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Polling Matters
Americans Split on Outlook for U.S. Power
Polling Matters

Americans Split on Outlook for U.S. Power

by V. Lance Tarrance
Americans Split on Outlook for U.S. Power

There has been a political-intellectual debate throughout the past several decades concerning an alleged decline of the U.S. as an unrivaled superpower, a decline that mirrors a familiar cycle in the history of world leaders.

Declinist literature began to appear in recent history when certain intellectuals saw a connection between America's expanded global leadership after World War II and Edward Gibbon's 1780s tome, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The thesis, simply put, is that throughout history countries that took on large economic and military roles eventually faltered. In The Decline of the West (1920s), German historian Oswald Spengler presented a similar case of history consisting of a series of cultures cycling through life stages from birth to death.

More recently, in 1987, Yale historian Paul Kennedy warned of national decline in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. His interpretation of history provoked some fierce rebuttals from many political leaders in the U.S. and re-energized the debate on whether the U.S., as a world power, had become constitutionally outmoded, economically outmatched and militarily overstretched.

Kennedy's central argument was that no society remains permanently ahead of others and that U.S. power will decline when a tipping point of imbalance is reached between military commitments and sustaining economic growth -- a path he contended was already paved.

Americans' Perceptions of Declining U.S. Power

Toward the end of 2018, Gallup updated a relatively long trend asking Americans whether they thought the upcoming year (2019) would be "a year when America will increase its power in the world, or a year when American power will decline." Americans were divided, with 49% choosing each option.

Line graph. Forty-nine percent of Americans say the U.S. will expand the country’s power in 2019.

This latest Gallup update, conducted in early December, was taken at an important point in Donald Trump's presidency -- his administration had been in power for nearly two years and had taken the lead on denuclearizing North Korea, reviewing U.S. obligations under NATO, imposing new sanctions on Russia over its annexation of Crimea and sparring with China over trade policies. Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. military forces from Syria, and reports about doing the same in Afghanistan, came after the poll was conducted.

Gallup has updated the "American power" question intermittently throughout the years, about once per presidency since the late 1990s. The results from the past few decades are less hopeful than what Gallup found in the 1960s. Since 1968, no more than 60% of U.S. adults have predicted that American power would increase in the coming year -- whereas in the early to mid-1960s, between 62% and 84% held this view.

Past American Pessimism on U.S. Power

If there is good news in this trend, it's that recent attitudes are significantly better than the low points recorded in reference to 1974 and 1976, when only 29% and 43%, respectively, felt optimistic about America's global power in the coming year. Those figures may have reflected public dismay following the Watergate scandal and the 1973-1975 recession. The figure also fell below 40% in reference to 2013, taken at the end of 2012 when the federal government was engaged in a budget faceoff known as the "fiscal cliff."

Other historical events that may have generated national self-criticism and thoughts of U.S. global decline include Japan's economic ascendency (1970s) and China's rapid economic development (1990s).

Partisan Politics and Views of U.S. Power

It has been said that perception is "what is thought to be, not what actually is or should be." The debate over America's decline in world affairs may be a new constant in American political culture -- but it may also be related more to perception than fact. For example, perceptions of U.S. decline may be tied to specific events that have created waves of domestic angst, as delineated by Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum in That Used to Be Us (2011).

Friedman believes the U.S. is in its fifth wave of decline due partly to the dysfunctionalism of long-term party polarization and political gridlock. The recent U.S. government shutdown would make his point even stronger.

Recent Gallup trends show that perceptions of American decline are held mainly by the party out of power in the White House, while members of the president's party tend to be much more optimistic. This party gap has widened, being one more example of increased political polarization in the country.

Under Democratic presidents in 1998, 1999 and 2012, Republicans overshadowed Democrats in predicting American power would decline in the coming year. In 2004, 2017 and 2018, all years with Republican presidencies, Democrats were the pessimistic ones. But the partisan gap has been widening so that nearly all Democrats in the past two years have been pessimistic about U.S. power, compared with few Republicans.

Bar graph. Americans’ perceptions of what will happen to U.S. power in the next year, by key groups, from 1998 to 2018.

Bottom Line

Discussion of the eventual decline of the United States as a world superpower has become a recurrent impulse among political elites, and may explain the decline since the 1960s in Americans' optimism that the nation's power would increase in the coming year.

Since then, attitudes have varied in response to the prevailing economic winds and other factors, but always with no more than a slim majority feeling optimistic about the country's position. However, attitudes have also become increasingly partisan in the past two decades, so that perceptions of national strength mainly seem to reflect people's feelings about the party controlling the Oval Office, and not as much careful consideration of whether America is in fact caught up in historical cycles that result in inevitable decline.

V. Lance Tarrance is a Gallup contributor.
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