This is not an original thought; I don’t know if it comes from Gibbons’ “Decline and Fall…” or from Shirer’s “Rise and Fall …” but somewhere I have read that the seeds of the empire’s fall were sown in its beginnings. And so it is here. The Founding Fathers almost certainly did not envision the America we have today. Oddly enough, I think Alexis de Tocqueville did when he wrote (and I paraphrase here) that America is what happens when peasants are allowed to own land. De Tocqueville understood that, as much as he admired the American pioneering spirit he saw so much of in 1835, the “power of the people” came from a people — peasants — steeped in religious superstition, and that the factions and divisions among those superstitions were as deep as they had been in Europe. He also understood that, for all of its piety, the peasant mind is primarily interested in creature comfort and personal safety. While the old European ruling classes may have been cosseted in luxury, it was a luxury they felt they’d earned by their willingness to sacrifice their safety and personal comfort in war for the good of the commonweal and by shouldering the burden of noblesse oblige. Never mind that they sacrificed many a peasant’s life along the way as well; the fact was, the ruling class ruled because it held the interests of the empire above those of the individual.
Empires fall because they rot from the inside. An empire exists in the first place in order to attain supremacy, to become first among nations, greatest among peoples. This is the story of civilization; it is the very story of humanity. And once supremacy is achieved, once the empire arrives at its golden age, there is no one left to conquer or exploit, its imperialism becomes useless and the empire falters and begins to topple. Outside forces cause an empire to collapse because the things that made it the world’s greatest power — the strife and struggle of constant growth and conquest –disappear once the empire achieves utter dominance. Once the empire passes its golden age, it expends all of its energy on trying to return to that golden age. Roman emperors kept trying to return to the Cesarean age; Britain kept trying to return to the Victorian age. But each imagined that age as something other than what it actually was.
That’s what’s happening in the United States now. In our case, the seeds that will grow into our own destruction are the belief in equality to the point of utter egalitarianism, a belief that if peasants could own land, peasants could rule the land. From this came the myth that anyone could be president. While it’s obviously true that anyone can become president, we have never realized that not everyone can be president. We Americans, we peasants in landowner clothing, have convinced ourselves that we know what is best for us, that we don’t need leaders who are smarter than we are, and that the “politician class” has led us astray by kowtowing to some ill-defined “special interest.” Because we have never evolved a true aristocracy, our home-grown ruling class — the incredibly wealthy oligarchs and the satraps who do their bidding — continue to inherit the peasant mindset and so the power which their wealth buys them is bent solely to preserving their own golden ages. Unlike a true aristocracy, they do not value the empire for its own sake; they lack a sense of noblesse oblige, and they care for the good of the empire only insofar as the empire can continue to enrich them.
The rest of the peasants have surmised that something is wrong but have no clue exactly what or how it got that way, and so a sort of quiet peasant revolt is under way. The political class cannot be trusted; we think we want leaders who have our best interests — not the nation’s, but our individual best interests — at heart. Having enjoyed the fruits of our super power, we are unwilling to return to the sacrifice and struggle that gained us those fruits. We have convinced ourselves that we are a peace-loving nation when, in fact, there is nothing peaceful about our origination, formation, growth, and rise to absolute power.
Now a populist leader is promising to return us to a golden age that did not exist as we collectively remember it. This causes divisions as different factions remember the past differently and so, instead of struggling against a common enemy, begin to struggle against each other to achieve an impossible happiness. Because they are in the minority, the intellectual classes — those who actually could lead the country forward, not backward — are marginalized as being too smart for their own or anybody else’s good. Because they speak of reason and cause and effect, and because they offer complex, difficult solutions to complex, difficult problems, they are suspected of chicanery and manipulation and conspiracy, and are not to be trusted. Because the peasants haven’t been through the education process, they distrust everyone who has been because they don’t understand it. The naturally superstitious peasant mind thus ascribes to the educated, intellectual mind some mysterious, conspiratorial power that must be overthrown.
That is the process in which we now find ourselves. As we strive among ourselves, some wanting to return to a badly-remembered, half-imagined golden age and some wanting to move forward into a golden age not yet realized, outside forces are bringing pressure to bear. The very weight of the world rests upon us, as it once did up on Rome and again upon Britain, and as we gut ourselves with infighting, that weight begins to collapse us.