Conservative author and pundit Jonah Goldberg recently reminded us that “even Rome wasn’t burnt in a day.” He was talking about the United States. And what he sees as our country’s decline.
Sven Henrich was even more pointed:
If you ever wanted to understand how the all powerful Roman empire ended up destroying itself, just watch the news in 2017.
More recently, James Traub authored an article in Foreign Policy titled “The United States of America Is Decadent and Depraved,” wherein he observed that:
Decadence is usually understood as an irreversible condition — the last stage before collapse. … But as American decadence is distinctive, perhaps America’s fate may be, too.
At the close of the year, in an interview with Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Chris Hedges, Ralph Nader delivered a stinging critique of the current state of America, in a column titled The Visionless Society.
I don’t know if America is in decline. But I have to admit: it feels like Messrs. Goldberg, Henrich, Traub and Nader could be right.
Mainly, I feel this way because of 11 specific factors. For starters, it’s because we have a political system that is thoroughly corrupt. It’s true that the overall system in less corrupt than in many countries; however, it is no less corrupt at the top, where it matters the most. Legislators and members of Congress are bought and paid for (by and large, in a manner they have defined to be legal, of course), and nothing is being done about it. In fact, it’s gotten worse. And now they’re acting with a brazenness unseen in my lifetime. They’re acting as if they’ll never be held accountable, and it looks like they won’t.
Second, a large percentage of our citizenry believes things that aren’t true. Many of my fellow citizens live in a filter bubble, believing things that aren’t true simply because they read or hear them on Facebook, Fox, cable or radio talk shows, in church or whatever other bubble in which they choose to live. As Elon Musk recently wrote, “[It’s] so strange that people often believe things inversely proportionate to the evidence.” Strange indeed. But it happens. And it’s gotten worse. Much worse. Consequently, public policies are being adversely affected; social divisions are deepening; gross inequities are growing; and social stability is being threatened. It’s hard to think a democracy can be sustained when so many of its citizens are delusional.
Third, we have been spending well beyond our means, and it’s getting worse (e.g., the deficit-funded tax cuts that were recently enacted). Our mountainous debt is unsustainable. For this and other reasons, the U.S. dollar is likely to lose its status as the world’s reserve currency, which will have major repercussions for our economy and standard of living.
Fourth, we have become a hyper-individualistic and selfish society in which ethical norms have eroded. Today in America, it’s all about money (what we call “success”). And we’ve adjusted our ethical norms accordingly. I used to be amazed at what “good” people were willing to do and rationalize in their pursuit of the almighty dollar or shareholder value (same thing). I’m no longer surprised. I fear James Traub is right when he says, “We think anyone who doesn’t pursue self-interest is a fool.” When such thoughts dominate, it’s hard to be hopeful.
Fifth, we have become hyper-partisan and hyper-ideological and no longer seem capable of working together to solve our problems. We have become dogmatic. Irrational. Ideological. We demonize each other. We now even find it to be acceptable to use the tax code in a vindictive manner to punish those who did not vote for the president or Republicans who control Congress. We seemingly lack the capacity to foresee the consequences of our actions. And many of us don’t hesitate to lie if the lie supports our cause. Many others defend the liars without hesitation. Moreover, we’re being subjected to mass behavioral modification via the internet that, while not always nefarious in intent, serve to cluster us into groups that oppose each other and nurture mob and pack perceptions and behaviors.
Sixth, corporations and the financial sector are now in firm control. There is only one thing the people who run most corporations or work on Wall Street care about, and it isn’t our collective well being. Government has abdicated and ceded control to corporations and Wall Street and their quest to make as much money off of us as possible. America thinks government is inherently bad and corporations are inherently good. Such views expose a culture of utter cluelessness; America is seemingly oblivious to the risks associated with the path it has taken — risks that are likely to yield a financial collapse or civil strife and political upheaval. Indeed, our decision to tolerate a financial and corporate oligarchy may well spur the end of the American experiment.
Seventh, our constitution has potentially fatal flaws. In recent years, two presidents who failed to garner the most votes — that is, two candidates who came in second — won thanks to the Electoral College. Moreover, there is something wrong with a system that gives Wyoming and California the same number of senators. The continued suppression of the will of the majority will put an ever-increasing strain on the system and likely will have long-term repercussions. And they won’t be good.
