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Edward J. Watts: Dissecting the Rhetoric of Decline

Thomas Cole’s “The Course of Empire: Destruction”

But one of the dangers is it’s very easy when there is change that makes someone uncomfortable to immediately say that this is a society that’s in decline and to blame somebody for causing it.”

On July 19th, Merion West’s Johanna Leo spoke with Edward J. Watts, who holds a Ph.D. in History from Yale University and is currently a professor in the University of California, San Diego’s Department of History. In this interview, Dr. Watts discusses his latest book, The Eternal Decline and Fall of Rome, which is to be released next month by Oxford University Press. In The Eternal Decline and Fall of Rome, Dr. Watts describes and analyzes the idea of decline and renewal, both in ancient Rome and throughout time. He also closely dissects the political rhetoric that has prevailed when these phenomena have presented themselves. In this discussion, Dr. Watts and Ms. Leo discuss the political and social consequences that can result from this rhetoric, the relevance of narratives about decline and renewal in current American politics, and how to properly address decline when it, in fact, might exist. 

First off, thank you for joining me for this interview, Dr. Watts. In your book, you—like the title says—explore the decline and the fall of Rome, as well as how this pattern has played out throughout history. It is a good starting point for analyzing the ideas of decline and renewal throughout time and the rhetoric that can accompany them. You set up this premise from the beginning—for example, when you talk about how a prosperous society defends and repairs itself and how, “These responses, renewals, and restorations need not be destructive.” So I wanted to ask you to talk more about this idea.

I think that it’s important to understand that decline and deterioration are real. In Roman history, historians actually struggle with how much of that they want to acknowledge. But I think we have to acknowledge that it is real: Societies do sometimes get worse. What’s important is to understand, first of all, how real that decline is. And then, second, to understand why it’s happening. One of the immediate reactions I think that people have is a sort of negative reaction to change; just because something is different doesn’t mean it’s worse, but it’s possible to describe change as decline simply because you see it as something that’s different. And what I think we see—when a society is functioning well—is there’s a really careful analysis of what kind of change is happening, an assessment of whether that change is positive or negative, and what implications it has. 

If the change does look like it’s having negative implications, then a society can come together and come to a consensus that something bad is happening, and something needs to be done to fix it. If that can be done collectively, then you have the entire society coming together, reinforcing the bonds that make everybody part of a community—or make everybody part of a country or a nation—and then collectively working to fix a problem that they all acknowledge is real. But one of the dangers is it’s very easy when there is change that makes someone uncomfortable to immediately say that this is a society that’s in decline and to blame somebody for causing it. The step of blaming somebody undoes all of that work of building social cohesion and all of that work of creating a collaborative national project. Instead, what you get is a nation that doesn’t come together, but, rather, it separates. The most dangerous part of that is, when it separates, individuals start blaming and trying to punish other members of their community for causing what they see as a fundamentally negative decline or change.

In fact, you go through this and how polarizing it can be in the book. As you said, it should be something that brings people together instead of dividing them. And with this rhetoric, that’s the whole danger, right? So, I want to talk about some other interviews you’ve done about your book, especially because I want to focus on a figure. In those interviews, you’ve discussed former President Donald Trump, his rhetoric suggesting that America is in decline, and his proposed remedies for it. So, in this post-Trump era, insofar as that exists, who else indulges in this type of framing? Are both sides, Democrats and Republicans, equally to blame?

I think that we’re at a very interesting moment because it strikes me that President Biden is trying very hard to create the conversation of national reconciliation and create the conversation of people coming together to acknowledge the reality of very significant problems, especially in the aftermath of the pandemic. There are a lot of people on the Right who are pushing back against this. Instead of working together to collaboratively address these problems, they are trying to separate out solutions to these problems as Democratic solutions as opposed to American or collective solutions. 

Some of that is the natural way that politics work, but I think some of it is verging into a territory where it’s becoming difficult to acknowledge that we have a common project. Instead, what we’re getting is an effort to divide people and blame them for individual problems. And I think we are seeing this primarily on the Right, but we’re seeing some of it now emerging on the Left as well, especially with the most recent news about vaccine hesitancy and the explosion of COVID cases in places that are relatively under-vaccinated. We’re seeing now, on the Left, a kind of blaming of people on the Right for causing that problem. So I think both sides are engaging in this. But because Biden is really trying hard to push this project of national reconciliation and national cohesion, you’re getting a lot more of the high-profile pushback coming from the Right.

When I was thinking about this, it also reminded me of when you analyze how this rhetoric tends to rely a lot on emotion rather than facts. And I think that a lot of the rhetoric concerns issues that provoke strong emotions in people, whether it be higher taxation, unemployment, or other things that have more of a personal relationship with people. So I want to ask if you agree with that. Do you think politicians employing this type of rhetoric appeal to these issues because they could provoke a stronger emotional reaction, rather than maybe because they’re important facts for renewal?

