The American empire is in decline—and we’re not ready for what comes next

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

The condition of crisis has become so familiar in our politics, we forget what crisis really is and what it can do to us. Crippling polarization, climate catastrophe, military overreach, moral degeneracy—these and other threats to the American juggernaut are real. Are we ready for our crises to finally catch up to us?

This is a very un-American question, but it is a reasonable one. Every empire comes and goes, even fabulously wealthy ones with armies stationed all over the world, even ones whose language and pop culture has become a universal tongue, that hold such dominion and then demand of themselves even more greatness. Every period of alleged greatness is also a precursor to decline.

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Recall the most shocking political lesson that Jesus taught his Jewish followers, who craved liberation from foreign rule: Rather than being a revolutionary leader, he died on a cross. Rather than bringing the troubled Roman Empire renewed glory, Christianity helped usher in its collapse.

What if our political culture were to ask not just how we will cling to some version of greatness but how this country will enter its eventual post-great future?

This lesson is the social version of that medieval reminder, memento mori—remember that you will die. And from such remembering comes ars moriendi, the art of dying. At a time of plague and brutal wars, when decline was the general condition, handbooks spread across Europe for how a person can make the best of death, through the example and guidance of Christ. They instructed not just patients but their families and loved ones. The art of dying is not just personal; it is social.

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Is there an art of dying for empires, too? What if our political culture were to ask not just how we will cling to some version of greatness or be even greater, but how this country will enter its eventual post-great future? Will we go down with guns blazing and nukes bursting, burning the planet to a crisp and locking ourselves in behind impenetrable walls? Or will America’s decline bring about a more peaceful and equitable world, where more people can have opportunity and voice regardless of where they are born?

This is an unspeakable subject for our politicians, whose profession requires bowing to the idolatry of our greatness. Their range of motion extends only from whether America is already great or should be great again. But we can read between the lines to notice who among them is and is not able to imagine a universe not eternally subject to American might. Do they have a theory of graceful decline?

The work of ars moriendi requires a humility and self-giving that American politics is not presently capable of—and never has been, I suspect.

So far, the Democratic presidential nominees have been asked little about their foreign policy visions. This should change since presidents have more power over war and peace than any domestic legislation. For his part, President Trump has danced a perplexing dance with decline—withdrawing troops from the most sensitive conflicts while escalating military spending and testing out several new conflict opportunities, like with Iran and China. He seems to enjoy living in a tinderbox, while President Obama and Hillary Clinton preferred more calculated forms of world domination through secret drone strikes and sweeping trade pacts.

Decline is not only pertinent abroad, however. We tolerate our crises of poverty and inequality on the assumption that with the next round of greatness there will be riches enough to drown them. A memento mori culture would have no such dream to suffer toward; it would accept that the present abundance might be all we get and take on the hard questions of how to distribute that abundance more equitably. Rather than forestalling basic justice until greatness, what if we were to let ourselves experience more justice now?

I wonder what a politics would look like that could tolerate discussing the inevitability of decline. What would politicians say if we had a debate on what should follow the Pax Americana? What would their constituents expect them to say? Like the Iroquois Confederacy, what if our Constitution required that leaders plan for seven generations after our own?

The work of ars moriendi requires a humility and self-giving that American politics is not presently capable of—and never has been, I suspect. But that does not have to stop us from trying to practice the art of dying, in politics as well as in our lives. Can we help bring about a world that has grown out of the need for a superpower? Do we trust God to reign or only ourselves?

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Todd Witherell
1 month ago

Your servant here has been told
To say it clear, to say it cold
It’s over; it ain’t goin’ any further
Now the Wheels of Heaven stop
You feel the Devil’s riding crop
Get ready for the future:

It is murder.

When they said repent, repent,
repent

I wonder what they meant?

- Leonard Cohen

rose-ellen caminer
1 month ago

"Destroy another fetus now, we don't like children anyhow,"...

Laura Gonzalez
3 weeks 5 days ago

No, we don't. We allow them to wallow in detention centers. We hand them over to strangers with no thought to their safety. We don't care of children have no access to healthcare. We don't care if they go to bed hungry. We don't care if poor mothers don't have access to pre-natal care. If we actually cared about kids, we'd make sure they were well taken care of, had healthcare, full bellies and not use the excuse that they're their parents' responsibility. If we don't care what happens to them after birth, why care if they're aborted?

