by Akim Reinhardt
The Ottoman Empire, which emerged during the beginning of the 14th century, reached its zenith some 250 years later under its 10th Sultan, Suleiman the Law Giver. By that point, the empire held sway over more than 2 million square miles spread across parts of three continents, from Hungary in the west to Persia in the east, from the north shore of the Black Sea to the southern tip of the Red Sea.
And then began the long, slow slog towards oblivion. Osmanli imperial decline unfolded over the course of three and a half centuries. There was no shortage of ups and downs along the way, but of course there were more of the latter than the former. The empire teetered into the 20th century, and by the start of World War I, had lost almost all of its holdings in Europe and north Africa. As with the Hapsburgs and czarist Russia, the war itself proved to be the coup de grace, signaling an end to the era of classic empires. Ottoman forces achieved mixed results during the actual fighting, but by the time the war was over, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was leading a successful revolt from within. The sultanate was abolished in 1922, and the empire's Anatolian rump reformed as the modern nation of Turkey the following year. After more than six centuries of rise and fall, the empire was done.
It had taken 350 years for the Ottoman empire to slip from apogee to dissolution; just its decline alone had lasted longer than many political entities exist in toto. Indeed, the United States first gained first independence “only” 230 years ago, which means it needs well over four and a half more centuries to match the staying power of the Ottomans.
As a Historian, I know better than most how useless it is to predict the future. I will not even hazzard a guess as to when the United States will finally dissolve or how it will occur: through bloody war, contentious rebellion, or quiet disintegration.
But it will happen eventually. Nothing lasts forever. Nothing.
And whenever it does happen, future historians might possibly look back to the mid-20th century as the U.S. imperial acme in much the same way they now look back to the mid-16th century as the peak of Ottoman glory.
Then again, that may not prove to be the case at all. The United States could certainly rebound from the mild downward movement it has suffered over the last several decades and find another higher peak in the future. There's no way of knowing, and for now it clearly remains far and away the world's preeminent super power by many qualitative and quantitative measures. So, to paraphrase Mark Twain, speculating on the causes of its potential demise at this time would be grossly premature.
But I'm going to do it anyway.
IF the United States has already passed its prime, then allow me to offer four possible causes that tomorrow's historians may end up pointing to as contributing factors. In so doing, I am going to cite broad causal elements, four problems that currently afflict the United States, threaten its long term viability, and show no signs of being alleviated anytime soon.
Internal Political Dysfunction: Political dysfunction in the United States is a wide ranging problem. One specific area that has received much attention of late is the partisan gridlock that has the federal government in disarray. And rightly so. In a constitutional system predicated on compromise, the seeming inability of competing parties to broker substantial agreements is leading to increasing levels of dysfunction. But this is not an issue in many state and local governments throughout the nation. To the contrary, many of them are dominated by one party or another and continue to govern with far fewer hurdles.
The major overarching problem in the American political system, from the marbled halls of Washington, D.C. to the modestly carpeted offices of municipalities, counties, and townships, is the corrupting influence of money. Getting elected has become an increasingly expensive proposition everywhere. The necessity of raising substantial sums of money to win elections often leaves successful politicians beholden to various special interests. And as the lobbying industry bears more and more impact, it is beginning to recede into the shadows, away from the light of day that democracies thrive on.
Of course the United States, like most places, has a long history of government representing elite interests. The founders created a republic that severely limited voting rights and privileged the wealthy. However, notions of republican virtue and national interest have also played a prominent role in American political culture. Yet more and more American governments are acting to serve private interests instead of the citizenry as the dysfunction of gridlock at the national level and one-party domination in many localities combine with the highest bidder mentality of today's political fund raising. If the economics and culture of American politics do not change for the better, the results can be devastating in the long run as the nation's governing bodies increasingly find themselves unable to deal with pressing issues that threaten the citizenry's well being.
Foreign Competition: Originally a humble, rural nation with a cash-poor agricultural economy, the United States built immense wealth during the 19th and early 20th centuries through its colonial expansion at the expense of Indigenous nations and by exploiting an abundance of natural resources and a seemingly endless pool of cheap labor, from slaves to factory workers. By the time of World War I, the U.S. had assumed the position of world's leading industrial power, with European empires soon to enter their decline. But the real turning point was World War II. The United States was the only industrialized nation to emerge from the war more powerful and prosperous than when it began. Whereas much of Europe and Japan lay in ruins, America suffered no invasion and was able to substantially build up its industrial base even further as it mobilized to fight. The results were staggering.
At war's end, national unemployment stood at a minuscule 1.9%. Maximum employment and wartime rationing had combined to leave Americans collectively holding nearly $140 billion in savings (nearly 2 trillion in today's money), almost $1,000 on average for every man woman and child.
As the rest of the world's industrialized nations began the slow road to recovery, the United States stood atop the global economy unchallenged. By the late 1940s, Americans earned 42% of all global income despite totaling only 7% of the world population. In 1949 they boasted a per capita annual income of $1,450, which was twice its nearest competitors (Great Britain, New Zealand, Canada, Switzerland, and Sweden). The U.S. also accounted for roughly half of the world's manufacturing output, including: 57% of steel, 43% of electricity, 62% of oil, and 80% of automobiles.
