Fallen before it ever came to be.
By Melinda Barton
The American Empire. Pax Americana. The fervent dream of the ruling party. The nightmare of its opponents. Today’s political discourse is rife with tales of this mythical beast rising from the back rooms of Washington to wreak havoc on the unsuspecting citizens of the world.
Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately,) we just don’t have what it takes to become the latest empire. In the meantime, as we pursue the right wing’s pipe dream, American hegemony, the more benevolent albeit weaker younger brother of empire, is spiraling to its destruction. The American Empire is falling before it has even truly risen.
I blame it on the state of history education in this country. We’ve all heard the cliché, “Those who don’t learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.” How much truer must this be for those who don’t learn it at all? Or who ignore it altogether because they believe that our nation’s uniqueness protects us from the march of history?
Remember your own history classes? The rote memorization of names and dates. The patriotic mythology that filled the pages of your textbooks. The tremendous gaps in the relation of events where the “unimportant” people simply weren’t mentioned, where the history of our nation seemed the sole creation of a group of wealthy white men?
Remember how you were taught that America was completely unique in the annals of human history and therefore, somehow, completely disconnected and safe from the trends that ravaged the rest of the world? It was all wrong.
History is very much about trends. You can change the names and dates as much as you want, but the bigger pictures won’t change very much. To truly understand how events will unfold, you need only find the connections to the common threads that continue unbroken through time and space.
Follow the threads and you’ll see how the “American Empire” is doomed to extinction even now, as it makes its first tentative steps into the world. If our ruling class had learned the lessons of the Roman Empire, the one whose propaganda we so readily mimic for our own purposes, they’d give up now and save our nation and our world from this disastrous enterprise.
The Roman Empire. Pax Romana. What can we learn from the inspiration for our attempt to bring about peace and freedom through American rule? Just this. We don’t have what it takes. The Romans began from a position of unprecedented strength and a unified people dedicated to society’s values. For all the patriotic ramblings of our rulers, we don’t have that anymore. The Roman Empire began its fall where we attempt to begin a rise to power. So, why did they fall? And why won’t we rise?
The decline of morals and values: The Roman Empire lost its strength when Roman values gave way to pleasure and treasure. Lavish parties, gladiatorial contests, violence, and other forms of immorality chipped away at the unifying values that kept the Roman Legion and thus the empire strong. Our own pursuit of pleasure and treasure is doing the same.
Lavish parties, reality TV, violence, and the abandonment of democratic values are leading us to destruction. For nearly two centuries, American individualism was balanced by the communal commitment to the construction of an ever more just nation through democratic processes.
We voted and protested our way to greater freedom for all. Even those with no freedom to vote participated through the power of their voices. For the last few decades, however, the ruling elite has entertained and bull****ted us into submission. We have abandoned political discourse, building a taboo around “talking politics” lest someone’s feelings get hurt or an actual debate arises.
Consequently, the American people now know less about the important political topics of our country than citizens of foreign nations and participating through protest is viewed as “un-American.”
Political Corruption: Rome’s system for choosing an emperor was rather democratic at first with the outgoing emperor, the Senate, the Praetorian guard, and the army coming together to choose the new ruler. Over time, the Praetorian Guard took complete control of the selection process and the highest bidder became emperor.
Our forefathers so distrusted the “mob” that they instituted the Electoral College to limit the powers of the people. Under this system, no less than three men have lost the vote but gained the presidency. Lately, however, the Electoral College has become less a threat to democracy than campaign finance. With election campaigns become ever more expensive, those with the most money have an ever-growing role in determining the winners and losers of the political shell game. Whoever spends the most money wins.
With the exception of billionaires like Ross Perot, candidates must raise money from outside sources and thus become beholden to special interests and corporate powers at the cost of the common welfare. Access to the halls of power has become far too expensive for even the somewhat wealthy private citizens. Thus, a small group determines which candidates we’ll have the chance to vote for in any election and our emperor…ahem…president is generally the highest bidder.
Public health: The rampant spread of disease through Roman territories due to overcrowding and unsanitary conditions decimated that empire’s population. America is far more advanced in its knowledge of public health concerns and our ability to control, to some extent, the spread of disease. We have doctors that don’t use leaches, medicines that usually aren’t poisonous, and high tech hospitals that would have been the stuff of science fiction just a few decades ago.
While the spread of communicable disease is not what it was, a variety of factors have contributed to a decline in the health of the average American: pollution; obesity; limited or non-existent access to preventative medicine due to cost-saving measures on the part of HMO’s and insurance companies; lack of access to preventative medicine due to lack of health insurance; the absence of early stage treatments due to some of the same factors; a serious dearth of public education about health realities due to religious influence on governmental policies.
Despite spending more money on health care than any other nation, our citizens are far less healthy than those in other industrialized nations. Illness, according to some studies, costs the United States billions of dollars per year in lost wages and decreased productivity. We need no study to imagine the human costs.
It’s the economy, stupid!: Unemployment, inflation, and the trade deficit felled the great Romans. Surely, we’re in no better position than they were. President George W. Bush was the first ever American president to show a net loss of jobs during his first term in office. Those jobs that are being created are generally low wage positions in the service industries.
Outsourcing of manufacturing has led to greater unemployment and underemployment as well as a monstrous trade deficit that places our economy at the mercy of foreign powers. Outsourcing of jobs that require skilled labor and successful competition from countries like India and China has led to an economy where skilled and highly educated workers make up an ever-greater percentage of the long-term unemployed. The “strong” American economy is a smoke and mirrors ploy. The “strong” American dollar is but a memory.
Military spending: Maintaining military might in the face of “recruitment” problems required that Rome hire outside fighting forces and draw resources from other necessary projects. Maintaining or building our own has and will do the same. Half of our tax dollars going to military expenditures limits our abilities to adjust to new necessities or shore up old ones. Public education, social programs like welfare and social security, and infrastructure maintenance are already feeling the bite.
The military’s inability to recruit new personnel and retain current troops, as well as growing protests from reservists and recalled service members will push us to rely more heavily on the fighting forces of our allies.Unfortunately, few of our allies have the desire or the sheer number of troops that would be needed for an American empire to take shape. Only reinstating the draft would get us the manpower we need for empire, but that act would bring about the dangers of civil unrest.
So, we just don’t have what it takes to be an empire. As it is, American hegemony is quickly becoming the victim of foreign progress and unpopular American policies. Our allies are distancing themselves from us politically and are far less ready to support our every move. Developing nations are threatening the strength of the American economy by the fair competition and marketplace values we insisted they embrace.
As they progress, we’ll face ever-greater competition for the resources we need to maintain economic strength. Thus, we’ll lose much of the power and influence our economy has provided. The sleeping tiger of our military might is beginning to look a bit more like an aggressive alley cat. Although we’re fortunate enough to have no military enemies on our borders, foreign military adventures will surely become less feasible in the future. The desire for an American Empire will only worsen the situation and ultimately, destroy what is left of our unprecedented strength in the world.
We just don’t have what it takes. Let’s hope the powers that be get the message before we, like Rome, become the power that was.