I often wonder what will happen to the United States. When you’re in the moment, with information whizzing by at a dizzying rate but with little or no analysis, it’s impossible to imagine what it all means in the long run. I don’t mean in a year, or with the next presidential election, but the long, long run.
Here is my imagined opening chapter of a history text a century from now, when experts in the future take a dispassionate look at our nation’s fate:
Historians have posited many theories about the causes of the decline of the United States after a three-century reign as the foremost global power. Only Rome held sway for a longer time.
Interestingly, the eventual degradation of the two, Rome and America, share some similarities in the processes at work that led to their respective decays.
Although historians may bicker about issues that contributed to the decline of the American civilization, there is now generally growing consensus that 10 primary factors were in play concurrently and over a lengthy period of time:
1. America’s ability to project military power throughout the world slowly ebbed as costs increased beyond its capability to sustain the manpower and equipment necessary to maintain a worldwide presence of both a defensive and offensive nature. This was probably America’s salient commonality with Rome’s experience.
2. As America’s economy became more sophisticated and prosperous, it also contained the germs of its own deterioration through eventual onerous taxes needed to sustain a worldwide military presence and an unsustainable public welfare infrastructure. As Rome’s treasury was eventually depleted by the same two increasing needs of a military and welfare system, so too was it with the United States.
3. The system under which the United States was founded, a delicate balance between a national government and state governments, deteriorated when the national government slowly garnered more and more power, upending that balance. This caused the population to feel a greater distance, alienation and disconnection with those who governed them. Cohesion and cooperation broke down.
4. Although never threatened militarily on any substantial level by rival nations, the ascendency of China and India as both military and economic behemoths gave rise to those two nations wrestling away America’s sway in the world. (More on the wars between China and India in a later chapter.) America’s cultural significance remained formidable, but its ability to exert diplomatic, commercial and military pressure in that half of the world grew to relative insignificance.
5. The United States suffered from what historians now call the “tribalization” of the nation into what is clear now were four distinct regions, each with its own cultural and political identities which battled for ascendency in the country. A long series of inept and corrupt political leaders exploited these differences to generate votes, widening the fissures.
6. For two centuries, only two political parties held sway politically, but eventually other parties came into play that rivaled them, a reflection of the fracturing of the body politic.
7: The great strength of the United States was its development and nurturing of a middle class, for two centuries the largest, most powerful section of society, the source of its tax revenue and the men and women who peopled its military forces. Gradually an income bifurcation split the country into those who had great wealth — a small minority, and those who didn’t — an ever-growing majority. This chasm between the “haves” and the “have-nots” exacerbated political divisions and led to systemic unrest.
8: An aging of its infrastructure. As with its inability to sustain the massive costs for a global military presence and a significant public welfare system, the building of new infrastructure lagged far behind because of finite funds. Consequently, the quality of life deteriorated because the delivery of goods and services degraded.
9: Natural disasters played a factor, too, including an increase in sea level, necessitating formidable expenditures to retrofit ports along its two lengthy coasts.
10: Although hotly debated by historians, Americans lost a spirit of cohesion, a notion that they were destined for greatness, a “myth” that sustained them for more than two centuries, but which sputtered out.
No nation, no empire, has outlasted the seven centuries of Rome. The United States came close, amazing and spectacular in its achievements, but it was not to last forever.