Eighth, we are losing our middle class. I don’t see how democracy survives without a middle class, yet we don’t seem to be taking the threat seriously. The internet, web and computers are playing a major role here, which may be one of the reasons we’re not reacting. Too many of us simply don’t understand the issues much less the steps necessary to deal with these new challenges. In any case, if current trends continue, then it’s easy to a nation of haves and have-nots, rich and poor. That’s an entirely different kind of America.
Ninth, tribalism and autocratic rule are becoming more acceptable to a larger number of people, not only in the U.S., but also throughout the world. These forces, if unchecked, will not tolerate liberal democracies or a world that resembles the one in which prior generations in the U.S. experienced.
Tenth, the U.S has lost its moral authority. We have nearly destroyed our international reputation and moral authority by our arrogance, acts of desperation (to prop up the empire and the dollar) and, now under Trump, our bullying and threats to long-standing allies. Others may fear us, but fewer and fewer look up to us, and for good reason. To many of us, our government has become an embarrassment.
Finally, humankind now has the capacity to destroy itself. A nuclear or biological holocaust is imaginable. To make matters worse, we now have leaders (including our own child-king) who joke and brag about it. All is takes is one mistake. One misjudgment. One irreversible act.
For these reasons and others, I understand Messrs. Goldberg, Henrich and Traub’s concerns. And I recognize there is ample reason to believe they’re right. Nonetheless, I’m not prepared to predict the demise of the America’s privileged status in the world or to assume it’s necessarily the case our democracy and standard of living will further erode, principally because 1) I know how bad humans are at making predictions and 2) I know that other nations face major problems as well. After all, everything is relative (i.e., the competition is weak).
I’m also unwilling to buy into the Rome is burning thesis because I recognize some of the dynamic forces in the U.S. that simply aren’t present in other cultures (at least not to the same degree). There is still a lot right with America. There is still much goodness, ingenuity and courage here. And an extraordinary amount of freedom for the individual as well as the collective enterprise.
America has proved to be an incredibly innovative, productive and resilient culture. In the final analysis, America’s mix of individual freedom and innovative culture is a strength that is hard to match. Stated differently, America seems well suited to excel in the era of capitalism. Unless an alternative system ascends, it’s not clear to me there is any competitor on the global stage who’s ready yet to take its place.
Yet, will it be enough? Or is it just a bunch of wishful thinking? Has the die been cast? Is our decline inevitable for some or all of the reasons noted above, or reasons that aren’t even on my radar screen?
For now, it appears the baton of world leadership — or at least leadership of the Pacific Rim — is being passed to China, a transition that is being facilitated and accelerated by the presidency of Donald Trump (aka God’s gift to the Communist Party of China). Unfortunately, more often than not such transitions end up in war (in my opinion, war with China or Russia, or both, is more likely than not). It also results in the the hastened decline of the incumbent (in this case, the U.S.). It takes wisdom to avoid such a fate, something America seems to have little of these days.
So what if America is in permanent decline? I suppose it depends on a couple of factors. First, how fast is the decline (i.e., will we even be around for the worst of it)? Second, what are the implications of the decline?
Part of me wants you to understand that you and your family should always take precedence over a contrived tribal allegiance defined by arbitrary national political boundaries, especially when tribal values and culture have gone off the rails. In other words, you have a choice, including deciding to leave for a better place. If there is one. There can be no guarantee there will be. And I’m not suggesting that would be the best decision in any event. That would be for you to decide.
The other part of me thinks we have to do whatever it takes to make it better. That it’s our responsibility to make this work. That flight or withdraw is not an option. Yet I am reminded of the words of Jaron Lanier, who wondered why his parents hadn’t fled the Nazis earlier — why they had stayed so long. He believed it was because his parents thought there was a limit to how low people could sink. They learned there wasn’t. They were fortunate to escape with their lives.
I can’t imagine it could ever get that bad again, or that bad here, but I also realize it could. And I realize there is no limit to how low people can sink. Be careful never to believe otherwise. Such thoughts are self-delusional. And potentially deadly. Fortunately, there also is no limit to how high people can rise.
In conclusion, I don’t know where our country is headed — whether our best days are ahead of us, or behind us. No one knows. No one can. All I know is, it’s our responsibility to make it work. It’s only if we persist in failing to meet that responsibility shall our fate be that of Rome.