Is America in Decline?

Bust of Emperor Augustus wearing the Corona Ci...
Our Future?

No says Daniel W. Drezner in Foreign Policy and Robert Kagan at The New Republic. Both articles are well worth reading. I am inclined to agree with both these men. We do have many problems, but Americans have always been adept at overcoming crises and the fundamentals of the American economy are still very strong. America is the leading power in the world, without any real competitors and seems likely to continue in that role for some time to come. I am not afraid that America will cease to be a superpower, or that some other nation will surpass us. My fears for my country are quite different.

If I were to explain it in terms of Roman history, (which I really shouldn’t since modern America and ancient Rome are very different nations and societies, still), I would say that I do not believe we are living around 400 AD, with the barbarians crossing the border and preparing to sack Rome. Rather, I would say that we are around 130 BC. This was the beginning of a long period of political unrest and civil war that ultimately destroyed the Roman Republic and established the autocracy we know as the Roman Empire.

The causes and events associated with the breakdown of the Republic are rather complicated and I won’t relate them here. The one development that is worth mentioning, however, is that about this time Roman politicians ceased to follow the rules. More and more they began to operate outside the unwritten Roman constitution, even to the point of building their own armies. More and more, the ruling elite of Rome was less interested in the good of the nation and more concerned with maintaining their own wealth and power.

At that time Rome was master of all the lands on the Mediterranean. Although the empire had not yet reached its furthest extent, Rome was a superpower with no competitor.Unfortunately, the Roman rise to power had destroyed the small farmers who had been the backbone of the Republic. The longer wars meant that they had to neglect their lands and many went into debt and lost their land. Beginning with the Gracchus brothers, many politicians tried to enact policies to help the poor, either because they were sincerely  interested in helping them, or they hoped to use them to gain power. The Senate refused to consider any real reforms, so the populist leaders began to work around them, sometimes in ways that were unconstitutional. In response, the elite began to use unconstitutional means, including murder, to maintain their power. Eventually the Republic was wracked by civil war until Augustus Caesar took power and became the first Emperor.

Rome was still a Republic, in theory. They still had elections and Augustus pretended to pay attention to the Senate, but he ruled over everything and everyone knew it. By that time, however, the Romans didn’t mind losing their freedom. They were just happy the wars were over

I think you see where I am going with this. The thing that causes me the most anxiety is the increasing lawlessness of our political elite. When we have a President who simply ignores the constitution or a Speaker of the House who simply laughs at the idea that the Constitution might not allow something like Obamacare, I begin to sense we are on the same trajectory ancient Rome was on. It seems to me that our leaders are no longer willing to follow the rules.

It may be, decades from now, or sooner that America will be ruled by a Caesar. We will still have elections. Congress will still meet and pretend to pass legislation. But everything will be under the control of Caesar and everyone will know it. America will probably still be a superpower a century from now. I am not sure it will still be the kind of country I would want to live in.

%d bloggers like this: