This Time, There May Not Be a Do-Over

My Comments: I tend to be an optimist, since pessimism seems too often a self-fulfilling prophecy. But there’s a lot to be pessimistic about these days. The future looks cloudy.

On the other hand, I ask you to take yourself back to 1921 or even further to 1821 and try and see yourself as a similar the same functioning member of society that you are today. And while doing so project yourself 100 years into the future, the changes you’d see would frighten the hell out of you.

Yet, there you were in 1921 as a functional adult. As such, project yourself forward into today’s world and you might be appalled. Yet here you are, afraid and uncertain about next year and the few years beyond.

That being said, there may in fact not be a do-over.

By Andrew A. Michta \ January 17, 2021 \

Historically, great civilizations self-immolate before they suffer external defeat. Often the seeds of decline are planted at a time when a great power seems to be at the pinnacle of its control and influence. Though it may be hard to accept, this seems to be increasingly the fate of America today, where a toxic mix of ever-more unaccountable elites, frayed internal culture and class warfare, and inflamed racial divisions has begun to splinter the most successful democratic republic in history into a nation of warring tribes. The United States seems poised to emerge from the rubble left in the wake of the last four years diminished, showing traits normally associated with unstable third-world governments.

The regnant intolerance-turned-mistrust on both sides of the political divide has largely buried the traditional American propensity for compromise. The attendant coarsening of the language of our public debate and the morphing of major American media networks into propaganda outlets have knocked down one by one democratic practices and customs that took generations to build. Yet the extremist politics that have dominated our public discourse of late have deep structural roots going back decades.

The last 30 years have laid the groundwork for the implosion of our national consensus — and with it, the foundations of American global hegemony. The past four years have accelerated the process possibly to a point of no return, with the systemic decay delegitimizing our institutions and decomposing societal bonds in the United States itself. The United States is at risk of losing its hegemonic position not because of a major defeat in war, but because for decades it has been governed by elites implementing policy ideas that the majority of the public never fully endorsed. Moreover, our rising corporate oligarchy and political class have never accepted accountability for the decisions they have made, such as the offshoring of U.S. industry and open-ended wars in secondary theaters; nor have they paid much of a price in terms of power and access. The American political system has been hobbled by corporate interests, party politics, and foreign influence to a point that there are few systemic mechanisms in place to allow men and women of quality to rise to positions of leadership. In the process, the American middle class — the county’s demos — has become diminished to a point that it is no longer a self-constituting citizenry, for the globalist ideology that fueled the offshoring of our industrial base to China has pulled the rug out from under the middle class and gutted entire communities.

Historically, global hegemons endure and prosper so long as they are backed by a unified, cohesive nation. After three decades of increasingly oligarchic drift in U.S. politics, with one set of rules for the privileged and another for the common citizen, America is at an inflection point. The next few years will determine if the country can pull through yet again, or if it will share the fate of once-great empires such as Britain and France. The challenge of rebuilding a national consensus is urgent. The internal fissuring of the United States correlates with a rapidly devolving international environment, with kinetic conflicts in the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe a possibility, whose outcomes may be quite different from what our liberal internationalists confidently predicted over the last three decades.

The American nation used to have a seemingly inexhaustible reservoir of energy that allowed it to renew itself again and again, and surge forward. This inner strength rested on the inherent tension between the liberal value set built into our institutional framing and the American nationalism rooted in the inherited British settler culture, its language, and tradition. And yet, over the past half century, our elites have progressively deconstructed the national component of American identity. As a result, unbridled liberalism and increasingly radical postmodernism are now the dominant forces shaping the country’s politics, with ever-expanding rights disconnected from the mutuality of obligation that has historically been the national glue binding the American people. Liberalism alone, especially when mixed with postmodern progressivism, will never be enough to sustain the American republic.

An America that cannot keep its own house in order will lose its ability to lead others in the international system, for military power alone — and even this aspect of American power has been in question relative to the surging military power of both China and Russia — will not suffice to cement our alliances so that they endure in a crisis. If the United States’ global hegemony comes to an end in the coming years, it will be first and foremost because of the splintering of the American nation.