JR Cosgrove
1 month ago

Are we in the beginning of a civil war? It is interesting to look at the finger pointing as who is causing this potential war and how they misrepresent what the other side is doing. Remember the very insightful quote without origin,

People Sleep Peacefully in Their Beds at Night Only Because Rough Men Stand Ready to Do Violence on Their Behalf

What happens when the police/military are no longer there?

JR Cosgrove
1 month ago

Decline is a choice. Two decades into the unipolar world that came about with the fall of the Soviet Union, America is in the position of deciding whether to abdicate or retain its dominance. Decline—or continued ascendancy—is in our hands. Charles Krauthammer - 2009

rose-ellen caminer
1 month ago

Though we are polarized, I do not believe another civil war is coming. We are not polarized along geographical lines. We live in mixed environments . Politically mixed.And Red states people don't all align the same politically, and neither do blue states people. I know of no Republican who sees Democrats as real enemies that they want to go to war against or vice versa. For all the rhetoric and polarization, the pervasive issue now hinges on whether Trump should be impeached and removed from office.That is one person and one impeachment. I don't know what all my neighbor's views are politically. I do know they are not my enemies, whatever their political beliefs. A mixture of political beliefs pervade America, so how could there be a civil war? Who is really your enemy ? Who would you fight ?Your next door neighbor who today you greet amiably every morning, and partake of the buildings garden party with ever summer, because they are of another party?There are no boundaries, whether geographic or political.[IMO]

JR Cosgrove
1 month ago

There are open discussions of this in a lot of places with an analysis of the prerequisites for a civil war. At present we meet several of these prerequisites. The first civil war was the revolutionary war where neighbor was against neighbor and father against son took place. So there is a precedent. I am not sure most people would be happy if Trump is removed without real reason. So far none exists.

rose-ellen caminer
1 month ago

The revolutionary war was clear cut; for remaining or for seceding As was the civil war.What is a clear cut demarcation today?

JR Cosgrove
1 month ago

Same issues. Who is in control of our nation? Adhere to the constitution or replace it with something else. Freedom vs subservience to an authoritarian government or foreign entity?

JR Cosgrove
1 month ago

I personally have been maintaining for several years that the country is over, long before Trump was even a thought. The reason is that religion is dwindling and no one is willing to die for their country and as such will succumb easily to outside force. The only thing that is unknown is the end game. It is certainly not something I want for my children and then their children. I just do not see any way out.

Dionys Murphy
1 month ago

"no one is willing to die for their country and as such will succumb easily to outside force" - So very true. Trump dodged fighting for our country many times, showing an unwillingness to risk anything for the country. How utterly disturbing it must be to you and any real Republican to now see the President simply inviting outside forces to pervert and subvert America and American democracy.

Michael Bindner
4 weeks 1 day ago

Trump is a temporary problem. 46 will go on an apology tour/victory lap and there will be no civil war. Ever look at MAGA rally demographics? There will be no civil war.

frank troia
1 month ago

So far none exists?
Corrupt intention for personal gain.
Intentions so corrupt that will surely jeopardize relationships with allies and strengthen our enemies.
Not enough for you, apparently.

Andrew Strada
1 month ago

I appreciate your sentiments and wish more people thought that way. I would much rather discuss rose bushes with my neighbor than Trump's impeachment.

Judith Jordan
1 month ago

You should read some of the militias’ websites. They can’t wait for a “civil war” and start shooting Democrats and liberals. They believe they are defending the Constitution and that the military will join them. The Oath Keepers is composed of retired military and law enforcement. They support Trump. They claim they are the best group and they follow the law. Yet their comments are filled with talk of killing those who don’t agree with them. Crazies.

rose-ellen caminer
1 month ago

Talk is plentiful and cheap on the internet. Americans have it too good to go into a civil war. Though there is always be a steady supply of gullible people who of their own, or prompted by the FBI, may think they can start such a war, I doubt it is going to happen. What are we fighting over? The first amendment, the second? The Constitution can be interpreted to mean anything you want it to mean.And it can be amended. It's a frame ,and now its a meme, a cipher?And now we have added on a scapegoat for many of our problems; those Russians[again], or is it the Chinese now? The gung ho Trump supporters are standing aside as the Dems are doing their impeachment thing.Before that, it was the Mueller thing. All they do is talk about how terrible it is, while the Dems do their thing. If this were some other country, the president's defenders would have occupied their capital building by now, or they'd be out in the streets protesting what would be called an attempted coup. Here, it's all talk no action! For all the polarization and hyped up fear of a coming civil war, it's business as usual politically in America. Americans are actually quite peaceful politically.As Norman Mailer once noted, other countries have periodic violent political upheavals,while Americans resort to committing individual violent crimes to vent frustrations and dissatisfaction. I don't see that as changing.

