Will the sky fall if we hit the debt ceiling?

american-flag-sky-630x615Historians study empires.  We have noted that empires have similar trajectories of growth and decline.  The empire which has dominated the Western imagination is the Roman Empire. The aspect of the imperial cycle which most fascinates us is not the rise, but the fall.

Why did that venerable, experienced empire fall after a thousand years?  It is no longer fashionable, however, to speak of “fall.” We use words like “changed,” or “became something else” since the process of the fall was the slow deliquescence of one unified state into a myriad smaller entities with new identities.

Whether it was the fall, the nudge, or the stumble, historians have identified factors which led to the end. These factors are: poor leadership, defeat in war, intractable economic problems, over-extension of terrain, and the loss of ideology.

By definition, in the context of world history, the United States is an “empire.”  By Roman standards, it is a tyro since its imperial ambitions are not even 300 years in the running. But can we see factors of the decline of the American enterprise in the current crisis?

It is not that we are facing a “debt crisis” that is of concern. The economic system is robust even in a time period in which we exploring something new: the post-industrial state. Attempts at creating an overseas empire such as adventures in the Philippines have ceased. Invasions are not threatening.  While there are arguments about leadership, the important aspect is the stability of the office (regular elections) rather than the current tenant.

But there is that issue of ideology. What is most alarming to this historian is the fraying of our understanding of who we are. The paralysis in Washington feels like the mid-19th century: Civil War! The paralysis is not only on the trumped up “debt ceiling,” it is also about immigration, about gun laws, about health care, about education, about women’s issues, about foreign policy.

Is this the fall? Will the United States slowly disintegrate into component parts? The Old New England, the Pacific states, the old Confederacy, the Second Republic of Texas, the Spanish Southwest? Without the glue of an ideological commitment to common goals on health, on welfare, on education, on the whole notion of a United States, we could indeed be stumbling our way into a disaggregation.

Are there remedies? Surely, yes. We may be witnessing the last gasp of a late-industrial, white-elite, Cold War trained society which is getting a last surge from a Tea Party that rejects the idea of inclusion of new people, of new economies, of new behaviors. The United States did not disintegrate after the Civil War, but  entered a new period of both growth and prosperity.

But transitions are hard, so hard! And the fear of the fall is always with us.

About Dr. Ewa Bacon

Dr. Ewa Bacon is a professor of history at Lewis University. Her areas of expertise include the Holocaust, Auschwitz, concentration camps, Russian history and Central European history (especially Germany and Poland).

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