by John J. Tierney, Jr.  |  March 14, 2019  |  ARTICLES

At the end of his long-running talk show, the late John McLaughlin would ask the panel for "predictions." They would then offer insights on the latest political gossip regarding personalities or upcoming events. Often they were wrong, but nobody kept score; it was entertainment.

McLaughlin's panel, made up of columnists and "public intellectuals," reflects the problem involving prediction of things to come. They were usually the result of guesswork or "insider" information. It surely was not "science."

Perhaps the closest thing to scientific prediction is the weather. Each night, a trained "weatherman" predicts tomorrow's climate. But even these experts are famously wrong. On any given night, channel 4 might say, rain, channel 7, snow, and 9 "sunny skies." The public takes this for granted.

These specialists are often dead wrong, but we still depend on them. While predicting tomorrow's climate is precarious in itself, the so-called "environmentalists" have no doubt as to what the climate will be 100 years from now, or 50, or 12. Predictions can be inherently illogical (and "science" can be wrong). 

Probably history's most famous predictor was the French 16th century physician and astrologer, Nostradamus, whose "Prophesies" contain over 900 "quatrains," or predictions of the future, including wars and invasions, natural disasters and, ultimately, the end of the world. His methods, never explained, were considered mystical and intuitive, but have long-since been dismissed by most serious historians.

But, on occasion, predictions regarding future human behavior have been made that, on the surface, seem to have been divinely inspired rather than scientific. Another Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, made this observation on the "Russians and the Anglo Americans" in 1832: "each one of them seems called by a secret design of Providence to hold in its hands the destinies of half the world."

Tocqueville counselled demographics for this prediction, but did he have any insight into the twentieth century's Cold War, the world wars, the Great Depression, or any other event of the future? Of course not. He may have had some evidence based upon populations, but the rest had to be only guesswork.

As a field of inquiry, is prediction much else? History itself, the most "scientific" of inquiries, based upon observation, collection, and painstaking research, is still being debated as we speak. If things that happened are denied and contested, how can things that never happened be accepted?

That doesn't mean that we don't try. Almost everybody does, all the time. Example (fictitious): Joan and Harry just got married. One friend says, "it'll never work;" another says "made in heaven." Where's the science (in heaven)?

The fate of civilization is frequently predicted. The latest is the "decline" of some or the other nation or world order. By definition, it is always the "West." It cannot be either North, South, or East; one must "rise" before one can "decline."

The German historian/philosopher Oswald Spengler began modern "declinism" with his two-volume Decline of the West (1923). In Spengler's view, Western civilization would not end as a sudden catastrophe but rather a "protracted" fall, a "twilight" or "sunset."   Spengler's word for the West, Abenland, is German for "evening land."

The British historian Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975) published a definitive ten-volume history of the rise and decline of civilizations, A Study of History, defining the fall of societies through a "challenge-response" scenario in which a minority rises to the top only to fall prey to forces from within ("suicide"). Both Spengler and Toynbee, while not without dissenters, have provided platforms for whole generations of historians to make predictions on the inevitable/probable downfall of their own or current world orders.

The following list, while certainly not exhaustive, will suffice to appreciate the range and extent of the predictors of Western decline (each theme in parentheses):

James Burnham, Suicide of the West, 1964, (liberalism will end Western dominance),

Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, 1987, ("imperial overstretch" has produced the decline of history's great powers),

Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, 1996, (Western dominance will give-way to the rise of civilizations throughout the world),

Carroll Quigley, The Evolution of Civilizations, 1961, (Americans will "cop out of the system [and] ultimately prefer communities"),

Jeremy Griffith, Freedom: The End of the Human Condition, 2016, (humanity can end the "human condition" only by understanding its biological/psychological roots),

Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, 1927, (considered the West headed for total war, consumed by nihilism, a "wasteland, characterized by ignorance and barbarism. In which everything is permitted."),

Whittaker Chambers, Witness, 1952, (considered the West to be in a Spenglerian "twilight" in which Communism is a symptom rather than a cause).

More recently, it has become fashionable to predict the rise of Eastern culture, especially China, as a replacement of the West in the next world order. No timetable is given, no scenario, almost total conjecture, as though "it's time." A new book by Cambridge professor J.C. Sharman Empires of the Weak (2018) revives ancient history to demonstrate the point. Since, he reasons, Western dominance was comparatively short-lived compared to Eastern cultures, it should be inevitable that the cycle will eventually bend again eastward.

A bolder, more insistent, theory was recently presented by British Marxist/historian Martin Jacques, When China Rules the World, 2009. Here, he predicts that "in time" the sheer economic, technological, population, and cultural impact of China will be able to govern the entire globe, from Sweden to Indonesia to Nebraska, to Paris.

That's a tall order, never even close in world history. The closest was the British Empire, governing at its height about one-fifth of the globe.

Are Americans worried about all this? Doubtful. Any society whose attention was dominated by the behavior of a Supreme Court nominee when he was 17 doesn't appear concerned about world order. Any president who declared that U.S. foreign policy would "lead from behind" has a similar worldview (parochial).

But will America be "great again"? Not when the governor of a leading state replies that it "was never that great" anyway.

As for predictions, there is one certainty: "that remains to be seen."