I’m thinking the 2016 presidential race will tell us a lot on that front.
Empires expand, become unsustainable, then die. The United States will not be an exception. Some will say I’m trashing my country. I’d say I’m just recognizing reality.
The most recent book I’ve read on this subject is Time No Longer, by Patrick L. Smith. Smith explains that the American century extended from 1898, when we invaded the Philippines, to 2001, when the World Trade Center was attacked. In Smith’s view, an empire operates under a myth (think, American exceptionalism), until it collides with history. At that point, the empire can recalibrate, in which case the decline will be relatively painless, or it can attempt in vain to perpetuate the myth, in which case the decline tends to be far more ugly for the populace.
Britain is the example usually given of the first form of decline. Rome is an example of the second.
Seems like America is looking more like Rome. Britain’s decline was attributable to it depleting itself in two wars. It was on the winning side of both, but they took their toll. At the same time, a newer, stronger power, America, became the world’s leading superpower. It was a natural transition for Britain to allow America to take the lead. Even for Britain, leaving the myth behind was not immediate. The process was not complete until the 1950’s, despite the inevitability of Britain’s decline being there for all to see at the end of World War II.
America will not take that path. Its military might is unchallenged, and will be for some time. In that sense, it is a modern-day Rome.
The parallels don’t end there. Remember the gluttons of Rome? They used their power to gorge themselves with food and drink, occasionally vomiting to make room for more. Today’s gluttons are America’s super-rich, acquiring wealth, as Edward Moore put it, “beyond the dreams of avarice.” Although the super-rich do not all gorge themselves on food and drink, many do on consumption of other forms. Their conspicuous consumption has been reported ad nauseum. Is a million dollar birthday bash any different from a 6,000 calorie day?
How things ultimately will unfold is sheer speculation. Still, I wonder. Are Al Qaeda and ISIS the modern day Huns and Visigoths? Is the game of whack-a-mole America is playing today similar to the one the Romans played long, long ago?
Which brings us back to Patrick Smith. Will America recognize the myth for what it is and, in doing so, accept its role in history? Or will America act as if the 20th Century never ended? So far, the answer is obvious. Here’s Smith in his latest Salon piece, Rudy Guliani’s dangerous game: Jeb Bush, patriotic lies, and the truth about American exceptionalism:
“I do not believe that the president loves America. He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country…. With all our flaws, we’re the most exceptional country in the world.”
That is Rudy Giuliani, New York’s former mayor…
“America does not have the luxury of withdrawing from the world. Our security, our prosperity and our values demand that we remain engaged and involved in often distant places. We have no reason to apologize for our leadership and our interest in serving the cause of global security, global peace and human freedom.”
And here is President Obama, introducing his administration’s 2015 National Security Strategy, an annual announcement as to how America’s defense and foreign policy cliques intend to get us through the year:
“Any successful strategy to ensure the safety of the American people and advance our national security interests must begin with an undeniable truth—America must lead. Strong and sustained American leadership is essential to a rules-based international order that promotes global security and prosperity as well as the dignity and human rights of all peoples. The question is never whether America should lead, but how we lead.”
There it is, readers. You have your lumpen rightists, who have acquired more power than seemed possible a few years ago but still face the knotty problem of stupidity. You have your mainstream rightists, polished and clever, intent on staying the expansionist course and persuading us it is best for all. …
And you have your neoliberals, ever dressing up the rightists’ agenda as the progressive thing to pursue. This, the Williams-Sonoma crowd, is possessed of an egregious righteousness. They are the heirs of the Cold War liberals, those gutless many who assumed whatever shape necessary to avoid confronting American paranoia, reaction and aggression, usually out of sheer self-interest.
The myth in America is alive as it ever was. Will the 2016 Presidential race alter that reality, or lock it more firmly in place? I know my bet.
Long live Rome!