Never before or since had a single political entity so dominated the world economy. But those days are now over. The U.S. can no longer enjoy unmitigated supremacy. Europe and Japan rebuilt decades ago, and now China is a major (and still growing) economic powerhouse, with India and Brazil on the horizon. In order to maintain its dominance, the United States must now compete again as it did during the 19th century.
While it maintains certain advantages unavailable to it back then, the U.S. also no longer has millions of square miles of Indigenous lands to steal, or the abundance of untapped natural resources that came with it. Instead of growing new urban centers, many major American cities are in decline or trying to cobble together a comeback. And while many workers are still exploited, it is not to the degree that slaves or Gilded Age factory workers were, which partially explains why the manufacturing sector has been gutted and so many jobs have left for foreign shores. There has been a small rebound in manufacturing of late, but that is largely due to the weakening dollar; in other words, growing poverty and a declining currency have made labor cheaper, and an up tick in manufacturing jobs is, in some respect, merely a silver lining to the large, looming storm cloud.
For all these reasons and more, the United States is almost certainly past-peak when it comes to global economic dominance. Indeed, in the centuries to come, it is quite reasonable to expect that no nation will ever again dominate the world economy to the degree the United States did during the two decades following World War II.
The Subsidy of a Seemingly Permanent Underclass: A popular myth that Americans tell themselves is that anyone can grow up to become president. And while most people understand that it's more of a feel good aphorism meant to encourage children than it is a realistic statement on the chances of becoming the nation's chief executive, it also speaks to a wider national mythology about a supposedly fluid class system. Almost no one grows up to be president of course, but the popular ethos still posits America as a land of opportunity, as place where anyone can succeed in a general sense, particularly at making money.
Historically, however, the United States has always been a place of haves and have-nots. Slaves (followed by sharecroppers and tenant farmers) and exploited wage laborers have, at different times, been a staple of the labor force since before the nation's founding. As industrialization eventually overtook agriculture as the main economic engine, the former yielded to the latter as the premier class of impoverished workers.
The post-war period of national wealth is the closest America has come to being a rich nation with a large middle class. But since the 1980s, the gulf between rich and poor has grown larger again, and the middle class has begun shrinking as a percentage of the population. A 2012 Pew Research Center report classifies only half of American households as earning a middle class income. This is down from 61% in the 1970s. Additionally, the national poverty rate hit its all time low way back in 1973 when it dipped to 11%.
Fortunately, nowadays the misery of poverty is mitigated to some degree by an entrenched social welfare system. Since the New Deal of the 1930s, the United States has sporadically followed the lead of other industrialized nations by implementing vital social services for its citizenry. Sometimes it has done so kicking and screaming: the recent struggle to finally pass a watered down national healthcare system recalls the year 1935, when the United States finally created its Social Security system, becoming at that time the last industrialized nation to offer a public pension for retired workers. Other reforms, primarily from the Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, have found their place, including unemployment insurance, welfare for the poor, Medicare and Medicade, and a host of other government programs to help those in need.
But as the nation's impoverished population grows, demands on the system increase. At the same time, the decline of the middle class cuts into the most important source of revenues to fund such programs. Republicans want to abandon many of the programs as Democrats struggle to save what they can while facing the tide of a faltering economy. And if the United States further deteriorates into a nation of less and less wealth, with more and more of it concentrated at the top, and a growing underclass of exploited wage laborers and the unemployed, then the idea of America as the Land of Opportunity runs the risk of becoming not just an over hyped myth, but a cruel joke.
The Culture of Impermanence: Amid national disintegration, one would expect to find a variety of responses by the citizenry. One might be a rising tide of conservative and reactionary ideology as people struggle to hold onto something better, look for simplistic targets to blame, and are drawn to fantasies of an idealized past.
Another widespread response we might expect to find would be an adaptation to and reflection of national disintegration itself as it unfolds. Of course in someways this is nothing new. Social critics have bemoaned America's disposable culture for some time now. However, that has long referred mostly to material culture in the form of planned obsolescence; even as we recycle more of our products instead of simply tossing them on a garbage heap, the trend towards material impermanence seems unstoppable, for many reasons, only some of which are relevant.
But beyond material culture, America seems to be increasingly dogged by a dedication to a disposable public culture. Not just its stuff, but its ideas and expressions are also subject to casual dismissal. It would be easy to blame the rise of digital media, particularly the internet, for promoting a culture of immediacy and short attention spans. For example, users of the mobile app Snapshot exchange over 60,000,000 photos per day on average, all of them living briefly in the ether of the web and before being disposed of.
However, it's not just a matter of online ephemera. The larger culture, including much of the older media forms, seems to be more and more dedicated to the transitory. As phenomena such as the 24 hour news cycle churn through an endless cacophony of passing fancies, and the cult of celebrity finds ever more displays of temporary outlandishness, the culture of impermanence primarily reveals, and perhaps reflects, a state of national entropy. With each passing year, Andy Warhol's claim that in the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes, seems more and more relevant. Perhaps the question then is: To what extent does it reflect the fact that the United States' own fifteen minutes might be nearing an end?
In the end, the issues discussed here may not prove to be an indication of America's ongoing and eventually fatal decline. However, if the United States is to rebound and show signs of maintaining its preeminence, or in the log term even prominence, then these issues must be adequately addressed. Though of course, judging the merits of American global dominance is another matter entirely.
Akim Reinhardt's website is ThePublicProfessor.com