causing bifurcation between groups: those who have nothing to lose by asking for more from the federal government and those who lose each time the federal government increases spending

          5) this last item applies both now and in the 50s and 60s but it is the cause of s lot of cultural issues: Wickard v. Filburn
          The federal government has had 50+ more years to expand into areas previously inaccessible.

          1. Your first two points are at least arguable.

            The other three don’t really hold water as cultural issues. (Or anything else.)

            Even there, consider #1. The “simple and good idea to treat all races as equal” is hardly a long-standing feature of American culture. It’s quite recent, in fact.

            As for #2, I’d like to see data before coming to any conclusion.

            1. In #1 I’m referring to the civil rights act of the 1960s. A good idea that has morphed into some deranged opposite.

              Wickard v filburn is the reason we have the federal drug war and has resulted in substantial increase in the prison population. Many People have been sent to prison for harmless actions. This has been detrimental to our society.

            2. #3 and #4 are related. Assuming current democrats are acting in good faith, their inability to prioritize Americans first over their desire to let in as many immigrants as possible is causing a cultural schism. Our federal spending is stretched to the breaking point. Instead of getting our financial house in order to help Americans, the immigration at our southern border exacerbates our long term financial security.

              I’m inclined to believe that democrats think unconstrained immigration will help them politically in the future and they don’t care about how that impacts current Americans nor our posterity.

              1. I don’t understand how Wickard led to the drug war, though I do agree with your opinion of that policy.

                I disagree that immigration is having a significant negative effect on the country’s finances. The effect may even be beneficial, as it increases the number of workers and hence funds flowing into the Treasury, SS, and Medicare.

                Nor do I believe there is much evidence suggesting that immigration is overall harmful. Indeed, there is a decent case it is a net benefit. Since we are talking about “culture” here, let’s note that the infusion of new ideas and the (sometimes reluctant) acceptance of new cultural influences has been, more or less, a feature of the US.

                1. Gonzales v. Raich (2005) relied on it to say that, under the commerce clause, congress may criminalize the production and use of homegrown cannabis even if state law allows it.

                  Now the federal war on drugs has been going on longer than that and I don’t remember off hand the various Supreme Court rulings that were used to justify it but the 2005 ruling certainly cemented it.

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