In the post–World War II years of American might, it is hard to find a sustained period when America was not fretting about its status in the world and its ongoing or potential decline. That includes those golden years apotheosized in Coming Apart, That Used to Be Us, and The Andy Griffith Show, when rising affluence and the Cold War ostensibly unified the country around core values. It’s not just Mad Men that has exposed the romantic view of the fifties and early sixties as a golden age to be something of a sham. In her revisionist 2008 excavation of that period, Inventing the “American Way,” the historian Wendy Wall shows how America’s mid-century political and business Establishments were sufficiently frightened about the prospect of disunity that together they manufactured an American consensus and sold it as a brand, the American Way.
The American Way was promoted in every medium available, from billboards to Superman comics. One representative stunt in 1947 was the Freedom Train, a red-white-and-blue locomotive christened the Spirit of 1776 and charged with barnstorming the nation to exhibit a bounty of historic and patriotic documents. The project was promoted by Harry Truman’s attorney general, Tom Clark, financed by major corporations, and packaged by movie and advertising executives. The mission was to demonstrate to one and all that America “was unified, consensual and inclusive”—or, in other words, a nation adhering to “the vital center,” a term that would be coined by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in 1949. The launch was celebrated in Philadelphia to capitalize on the 160th anniversary of the Constitutional Convention, with an Independence Hall jamboree of patriotic songs and speeches broadcast on NBC. But though the train would chug on for sixteen months, it was nearly thrown off-track by one dispute after another. Some of the exhibition documents—including copies of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and of William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper The Liberator—were dumped. The Gettysburg Address survived the cut, but by being paired with an 1865 address by Robert E. Lee. Attempts to permit white and black viewers in the South to mix freely were met with resistance, with the consequence that at a few stops, the Emancipation Proclamation was exhibited to segregated audiences. Even the choice of “freedom” as a rubric was a carefully considered avoidance of the more contentious “democracy.”
A decade later, just as Mayberry was being readied for prime time, fears of decline were ratcheting up further. Bipartisan panels of elite leaders convened by the Rockefeller brothers in the late fifties—ranging from liberal stalwarts like Adolf Berle and John Gardner to conservative grandees like Henry Luce and Henry Kissinger—published their collected findings in a 1961 report titled Prospect for America. “The number and the depth of the problems we face suggests that the very life of our free society may be at stake” was the opening sentence. This history has been either forgotten—or willfully blocked out—to such an extent that a period marked by rising civil-rights conflict is now routinely trotted out by some 2012 declinists as a Platonic baseline of American unity, centrism, and fairness against which today’s America can be found so sorely wanting. That nostalgia for what never was tells us more about the roots of the current declinist panic than any of the pie charts and graphs used to track America’s present statistical erosion.
In decoding that panic, our fixation on American exceptionalism, or the depletion of same, is an invaluable tool. Exceptionalism is actually something new in the usual declinist mix. As a 2010 Washington Post examination of the craze noted, until recently the term had been “rarely heard outside the confines of think tanks, opinion journals, and university history departments.” A blogger for The Atlantic who did the requisite number-crunching found that the locution “exceptionalism” had been used by national publications only 457 times between 1980 and 2000, and 2,558 times in the following decade. But “since 2010, it’s gone viral, leaping into print and online publications roughly 4,172 times” as of March of this year.
The moment when American exceptionalism was pushed into the fray—or, more accurately, jumped the shark—can be traced to the final months of the 2008 presidential campaign. Its champion was Sarah Palin. She first embraced the concept at a rally in Nevada that September, speaking of how “we are an exceptional nation” and telling her fans, “You are all exceptional Americans.” There’s nothing objectionable about that, but a month later she was recasting her definition of exceptionalism to expressly quarantine Obama from the American mainstream. In October, as she took to accusing him of “palling around with terrorists who would target their own country,” she went on to say (of Obama, not Bill Ayers): “This is not a man who sees America like you and I see America. We see America as a force of good in this world. We see America as a force for exceptionalism.”