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Julian Fisher   Photojournalist

Faded Glory: the Decline in 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 dramatically new nation, a political entity based on liberty, equality, individual responsibility and laissez-faire economics. Its stated mission, evolving in ebbs and flows over time, was to advance principles of freedom and democracy within its borders and far beyond.

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

Nearly a century after that, in a Life Magazine editorial, Henry Luce asserted America’s emerging leadership role in the world, calling it the beginning of an American Century, an epoch of greatness, promoting democracy to the world.  His real purpose (in February 1941) was, however, to bring the country into the World War, before Pearl Harbor mandated it.

The year 1980 signaled important changes for America, for its citizens as well as for the nation.  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.

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

Later books, 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 growing 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.

While America never called itself an empire, it considered itself 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 timed from Luce’s declaration to be the “short American century,” one that lasted barely 40 years.

Countries that survive over many centuries do so by riding the tides of history, adjusting their political and economic systems to meet evolving challenges.  Stephen Kinzer expressed alarm in the Boston Globe (2020) that the United States was failing to maintain that flexibility, and with it a resultant 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 by so many measures, as reports and statistics have demonstrated.  Even as average incomes rose, much of the economic gains went to the affluent, furthering 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.

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

And here are some of the measures of decline that historians, economists, sociologists, political scientists, journalists and many Americans have come appreciate and express concern about:  

  • 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
  • Diminishing affordable housing options
  • Increasing income inequality with resulting in greater poverty
  • Growing environmental stresses
  • A surging national deficit

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

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.

Julian Fisher