Will an Edward Gibbon of the future write a book called The Decline and Fall of the American Empire? There's a good chance one will, since empires have been rising and falling since the dawn of civilization.
The real Gibbon dealt with the fall of the Roman Empire. But plenty of people see parallels with 21st century America, with the welfare state and the National Football League replacing bread and circuses. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but regardless, there's a growing concern throughout society that the nation has lost its edge and is on a downward spiral.
My dueling columnist colleague Stephen L. Goldstein and I rarely agree on anything, but today we do: Real political leadership is next to non-existent in America, and the nation faces a threat to its existence because of it.
The United States has faced existential crises before. With its very existence in the balance, the fledgling nation won a revolution. It emerged from the crisis of the Civil War stronger than before. In World War II, it faced a threat to its existence from Nazi Germany and imperial Japan and ended up as the most powerful nation on Earth. Afterward, the existential threat came from the Soviet Union, yet America stood steadfast against communism and won the Cold War.
The common denominator in meeting these challenges was real leadership, from Washington to Lincoln to Roosevelt to Truman, up through Reagan and Bush 41, plus a strong supporting cast of leaders in lesser roles.
Today's existential threat comes in the form of a growing and unsustainable national debt that will destroy the financial foundation of the United States unless brought under control. But what do we have in the way of leaders to inspire Americans to face the threat with sacrifice, unity and resolve? A bunch of clowns resembling those of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, but far less entertaining.
Yet, democracies are based on the consent of the governed, which means all citizens bear responsibility for their nation's successes and failures. So as the New Year unfolds, perhaps Americans should take a look at the role they have played in creating the existential crisis in which the United States finds itself.
We could start by reflecting on an observation by the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville, who toured the United States during the 1830s and wrote the classic political treatise, Democracy in America. Unlike in Europe, Tocqueville found, people in the United States tended not to look to a central government to address problems. Instead, they banded together in communities and in civic organizations to work for a better quality of life, and this impressed Tocqueville.
In contrast, we live today in a society of crony capitalism, federal business bailouts, individuals clamoring for more and more government financial assistance, and communities and states calling on the federal government to pay the salaries even for teachers and police officers. As a result, the United States has accumulated a $16 trillion national debt and $120 trillion in unfunded liabilities.
Here's a novel New Year's resolution for individuals, businesses, cities and states: "We pledge not to ask the federal government to do for us what we should be doing for ourselves."
Kingsley Guy duels the issues with Stephen L. Goldstein on alternate Fridays. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.