If by the decline of the US empire is meant that the US cannot control the resources of Latin america and the Middle East. If it means that supporting dictators for our interests will no longer be possible; the people of the world outside the US are getting uppity, then that is a good thing.Our self serving narratives do not comprise all of reality. Things are happening in spite of us not because of us.And what is happening is at odds with our narratives of capitalism as the ideal system.And Democratic Socialism is a coming to the USA as well!

Michael Bindner
4 weeks 1 day ago

Then their mothers quit paying for their Internet

Vincent Gaglione
4 weeks 1 day ago

I suggest that we allow those southern and rural states which maintain their fervent beliefs in "making America great" again to secede from the Union and accomplish what they wanted to do over 150 years ago. Given the fact that they collect from the federal government more than they contribute, it should prove to be an exercise in reality therapy for them. Just a thought.

Stuart Meisenzahl
3 weeks 3 days ago

Vince
Check out what party is in charge of the states fastest approaching bankruptcy due to broad social policies, salary promises including retirement that cannot possibly be met with projected revenue, and flight of taxpayers faced with burden of funding the foregoing. Hint...they are not in the South or Rural areas.

JR Cosgrove
3 weeks 2 days ago

I had a conversation with my daughter about the "Hunger Games" over a year ago. In the Hunger Games certain people from the rural areas are allowed to combat for survival because the city states have the power. I told her it would be just the opposite. Most of the food, water and electricity comes from rural areas and they would have the power, not the city states where liberal elites are now concentrated,

Rhett Segall
1 month ago

Thinking about America’s vulnerability in terms of secularism, individualism, consumerism, racism, etc, raises the question for me: Is there any Nation in the world where strength and vigor is seen primarily in terms of Christian values? Or given the de-facto pluralism of society, is there any Nation in the world where strength is seen primarily in humanistic values?

Dionys Murphy
1 month ago

Unfortunately, no. "Strength" in America tends to be framed as avoidance or 'overcoming' emotions and humanity. Strength in America is typically framed in the intentional oppression of "the other," contrary to Christ's example and teachings. Compassion, basic humanity, supporting, embracing and welcoming "the other" is framed as weakness here.

John Mack
1 month ago

Much of Europe is consciously built on human rights, in many ways derived from Christian values but independent of their church origin. In Irekand and Britian many schools are successfully teaching ethics and ethicl resopnsing (instead of religion) wheere working class middle schoolers can intelligenbtly, for instance, discuss Aristoy]ytle's virtues and and how to applyb them to concrete situations in their nlives. If the RC bishop[s had gad such ethical reasoning education they would have been far less likely to cover up the sexual crimes of their priests.

Andrew Strada
1 month ago

"At a time of plague and brutal wars, when decline was the general condition, handbooks spread across Europe for how a person can make the best of death, through the example and guidance of Christ."

I for one would rather live in a society whose focus is on overcoming plagues and avoiding brutal wars than in a society whose focus is on a graceful slide into oblivion.

J Rabaza
1 month ago

America began its decline under the Earl Warren Supreme Court, i.e. separation of church and state. We have lost the Founding Fathers vision of a country where citizens practiced self-regulation due to a belief in morality, temperance, acknowledging divine laws and natural laws. Today Americans beat their chests about right to free speech, right to bear arms, right to “choose” and other self-centered “rights”. We brag about our rights and rarely practice acknowledging God in our midst or in our neighbors. Hillary’s “vast right wing” divide and conquer anthem was adopted by millions. Obama’s reference to Americans who “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy” was also lauded by millions helping to create the monster of Trump

We are lost because we forgot about the Lord just like the Old Testament Jews. This was all expected.

frank troia
1 month ago

So now the Republican slicing and dicing begins.
The Republican Party had the choice of many candidates in 2016. They chose Trump.
Blaming Clinton and Obama for the misery that Trump is only beginning to put this nation through seems worthy of an apology to me.
Our State Department has been gutted, our foreign policy compromised and our good name sullied.
These things did not occur under Obama. They would likewise not have occurred under a President Hillary Clinton.
Keep slicing and dicing.