I think you’re right: It’s all about emotion. I’ll give a good example that actually is from the 120s B.C. So, what was happening in Rome in the 120s B.C. is there was a large influx of people into the city of Rome, and there were inadequate resources to provide them with food. There was a politician named Gaius Gracchus who introduced a set of reforms to try to provide resources to the Roman citizens in the city of Rome. But he realized that a lot of the people in the city of Rome were actually not Roman citizens; they were citizens of other Italian cities. He wanted to be sure that everybody in the city had access to these resources, this food supply, and these other things that would make it possible for them to survive. 

Some people opposed this idea because it would cost too much. But the way they framed this opposition was interesting: They framed it as an anti-immigrant move. They said, in essence, that Roman citizens deserve to have special privileges that non-citizens do not. The Roman State, for hundreds of years, had a principle of extending citizenship pretty liberally. This was until the 120s, when politicians who were opposed to Gaius Gracchus started capitalizing on the discomfort that Romans felt about extending rights and privileges to people who weren’t Romans. And they actually—for the first time in Roman history—did a round-up of people who didn’t have Roman citizenship, who were living in the city of Rome, and they expelled them from the city. 

So they were working very clearly in that moment not on a rational assessment of the consequences of their actions or the problems that were facing Rome. Instead, they were acting on emotion. And they were making promises to Roman citizens who felt uncomfortable because their standard of living was not at the level they would like, and they were struggling to survive. Instead of solving the problems of those Roman citizens, they blamed other people and affirmed the sense that some Roman citizens had that they belonged to something that was valuable and needed to be protected. So there, the rhetoric of decline is not responding to any problem at all. It’s instead a completely emotional appeal made for very cynical reasons as part of a political game, a political gambit.

I think that was a very good example, especially because I think it also ties back to this narrative you have in the book about blaming external forces in this type of rhetoric. I actually have a question about that. You point out several moments throughout Roman history where leaders might have blamed external forces to fuel their narrative and get support, such as when Augustus blamed external factors for the Empire’s decline. So I was thinking about globalization because since then, the world has become more globalized and interconnected. In turn, external forces are not just neighboring countries or previous governments but anywhere basically. So I want to ask: What role do you think globalization has played in the contemporary version of this rhetoric, including when it comes to politicians who cite that as a contributing factor for American decline? 

I think it’s a really wonderful question, and I particularly like that question because I think with globalization, you have something that’s so big and abstract. It’s so big that you can’t actually assess what the consequences are, so it allows you to blame just about any kind of problem on this big, nebulous, ill-defined force. And that gives lots and lots and lots of opportunities for politicians—and other sorts of leaders, thought leaders—to basically offer an explanation that allows people to understand why they feel discomfort, why they’re uncomfortable with the kind of change they’re seeing. It is almost so big that it’s impossible to analyze. It’s so ill-defined what globalization actually means in practice and how it affects every individual that you can almost use it to explain anything that’s bothering you. And this is something that I think Roman historians see quite frequently. 

In some of these Roman examples where you have causes of discomfort that are so abstract, you can’t actually figure out what it is beyond what every individual wants it to be. Romans frequently attribute struggles in their society to moral decline, but moral decline means whatever you want it to mean. And I think this is a way of maybe considering globalization and how globalization is being used by our political leaders. Because globalization can mean, basically, whatever you want it to mean. If you’re uncomfortable about something, this is an explanation that a political leader can introduce, and it’s very hard to argue against it because you don’t actually know what they’re talking about.

Now that you’re talking about this, I’m thinking: Would you say that how abstract it is makes it really good fodder for particularly emotional rhetoric because one can’t define it per se?

I think that that’s exactly right. It’s something that keys in emotion. It’s not a fact or a set of facts, so it’s something that you respond to as a concept, more than as a reality. And I think that we see in Roman history. This is something that politicians understand very well and is probably the most powerful way of using a conception of decline. If people around them just feel like something isn’t right, they feel like the world is changing, and they’re not comfortable with those changes, it’s a lot easier to get them to embrace a radical position. [This is especially true] if you use an abstraction that they already feel badly about, or they already feel uncomfortable about. 

Roman politicians do this very, very frequently. In the Christian period, they use heresy as this explanation. “It’s all happening because we’ve become overwhelmed by heretics who have taken us away from the right path of God.” Well, what is a heretic, and what does heresy mean? That’s something that’s more abstract to people. They know they don’t like heretics in, say, the second century A.D., but they don’t really know what that means in practice. So it’s a very convenient way for emperors or politicians who are failing in their jobs to provide an explanation and come up with an alternative set of people who can be blamed for the problems.

