Most studies of decline assume decline is an objective reality and declinism is the result of actual decline. Decline will become a political concern, it is presumed, when decline is actually happening. Empirically, however, this is not the case. One can observe narratives of decline when there is little or no observed decline, or vice versa, where decline is occurring and yet concern over decline is hard to find. I argue that, counter to the conventional wisdom, decline becomes an issue in the domestic politics of great powers for reasons that are not associated with international decline.
My dissertation follows from this underlying puzzle and asks two questions. My first question asks: why does declinism emerge in great powers, and why is it often seemingly independent of actual decline? I argue that the emergence of declinism rests on three key elements. First, declinism is more likely to emerge from the opposition. Second, declinism is more likely to emerge from political outsiders during periods in which there is a (real or perceived) consensus between major political parties on issues related to the economy and the nation’s place in the world. Declinism emerges as a result of the political desire to undo the status quo. Third and finally, in order for declinism to emerge and have staying power, it needs to resonate. I argue that declinism is most likely to emerge—and stick—when the large segments of the population’s subjective wellbeing is lower than the recent past.
Second, I ask: what are the consequences of declinism? In other words, why do narratives of decline matter? To answer this question, I trace the policy consequences of declinist narratives over time in each of my cases. The consequences of declinism, according to popular accounts, vary greatly. For example, declinism can lead to hasty policy choices that are counterproductive to national security. Others, however, have observed that declinism has served a galvanizing function for the United States.
My dissertation uses a mixed methods approach including the use of content and text analysis methods and archival research.
To date, I have conducted archival research in the Labour Party Archives (Manchester), the National Archives (Kew), and the Conservative Party Archives (Oxford).