America is old. Something new will rise from its pyre.

Summary – A thousand symptoms show that America is broken, but with only one cause: old age. New societies rise from ashes of the past. Perhaps America’s time day has passed, and we must begin to build a better future.

Phoenix

My inbox overflows today with wild guessing, mostly conspiracy theories about the causes of the Iowa caucuses fiasco. Mostly nonsensical. There are two sound ways to see this. The first is tactical, micropolitics. For a fine example, see “Iowa Caucuses, the Blob, and the Democratic Party Cartel” by Matt Stoller (columnist and author, well-wired into the Democratic Party).

“{T}he insularity of the political class has enabled institutional actors within the Democratic Party in Iowa to become fused with corporate power through informal and formal financial and social relationships. As corporations get more and more concentrated, these relationships eventually wear down the competence of a political apparatus. The night before the caucus, the Iowa Democratic Party head said, “These are probably the most prepared we’ve ever been as a party for these caucuses. We’ve run through a few different scenarios, but I can tell you, we’re ready.”

“That’s where we get to ACRONYM, which owns the app maker Shadow {which did the tabulating for the D’s Iowa caucuses}. ACRONYM is an organizing vehicle for a $75 million digital spending campaign for large Democratic donors against Trump. Basically the pitch from Acronym was, ‘we need to be high tech to beat Trump,’ which means collecting money from rich people and unions and buying YouTube and Facebook ads with it. The function of the nonprofit is simple, it’s an ad buying firm full of ex-Facebook employees. …

“In this moment in history, the network of institutions that comprise the Democratic Party, from cable news channels to law firms to campaign operative networks to Silicon Valley lobbying outposts like Facebook and Google, are hollow and obviously incompetent. …The result of this rank incompetence and dishonesty is a rebellion in the Democratic Party, much as the same dynamic in the Bush administration created the predicate for the Trump movement. The most important symbol is Bernie Sanders …”

I live in eastern Iowa. The Democratic Party is poorly organized, but the GOP is a coffee klatsch – ineffective in what should be a core state. Stoller’s analysis explains the symptoms of this weakness. It is accurate but superficial. It is much like describing DoD as ineffective. Not so; these are highly effective social machines. They do the bidding of America’s stakeholders (i.e., not us).

Without citizen involvement, as we became consumers (i.e., politically passive and apathetic), powerful special interests have taken over the political machinery of America. It’s the Great Circle of Life. If we won’t run America, others will – and will do so in their own interests. But that is the small lesson from Iowa.

“If God didn’t want them sheared, he would not have made them sheep.”
— Calvera, bandit leader in the movie The Magnificent Seven (1960).

America’s senescence

People attribute the dysfunctionality of our institutions to malice or evil. The hard reality is that this is just old age: we have a political and economic system with low legitimacy, antiquated social machinery, and riddled with graft (parasites, like our defense, health care, and education systems – extracting immense resources disproportionate to their contributions). Even our public infrastructure is decrepit. Worst of all, the system – us, working collectively – cannot reform itself. I discuss this widespread institution failure in A new, dark picture of America’s future.

This is senescence. In cells, senescent cells cannot replicate. Which describes America today, in which we have increasing difficulty passing on our values to the next generation. Freedom of speech and association, the presumption of innocence, capitalism and free markets, our traditions of morality – all are fading copies from one generation to the next. Alienation is the natural reaction of many people (i.e., the majority between the fanatical extremes) to living in what becomes a foreign society. As a result, our institutions are becoming dysfunctional.

America (technically, our regime) is 232 years old. That is ancient. In modern times, few societies last that long. Those that do survive, drastically change over such a period. Even Britain, with its famously stable government, has evolved more than America’s political structure over that period. This is somewhat similar to the late Roman Republic, where the citizens also became alienated as Rome’s internal and external circumstances drastically evolved.

“Every nation has the government it deserves.”
— By Joseph de Maistre (lawyer, diplomat, philosopher). From Letter 76 dated 13 August 1811, published in Lettres et Opuscules.

What comes after senescence?

Societies are not eternal. Where are the Romans, the Scythians and the Amalekites? Their lands endure, with people living there. But everything that made them distinctive peoples is gone. Sometimes by evolution into something different. Sometimes by rapid revolutions. Sometimes by replacement (peaceful or violent) by other peoples. Or, as in America today, all of those working simultaneously. The result can be better or (like the Fall of Rome) much worse.

But it need not be our fate. Revival is an inherent capability of humanity at all levels, from the individual to the nation. If we care about America and the lives of our descendants, then we will again become active in our community and national organizations. Especially politics. Not just voting, which is the lowest level of involvement – choosing among the alternatives others serve up. But contributing time and money to shape the choices we get.

