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Julian Fisher   Photojournalist

Faded Glory: The Decline of American Exceptionalism

American Flag in front of brick buildings

The United States has long viewed itself as inherently different from other nations, with a uniquely positive role to play on the world stage.The American Revolution brought forth a new nation, a dramatically new political body based on liberty, equality, individual responsibility and laissez-faire economics.Its special mission, developing over time, was to advance principles of freedom.

Barely a half century later, in the course of his travels around the United States in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville applied, for the first time, the term “exceptional” as representative of the American character and mission.

Henry Luce’s famous Life Magazine editorial in February 1941 encouraged the country’s entry into World War II. He asserted America’s emerging leadership role in the world, the beginning of an American Century, an epoch of greatness, promoting democracy to the world.

Nearly a half century later, that clarity of American exceptionalism began to obscure itself on the geopolitical horizon. Paul Kennedy foresaw presciently in his 1987 book The Rise and Fall of Great Powers that America would enter a period of long-term relative decline, as other world powers arose and new political and economic forces emerged.

America never considered itself an empire. It did appear, however, as a world power above all other world powers. No empire throughout history has been able to resist eventual decline. The Persian empire (4 empires in succession) lasted 1400 years, the Roman lasted 1000 years, the Ottoman persisted for 600 years and the British for barely 500. In that vein, Andrew Bacevich called America’s trajectory of greatness the “short American century,” one that lasted barely 40 years.

Countries that survive over many centuries do so by riding the tides of history - by adjusting their political and economic systems to meet evolving challenges. Stephen Kinzer expressed alarm in 2020 writing in the Boston Globe that the United States was failing to maintain that flexibility, resulting in a decline of American exceptionalism.

Over the recent decades, nearly every high-income country has seen its citizens become richer and enjoy substantially longer lifespans. The United States has moved instead in the opposite direction, as the New York Times has reported. Even as average incomes rose, much of the economic gains went to the affluent, advancing income inequality. Life expectancy has suffered as well, rising only three years since 1990. No other developed country has suffered such a stark slowdown in lifespans.

Faded Glory presents metaphorical photographs that reflect the many issues integral now to American society, with a gradual decline in its exceptionalism. In their subtlety and pervasiveness, these images serve as a call to awareness and action, not to rebuild an empire or recover world power supremacy but to build a better, stronger and more enduring democracy for all of its citizens.

Measures of Decline

The year 1980 signaled important changes for America, for its citizens as well as for the nation as a political entity. It marked a dramatic change in income inequality, when incomes flattened and aspirational goals for the middle class – housing, transportation, education and healthcare – began to rise in cost. The challenge to the middle class, how to maintain what they had achieved and come to expect, arose just as many measures of American exceptionalism came under threat.

Books such as Amy Chua’s Day of Empire: End of the American Empire (2007), Andrew Bacevich’s Twilight of the American Century (2018), Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s American Amnesia (2016) and Steven Brill’s Tailspin (2018) surveilled these changes, documenting cracks in the system. In so many ways, they called into question the concept of greatness inherent in Henry Luce’s 1941 declaration of the advent of the American Century.

Increasing failures in today’s America of what had been an upward trajectory are apparent everywhere and for all to see:

  • collapsing infrastructure, from roadways and bridges to water supply,

  • aging and failing mass transit systems,

  • growing healthcare expenses with decreasing health outcomes,

  • struggling, underperforming educational systems at all levels

  • changing industrial base, traditional manufacturing yielding to knowledge industries

  • increasing appearance of foreign brands and foreign companies

  • growing food insecurity

  • increasing poverty rate and income inequality

  • diminishing affordable housing options

  • growing environmental stresses

  • a surging national deficit

This is the America that we confront now, moving into the third decade of the Twenty-First Century, a country facing profound challenges and serious question marks. This is what Faded Glory attempts to highlight, that we may look for effective solutions.

updated: 9 months ago