The idea that society was hurtling downhill really gained steamed after World War I, which was ... understandable, but not exactly harmless. See, around this time, German philosopher Oswald Spengler published a well-received and massively influential book called The Decline Of The West, which stated that such a fall could only be stopped by an "all-powerful executive." One with a silly mustache, preferably. The Nazis were big fans, is what we're saying.
This pessimistic "Everything's going to hell" worldview persisted after the World Wars, not only in ravaged Europe but also in triumphant, baby-booming (read: everyone got laid) America. But we only stopped worrying about German supremacy for about 15 minutes before creeping anxiety about communism set in. We knew Russia had nukes, but that wasn't what hit America's insecurities the worst. No, it was their space rockets.
In 1960, JFK exploited those insecurities by drumming up a panic about a (wholly made up) "missile gap" between Russia and the U.S. -- a tactic Ronald Reagan blatantly copied in 1980. As the Soviets fizzled out, experts started hyping up Japan as the next world leader that would totally unseat us. Then it was the European Union, then China. Since the 1950s, America has never gone more than a decade without feeling like this is it, we had a good run, the end's around the corner. Now it's Guatemala or something's turn to be top dog.
Today, the feeling that things are getting worse than ever is ... uh, getting worse than ever. A 2016 Wall Street Journal poll found that, despite having it better than anyone else in history by almost every metric, 73 percent of American voters believed the country was not on the right path. Why is this happening? We don't really know. Some commentators have linked the growing pessimism to the fact that more Americans suffer from depression than ever, but it's possible that there's just more awareness of the condition (we used to call it "being in a mood," and the cure was punching a horse). Another theory involves the reminiscence bump -- our tendency to think that the world in general was way better back when we were younger, cuter, and our parents paid for everything.