I like that you pointed out that chapter because I found it particularly interesting. It’s using what is happening, like the Christian revolution, to create this rhetoric. So, I want to refocus specifically on the decline narrative. From many parts of the political spectrum as we’ve talked about earlier, people do argue that the United States is in decline, and they cite competition from China, spiraling debt, and income inequality, as well as projections of diminished economic growth. What do you say to those who hold this view?

I would say that the challenge right now, with so much change going on, and especially with a pandemic that’s disrupted everything, it’s very hard for us to know where we really are. It’s very hard for us to know where the United States’ standing in the world is; it’s very hard for us to know what our country is going to look like when the pandemic is over; it’s very hard for us to know how we’re going to be interacting with each other, how comfortable we’re going to be feeling, and how our society is going to be functioning more generally when the pandemic ends. And this is, I think, one of the other great lessons of Roman history. 

Rome was hit by a number of pandemics that were much worse than what we went through. The most prominent were pandemics in the 170s and 180s A.D. when smallpox hit the Mediterranean for the first time and probably killed ten to 20% of the Roman population. It took them almost a generation to get to the point where they were able to really come back and assess where they were and what needed to be done in response to this. But the emperor who led them during the pandemic made a very strong effort to emphasize cohesion in society. This is the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. 

We have his writings, where he talks about how, as a ruler, he went through a series of mental checklists to try to be sure that what he was doing actually was creating positive results. So we talked about how he would look at the people around him, and he would see what they are capable of doing. He wouldn’t focus on what they couldn’t do, but he would focus on what they could do and assign them tasks that would make it possible for them to make society better, and he would praise them for doing those tasks right. If they failed in doing something, he wouldn’t criticize them; he would just reassign them to something that they could do better. 

His whole effort in the middle of all of this was to say, “We are going to rebuild our society, but we’re going to do it in a way that affirms all of the things that people can do well—and not focus on the things that they can’t do.” So when we have people writing in the 200s who lived through this, they talk about how the pandemic was terrible. But what Marcus did to rebuild Roman society was actually so positive that Rome emerged from this better off than it had been before. But I think in the middle of the pandemic, it would be very hard for Rome to know that that was the outcome they were going to get. And so I think that’s why, at this moment, there are lots of indicators that we can look at and say: This might not be a trend that ends well for us. But in a sense, we’re still in the middle of all kinds of things that are shaping and reshaping the way that we are going to behave, the way we’re going to work, the way we’re going to socialize, the way we’re going to worship, and the way that we’re going to have political discussions. And it’s hard, I think, to know in the middle what the end is going to look like. 

I think that’s the great challenge. We don’t want to prematurely say that we’re in decline when we’re in the middle of a process whose outcome we can’t tell. But we also don’t want to ignore the fact that there might actually be fundamental changes that are not good. And the challenge that we have, given so much uncertainty and so much change happening all at once, is when we can very comfortably say, “Yes, this change has happened. It’s real, it’s enduring, and it’s not good. And we need to do something to fix it.” I don’t think it’s now. But I think you put your finger on a lot of things that we need to keep an eye on when we emerge from the pandemic to see whether those changes that we’ve watched unfold in the last year and a half are durable and real, or whether those changes are just the product of so much uncertainty unfolding all at once.

So this leads me to my final question. You talked at the beginning about how decline is real and can, of course, happen. What would you say is the best way then for well-meaning politicians to address decline without falling into these “rhetoric traps,” if we might call them that, of using it to advance themselves and their own interests?

I think that this is the key question. We don’t want to ignore that some change is bad. We don’t want to refuse to acknowledge problems in our society because we’re scared that people might be blamed for causing them. But I think the path that politicians need to take is a path in which they acknowledge problems that are real and then propose solutions that look forward to solving those problems—not backward to blaming the people who might have been responsible for causing them. This is, in essence, the Marcus Aurelius way. You don’t look at what people failed to do that caused the problem; you look at what they can do in the future to solve that problem. 

So I think when a society realizes that there are changes that really are negative—not emotionally negative but that really are negative—societies need to step back and say, “Who can help us fix this, and what can they do?” Let’s not ask them to do too much, and let’s not blame them for what they failed to do in the past. Rather, let’s come up with a way where even people who might have been responsible for creating the conditions that led to an undesirable outcome might still have something to offer in the future. Figure out how you put them to work to fix the problems that the society is encountering. And this, I think, is the lesson that we can take from Roman history: There is a way to be clear-eyed about the problems facing the world and still come up with ways to address those problems in a way that reinforces all that’s good about your community, your country, your nation, or your world. 

The skilled politician is the person who is willing to put his or her career on the line by solving those problems and not by advancing themselves by blaming other people, victimizing other people, and capitalizing on negative emotion. Instead, they hope that the approach they’re taking to solve the problems will generate positive emotion. And they’ll get votes because they did a good job—not because people are upset with the other side that they are running against.

Thank you for your time for this interview and, of course, for the copy of the book. I appreciate it.

Thank you. I really appreciate it too, and it was great to talk to you.

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