Stories of Decline, Stasis, and Progress

Peter Levine asks, “Why do we feel compelled to argue from decline?” in areas where objective measures suggest progress or growth:

You can care deeply about public education, civic education, teenagers’ behavior, or–if you must–gun rights, but there is no basis for arguing that these things are worse than they used to be. I am pretty sure that the argument from decline (argumentum ad declivem?) is a harmful fallacy … although I am not saying that it has become more common of late.

I think this is related to general problems with narratives and persuasion, but at the same time there’s something uniquely self-contradictory about decline arguments. In general, decline stories appear to act like narrative “stubs” or snowclones that short-circuit critical appraisal: the story helps us suspend our disbelief, priming us to expect a certain kind of Protestant framework where renewed effort can restore the lost Golden Age.

Perhaps, too, such narratives help to combat complacency. For instance, runners are taught to push hardest as the finish approaches, and we might look at various kinds of homeostatic cognitive phenomena like risk compensation (the Peltzmann effect) or hedonic adaptation. “We are winning: redouble your efforts!” isn’t quite so motivational as the cornered rats’ refrain: “We fight or we die!”

Levine resolutely refuses to conclude that this is a recent phenomenon (and it’s clearly not.) But if it were, then we might look for historical events that make such narratives particularly resonant. Might not fears of the loss of American empire, in the midst of economic turmoil, produce a general malaise that spills over into areas that are not similarly turbulent? Similarly, these stories might simply be particularly popular as the Baby Boomers reach retirement, since their economic and political ascendancy pressures our entire culture to dream nostalgically of their youth. Certainly I don’t hear many decline fables from the Millennial generation… yet.

Then, too, progress may appear as changes from the status quo that we cannot recognize as progress: civic knowledge skills are flat, but convention indicators of civic engagement and communal trust are down. This may be due to new forms of participation and new solidarities supplanting the older forms, which disrupts our indexes and measurements. Yet online social networks produce different ties than neighborhood associations. So is this progress, stasis, or decline?

Different metrics tell different stories. While Levine is obviously right that per-pupil spending in public education is much higher, outcomes are stagnating. We’re spending much more per student but those students are performing at almost the same level they did when spending was six times lower. At the same time, we educate a much larger group of immigrants and deal with many kinds of developmental disabilities that we once ignored or institutionalized. Is this progress, stasis, or decline?

The NRA’s complaint that gun ownership rights are eroding is the most absurd of these: a transparent effort to preserve motivation in the wake of a string of victories. But are they wrong to notice that the majority of Americans want stricter gun control laws and worry what that bodes for the future of their signature issue? I worry that a similar majority of Americans prefer to let religious employers opt-out of the insuring birth control, even though as a whole the Affordable Care Act is a major victory for women’s rights.

So is that progress, stasis, or decline? I recently learned that Mao didn’t think it was too early to judge the French Revolution: that was a different Chinese premier, speaking of the student movements in Paris in 1968 only three years earlier. Yet some stories are too good to give up on the basis of mere facts, so I echo Mao when I say: it’s too soon to tell.

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