Both America and the world have changed, and we must adapt or suffer the consequences. We can fix America’s machinery or just accept our new rulers and their new deal for us. If we choose the latter, let’s retain our dignity and not whine about it.

Once we were worthy of the America built with two centuries of work. Is that true today?

“Choice. The problem is choice.”
— Neo in The Matrix Reloaded.

We will choose if it is rising or setting.

A family holding hands
ID 12543477 © Iofoto | Dreamstime.

For More Information

Ideas! For some shopping ideas see my recommended books and films at Amazon. Also, see a story about our future: Ultra Violence: Tales from Venus.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about ways to reform America, and especially these…

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Books explaining what happened to American politics

Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? by Thomas Frank.

The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted by Mike Lofgren.

"Listen, Liberal" by Thomas Frank
Available at Amazon.
"The Party is Over" by Mike Lofgren
Available at Amazon.

 

20 thoughts on “America is old. Something new will rise from its pyre.”

      1. I don’t know, 27BC is generally not argued, I can see the disagreement with 180 AD. Keep in mind this is when Marcus Aurelius died, and after him what followed were ineffective leaders and poor administration of Rome. In only declined after 180 AD with the final blow in 476 AD, when Rome was but a shell of its former self.

        Regardless of the dates, what are your ideas on his overall thoughts? I see a striking similarity in his examples to current America.

      2. Ben,

        “Keep in mind this is when Marcus Aurelius died, and after him what followed were ineffective leaders and poor administration of Rome.”

        That’s not remotely correct.

        “In only declined after 180 AD”

        Wrong on two counts. First, its peak area was in 117AD. But much of that was not economical to hold with the available communication and transport tech – given the cost to hold vs. resources that could be extracted from those areas. Second, the question was when it ended. Saying it ended in 180 because it declined for 300 more years is a misuse of language.

  1. Arminius the Cheruscan

    Reminds me of the Killswitch Chronicles. Fiction but sort of a case study on the butterfly effect in the aftermath of an empire. America falls, initial chaos, new micro-governments fill the gaps then start to strengthen and consolidate.

    1. Arminiusm,

      The “America falls” scenario is popular, with little factual foundation. I don’t know if its just a fav horror story or wish-fulfillment.

      America is probably just the usual shift from a Republic to some form of autocracy. Our elites are quite capable of running America (in their interests, of course). Rome is the classic example: the Empire grew in power and wealth for two centuries, then decayed for another 250 years.

      1. Arminius the Cheruscan

        Could be a bit of all that. America’s ascent makes the situation unique. Perhaps comparable to Macedonia, although they, like Rome, lingered for generations as a small player, then a life and death struggle with a perpetual enemy, followed finally by supremacy. America rose to prominence so quickly, I believe it’s reasonable to feat the descent might be just as breathtaking.

        I’m more inclined to see America as Constantinople to London’s Rome. Certainly would have been so if Hitler had continued to bomb Britain’s airfields instead of churches.

      2. Arminius,

        You conflate America’s international standing with America. Britain, Spain, and Rome extracted vast wealth from their Empires.

        America’s foreign influence comes at large cost to America, several percent of GDP. A rational foreign policy, abandoning these mostly failed foreign adventures, would make us stronger.

        More important, the comparisons with empires are quite irrelevant to our serious problems, which are domestic.

      3. Arminius the Cheruscan

        Mr. Kummer,
        There’s no button for replying to your last comment, so I suppose I’ll reply again here. I certainly don’t dispute America’s problems are domestic, but to say there is no advantage gained by having the dollar as the world’s currency strikes me as incorrect. Those countries liberated – some would say conquered – by America’s military still pay homage to Washington DC. Germany, Japan, etc. A simple count of American military bases around the world paints the picture. Now, at great expense, of course. But considering the trillions of dollars of debt outstanding to foreign nations – most of which is spent by America on domestic waste – I would venture that Washington DC has been able to extract a great deal of wealth, indeed. I suppose the biggest difference is that this wealth is fiat instead of precious.

      4. Arminus,

        The reply button is, oddly, at the top of the thread.

        Economists call reserve currency status a”poisoned chalice” because it makes the currency overvalued – leading to less competitive exports and deindustrialization.

        US treasuries are held by foreign central banks in proportion to their share of the global sovereign bond market. They don’t care about reserve currency status.

        US treasury rates are roughly equal to those of other developed nations.

        The nations with US bases in them pay no homage to the US. Few even pay anything for them, so they’re beneficiaries. Not us.

  2. Is there a linkage between senescence and being pleasant peasants?

    Sounds to me like two different sets of assumptions about the origins of our problems.

    1. James,

      “Is there a linkage between senescence and being pleasant peasants?”

      We were citizens. The biggest symptom of America’s senescence is that we’ve become pleasant peasants.