Judith Jordan
1 month ago

frank troia:
Excellent response.

Adeolu Ademoyo
1 month ago

We do not need rocket science to tell us why the country is where she is today morally. So it is strange how most people are looking at the wrong places for explanation and are looking for "sophisticated" and "complex" explanation! We do not need rocket science to explain the decline the author of the essay reflects on.

During my family conversation at home, we (children, mom and myself) often tell ourselves that something must be amiss when anyone makes a simple, basic, obvious and comprehensible issue to be complex, to look as if it is a "rocket science" when it is not!

The decline of a nation starts from a moral decline. And a moral decline starts when some believe that there are no truths, that there are no facts. So, here is the issue-the first two casualties in moments of crisis, decline, trouble are TRUTH and FACT. The decline begins when these two are either completely defeated or are put under stress.

Wait a minute. Everyone should introspect and look within! There is big trouble and crisis in the land when some people believe and say the following (i) Believe what I say, do not believe what you see. In other words believe my own eyes and what my mouth says, tells you, and not your own eyes or what you see with your own eyes. And this is said in the "BIG" RALLIES and the crowd yell raucously, angrily and obediently "hail the King the 'chosen' one, we will believe your (king's) eyes, what you (the "king") tell us to believe, we will believe what you say, and not what our eyes see, not what our ears hear on the streets! (ii) Truth isn't truth, so there is no truth. (iii) there are "alternative facts", so there is no fact! Any empire with a "King" who sends his servants and minions out on the street to announce and declare that there are alternative facts and that truth isn't truth will decline until the empire is morally rescued by the people from the immoral grip of the un-Christian, irreligious and un-Godly 'King' and the augean stable is morally cleansed.

When a fish starts to decline, the decline starts from the head. Those who want to link this decline which the author of the essay reflects on with religion should note and reflect that the present crisis and decline which the author of the essay is reflecting on started as a moral one triggered on the day some people sacrificed the Christian faith on the altar of political and cultural expediency in electing the most un-christian, un-Godly, immoral, irreligious, untruthful, corrupt person as the head. And these christians claimed they voted and elected in the name of "christianity" this most un-Godly, un-christian, immoral, irreligious, extremely corrupt, lying fellow -who even when he (a man of easy and weak virtues) is supposedly married sleeps with prostitutes, women of easy and weak virtues! By their votes these christians (sections of the evangelicals, sections of the protestants, sections of the catholics) who voted for this fellow attempted to redefine Christianity, our lovely faith in a living, hopeful and merciful God and turned it into a mere culture right before our eyes, as if the Christian faith/Christianity is some kind of culture or a set of cultural and political practices. That was the day truth and fact became the first casualties. And the country has not recovered from this lie since then.

The country waits with deep breadth for the beginning of the moral cleansing, the cleansing of the augean stable, the stoppage of the decline, when Christian faith will no longer be sacrificed on the altar of political and cultural expediency, when there will be one truth and one fact, when truth and fact will be our guide and teachers and not the eyes of the self declared "King," the self declared "chosen" one! God Bless everyone. May God Bless the United States of America. May God bless the good people of the United States of America.

Fred Keyes
1 month ago

Sez Coosgrove, "What happens when the rough men are no longer there?"

Ah, yes, we need "rough men." Put Christianity on hold and let the rough men take care of business then we can be truly Christian again, right?

Hmm.

Jim Smith
4 weeks 1 day ago

Fred, I seem to remember that Jesus was comfortable with having James and John, "sons of thunder" and violently impulsive Peter in his apostolic line-up.
The toughest cop I ever knew, working in the red light criminal district of Kings Cross in Sydney was a daily communicant in my local parish.

Being effeminate is not the optimum state of Christian manhood.

JR Cosgrove
4 weeks ago

Maybe everyone should listen to this excerpt of a TED talk http://bit.ly/2PwVZAW

I recommend the whole talk. This is a talk about where there are no rough men. Could it happen here? It is certainly happening in many parts of the world.

