As a third-grader, dressed in colonial clothing, Jed Esty stood with his classmates along an avenue in his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, watching a massive bicentennial parade that included the motorcade of President Gerald Ford, who had taken office after Richard Nixon resigned.
Esty saw thousands of people, from streaking hippies to buttoned-down conservatives, swarm the battlefields of Lexington and Concord, where the Revolutionary War had started 200 years earlier, in protest and in celebration.
“The very idea of America as this experiment in liberty and equality, and as a booming and thriving superpower, was somehow laid over on top of the worries and fears of 1974 and 1975: Watergate, the Vietnam War, the oil crisis. There was a kind of whiplash for me as a result,” says Esty, the Vartan Gregorian Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. “Even as an 8-year-old I could observe that and think ‘Boy, there are really two different narratives about America here.’”
Esty takes on today’s clashing and polarizing narratives about America in his latest book, “The Future of Decline: Anglo-American Culture at its Limits,” published this summer. The book has been featured on The Karen Hunter Show and on the New Books Network “Book of the Day” podcast, the History News Network top 10, and excerpted in both Bookforum and The Baffler. It is slated for translation and publication in China in 2023.
He asks the question, “What does decline mean?” and answers based on decades of research on Great Britain’s decline as it was forced “to learn to be a different country in the world,” going from controlling one-quarter of the world’s land and people in 1910 to becoming a small European nation. “The Future of Decline” is a sequel to his 2004 book, “A Shrinking Island: Modernism and National Culture in England,” he says.
“Simply put, from 1820 to 1920 Britain was the dominant power in the world. From 1920 to 2020 America was the dominant power in the world. Now we have to look from 2020 to the next 100 years, and it is going to be a different story,” he says. “How did Britain handle its phase of contraction on the world stage, and what are the lessons for America from that?”
Discourse about the decline of the United States, he says, is contradictory, pronouncing either “‘We’re always going to be at the top,’ or We’ve fallen from our pedestal.’ Neither is true.”
It is inevitable that the U.S. economy will be eclipsed by China and other nations, he says. “But, most importantly, it’s not a cliff dive for American security, American prosperity, American life, if we become the number-two or number-three-sized economy in the world. The process will continue to be slow, and, in fact, it might be very good,” he says. “The U.S. can move forward while its power wanes.”
American identity as based on pure power—the greatness, the biggest, and the best forever—needs to be phased out, he says.
“We should try to move past superpower nostalgia as quickly as we can, and instead think of American identity in terms of older and more powerful stories – the ideal of creating a more equal, more just, more inclusive, and more sustainable society,” says Esty. “I think the number one new story is emphasizing the need for American goodness rather than American greatness.”
It was Donald Trump’s rise to power and the emergence of what Esty calls “white moral panic about losing ground” that spurred him to finally tackle the subject, almost 50 years after he watched that bicentennial parade. His resulting book “follows an arc from Nixon, when America started questioning itself, to Trump, and the defensive reaction of ‘Make America Great Again,’” Esty says.
“The conservative version of America—that we were better in 1950 than we ever could be in 2050 is wrong,” he says. “And it is the height of nonsense to say America is somehow less itself now than it was in the past. We are not less of an America than we once were. And to let go of superpower nostalgia may give us the chance to restore the values of equality and social mobility.”
Race is an important part of the narrative, he says. “As long as the language of national superiority is the common language of politicians and public figures, there is a hidden payload in that language, and that payload is white supremacy,” he says. “Learning to talk about America as a good society, as a society with a shared purpose, outside of raw global supremacy, is a really important symbolic first step.”
The core idea, he says, is based on generational transfer. “Those narratives that ‘America is the greatest. America is the best,’ those Cold-War, baby boom moral certainties are not only past their expiration date generationally, they’re just not politically, socially, historically useful anymore,” says Esty.
As an English professor who has lived through the roller coaster of the past 50 years in the U.S. while also studying the cultural history of the United Kingdom, Esty says he can bring a particular perspective to the question of decline. His research included an analysis of literature, history, political science, sociology, economics, and popular culture, including media, film, and television.
“My survey of declinist thinking offers the kind of explanation that you do not get when you read economics or political science or most journalistic coverage of America’s fate. It is the kind of cultural history that an English professor can provide,” he says.
“The role of the English professor who comes into this debate is to say we need new symbols, we need new narratives, we need a new way to talk about being American. If the only language you speak is American superpower language, then you’ve lost the capacity to talk rationally and inclusively about your past, present, and future.”
Education, especially at universities, is key to creating that new narrative, he says.
“This moment, our becoming a number-two economic power in the 2020s, brings American students into the conversation about American history in a more global frame: We’re no longer looking through American eyes at the rest of the world but at America through the eyes of the rest of the world,” Esty says.
“As my students would put it, America is not forever the main character. America is one important protagonist in the story of global history—and will be for a long time—but it is not the only protagonist, the sole superpower. That shift in thinking brings a much more realistic charge and a deeply urgent and exciting mission to education in all the 21st century humanities: art, music, literature, philosophy, and history itself. We all have to ask how to make national meaning in an age of economic, political, and geological limits.”