      We were people once active in building America, now we watch screens and whine about how the big bad people aren’t nice to us.

  3. I think we may be near a real crisis that will contribute to the senescence. That is, I believe sometime in the next 5 years Donald Trump will blatantly disregard a court decision, either from an appellate court or the Supreme Court. Since our system is largely based on voluntary compliance this will be a genuine constitutional crisis. The courts can do nothing, the congress will do nothing, and the military will sit in confusion on the sidelines.

    1. David,

      ” I believe sometime in the next 5 years Donald Trump will blatantly disregard a court decision, either from an appellate court or the Supreme Court.”

      I believe it is inevitable that eventually a president will do that. The Courts have given themselves powers far beyond anything imagined by the Founders. Every single action by the Executive branch is subject to litigation in the Courts, with judges cosplaying King Solomon.

      Presidents have gone to the brink with the Courts several times in our history. One side or another, usually the courts, have blinked. But the growth in the court’s reach makes a confrontation inevitable.

  4. A better comparison might be the France of Louis XIV, the period when France was the dominant power in Europe, the richest, by far the largest population in an era when people meant wealth, militarily supreme since Rocroi and Lens under Conde, Turenne, Louvois and Vauban. Until it wasn’t any more.

    Looked at from this distance we see an unfolding tragedy, the endless autocratic wars, almost all to no clear purpose, culminating in the final War of the Spanish Succession (where outright defeat and invasion was avoided by the narrowest of margins). They bankrupted the country and left it impoverished and famished.

    The tragedy in the making is in the contrast with the humane achievements. We see great creativity in music, the arts, the sciences, literature, considerable personal and intellectual freedom, and in the literature, great humanity.

    There is the same saddening contrast between the brutality and slaughter which the regime devoted itself to, and the brilliance of Racine, Moliere and Charpentier. As we read or listen we cannot help thinking that we know how all this is going to end, and the sense is of wonder at the achievement and dismay at where the regime is going to take it. The waste of it.

    Larry has sometimes made the comparison to Athens before the Sicilian Expedition, but I think the France of Louis XIV is a better one.

      1. Arminius the Cheruscan

        “You, like others on this thread, can see only empires rise and fall” Did I somehow miss the third option?

      2. Arminiusm

        Not everything is global politics. In fact, very little of the life of a people has anything to do with global politics. Seeing only that is extreme myopia.

        I explained this in some detail in my reply to you.

      3. You, like others on this thread, can see only empires rise and fall. That’s not what I’m describing here. Please re-read it more carefully.

        Agreed, I don’t see it as the rise and fall of an empire either. The similarity I am seeing is something different from what you are writing about, if I understand you.

        You are describing and analyzing the internal dynamics of the situation in the US. I agree that the fall of the Roman Republic is an interesting and fruitful comparison and mostly agree with your account of what is happening.

        The similarity I see with France is that the two countries at the same time as they have high levels of achievement in the sciences and the arts and high levels of intellectual freedom, have developed into a country with an almost obsessive attachment to external wars. The possibility must be that, as with France, in the end the wars lead to disaster.

        The internal dynamic is quite different. In the France of Louis XIV there was an absolute monarchy which permitted no dissent. Read Louis’ correspondence where he speaks of ‘my armies’. The state and its powers are personal possessions. The endless and destructive wars were the result of a personal drive by the supreme ruler.

        What you’re describing in the US is a situation in which there was a popular democratic control of the levers of power, but where the population appears to have left a vacuum which is being occupied by a kind of oligarchy, while the forms of democratic control are left intact, but not functioning. The wars seem to be driven by powerful oligarchic elements and tolerated by the population.

        Have you read, by the way, Robert Paxton’s ‘The Anatomy of Fascism’? Not directly relevant to the US case, but filled with insights into the preconditions of populist movements and their fortunes.

  5. Larry: “we have increasing difficulty passing on our values to the next generation”. No doubt about that.
    In a very fundamental way we are all that there is; we are, those of us alive, “our culture”, what it is and the foundation for what it will become. Not a particularly inspiring landscape to be sure.
    The head of the Swedish Forum for Living History states that her country “has no domestic culture”. Where to from there?
    If you don’t know who you are, where you came from, what you stand for, your value and place in the world there is nothing to pass on but an amorphous collection of rights and the inevitable denigration of the past. You’re un-moored and adrift.
    We are the eyes and ears, the living embodiment of our culture, it is our responsibility to take the best from the dead past and revivify and modify it for the living present.
    The commandment “honour thy Father and Mother”, as I see it, is an injunction to respect and maintain but modify the culture passed on by those that came before. Not imitate but honour.
    With no common religion, culture or values how do you pull a fragmented culture back together?

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