John Mack
1 month ago

Please, the cliche that Christianity contributed to the decline of the Roan Empire, stated as a given, is not a given. It's at best an exaggeration and the evidence would suggest it is simply wrong. In the East Christianity kept the Roman Empire going into the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance despite vicious attacks from Western Christians. it was only the Muslim military advance that brought the Eastern Roman Empire down, and that only happened because a river in Turkey changed its course. The Byzantine outer defensive forts were situated along this river. With the change in this river's course the Muslims could walk past the line of forts. In the west it was relentless waves of German tribes pushing into the empire that broke the western Roman Empire. These invaders were pagan or Arian.. And the orthodox Christian Roman citizens still loyal to the idea of Rome started calling themselves Roman Catholics to distinguish themselves form the Germans and the Arians. Did the author notice that the Roman language in the form of local versions such as French, Spanish, and Italian prevailed over the German of the conquerors? And why is western Roman Empire history taught so badly, ignoring how well governed the western Roman city sates were under their local orthodox Christian Senates? So well governed - for the common good - that slavery was being systematically eliminated by local governments, and baths and libraries and water supplies and theaters were thriving under the rule of the local Senates. After the Germans made themselves the local kings the Roman people - Catholics all - made their bishops their spokespersons and real governors. The synods of bishops in the former Roman Diocese (a civil term) of Gaul (Belgium, France and Spain) constantly spoke up admonished their new barbarian overlords on the purpose of taxes. They insisted that taxes, as they had been under local Roman rule, must be for the benefit of the people and not the enrichment of the royal family and its favorites. B y the benefit of the people they meant maintaining the rods, sanitation systems, water supplies, baths, libraries and other public goods. Once the barbarians became the bishops this all changed unfortunately. But the point is that Christian western Roman Empire thrived. The central government simply could not keep up militarily with the constant invasions. And the madness, weakness and corruption of the central government in Rome and Milan did not help in maintaining the military strength needed at the borders.

Charles Erlinger
4 weeks 1 day ago

I was tempted to offer a comment on the same sentence that you took issue with, until I saw your impressive response

Todd Witherell
1 month ago

In this life we cannot always do great things. But we can always do little things. With Great Love!!!
- St. Theresa of Calcutta

My Sunday school teacher in Sacramento did not have a Megachurch. But he had MegaLove!

- Cornel West

I don’t understand these American Megachurches. Christ was a Loser in this world.

- Richard Rodriguez

The American Empire tried The Great Way of invasion, perpetual war, insult, racehate, etc..

It didn’t work.

It is now time to try the little way.

- Todd Witherell

Vince Killoran
1 month ago

Why the nostalgia? One hundred years ago--when the USA was much more a "religious" nation and during its ascent--women were just getting the right to vote, most black citizens were disenfranchised and faced Jim Crow laws and practices, Native Americans had recently be forced onto reservations, Chinese immigrants were excluded and (in 1924) most European immigrants, and workers had no legal rights to form unions. America "worked for me, but not for thee."

Todd Witherell
1 month ago

An American Against

The Americans are hypocrites
Their country is not true

They’ll do it unto others
And then they’ll do it unto you

Ignorant, violent, racist
An Empire in decline

Saturday I play basketball
Sunday morning - bread and wine

Farewell, and be kind.

Charles Erlinger
4 weeks 1 day ago

It is dismaying to see the potential opportunity for a sober discussion of a subject such as how to manage a major geopolitical adjustment squandered by this hyperbolic presentation.

Michael Bindner
4 weeks 1 day ago

Our best ideals should go global, especially coops. Indeed, they already have. A larger federation for the alliance could certainly do this. U.S. regions could invite EU/NATO countries and the Americas into a federation on the American, rather than the EU model. First, dump Trump. Make sure one like him could never lead such a federation.

Andrew Strada
4 weeks ago

Compulsive handwringing and bedwetting are neither sophisticated nor helpful. As has been pointed out, could we at least hear from a professor of history rather than a professor of "media studies", whatever the devil that may be?

pweadon@yahoo.com
3 weeks 6 days ago

Decades ago, even at the height of American greatness, Kennan postulated that implementing and guaranteeing the 4 Freedoms at home, would do more to ensure freedom and liberty than in-circling the Soviet Union with countless ( and ultimately unaffordable) military bases. He was not calling for isolationism, but to turn our nation into a shining example that would convince others ( without resorting to armed force) that our way of life was preferable . This article makes it clear that his perspective is even more useful and instructive in facing today’s challenges

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