It has been popular on the Right for a long time to compare modern America to the Roman Empire. Often the point of the comparison is to support the claim that America is an empire, rather than a republic. Alternatively, the point is to warn of an imminent collapse, just like what happened to Rome. The so-called conservatives, of course, reject the idea, because the Left requires it, but most Americans still cling to the idea that the country is some sort of democracy.
The comparison to Rome is a popular one because it is a well understood story and it has a clear end. The Romans lost their republic and became a dictatorship and then an Empire that dominated Europe. America, as the story goes, has lost its republic and is now an empire that dominates the world. The analogy is not intended to tell us anything about the dynamic that has led America to this point. It is more of a self-serving warning of an inevitable end dictated by history.
The thing is, Rome is not really a good analogy. The better comparison is with ancient Athens, which went from a democratic city-state to a democratic empire. Unlike Rome, Athens avoided the transition to authoritarianism. It remained a democracy even as it came to dominate the region and operate as an empire. Unlike Rome, it never accepted itself as an empire. The spirit that animated the democracy as a city-state remained as they came to dominate and control the other city-states.
That is something we see with modern America. The typical American, regardless of political cult, does not think of himself as a subject in an empire. In fact, most stubbornly cling to the old democratic ideas. Most white people, for example, think the constitution still plays a role in the law. They think elections make a difference. Even non-whites think elections matter, which is why they are organized. They want their guys in office on the assumption that their guys will act on their behalf.
Like Athens, America is an empire that does not know itself. Further, it is an empire that is blind to its own authoritarianism. Many are shocked, for example, at the widespread and coordinated response from the corporate oligarchs to the riots. They are baffled as to how they have these propaganda campaigns ready to go as soon as the riots were started in Minneapolis. They struggle to process why people are forced from their jobs for not cheering loud enough at the struggle sessions.
That really is the distinguishing feature of the modern American empire. No one can accept that it is both an empire and authoritarian. This is a society that bans books, throws men in jail for their politics and has created a form of internal exile for those found to be guilty of impiety. These were things that happened in Athens. Similarly, America is a financial empire, more than a military one. Athens became an empire when their currency became the default in the region.
Like Athens, the American Empire struggles to control itself. On the one hand, the economic prosperity allows it to generate great wealth, while on the other hand the internal incoherence leaves it staggering around like a blind giant. Twenty years in Afghanistan, for example, is every bit as insane as the Greeks invading Sicily in the Peloponnesian War. Democracy demands a unifying purpose, so that becomes the point of the democracy, finding some unifying cause.
The one difference, of course, is Athens was blessed with a neighbor that could defeat it in war and strip it of its empire. America has no enemy that can do that or even wants to do it. The Soviets were as close as we came, but the analogy does not work because Americans and Russians do not share the same heritage. The Spartans and Athenians were Greeks and saw one another as Greeks. No such relation existed in the rivalry between communism and liberal democracy.
The American empire lost its one rival in the 19th century. America became an empire when the Yankee north conquered the Tidewater south in the Civil War. At that point, the Athens of America became a continental empire. After conquering its great spartan rival, it then moved west, conquering the rest of the continent. In time, it expelled the European powers from the hemisphere. Then in the 20th century, the American empire conquered Europe and Asia.
Instead of reliving what happened to the Western Romans Empire, what we are experiencing is what would have happened if the Athenians had prevailed over the Spartans in the Peloponnesian War. Instead of the Athenian democracy being contained, it would have spread like a virus around the region. It is hard to know, but Hellenization would surely have been more widespread and more democratic than what eventually happened. The result would have been more familiar to us.
That means we can only speculate as to how the American Empire ends. It may be that it does not end until some military power rises up to defeat it. What was at the core of Athenian democracy is what is at the core of liberal democracy. That is, an absolute certainty that this system is the only one that can work. The intolerance of democracy is not rooted in fear, but in an unbridled confidence. Only a defeat in war can shatter that confidence in the democratic system.
Maybe the future is the present forever. On the one hand, the people at the top make sure to keep the food and fun flowing to the people, even turning protest into a form of spectator sport. On the other hand, it is one spasm of virtue after another, finding new villains and new victims of those villains. Maybe the only way a democratic empire can end is to be defeated by an external force. Maybe the end of history is what we are seeing today replayed over and over forever.
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