Societies and nations are very much like people in how stubborn and resistant to change they are. Few forces are actually capable of suddenly changing the base nature of people, on either a large or small scale, and it takes a great deal of sustained effort over a long period of time for them to change their own nature.
The only real exception is when change is enforced upon them, either by a stronger power or by a natural disaster. Even a change in leadership does not often change the way the people think. That takes literally generations to accomplish.
Take the American Revolution, for example. Most revolutions are characterized by a witch hunt-some new political force massacres the old-guard leadership and proceeds to enforce its will on the people who disagree (read stronger power, at least in part).
The American Revolution was really just a preservation of the status quo. America had attracted strong people in the century leading up to its revolution. They had to be, to survive in a new land and to push west across a continent, setting themselves against a hostile environment and putting down roots in new soil. Is it any wonder, then, that when England attempted to establish even the mildest taxes on the American people, that we did exactly what we had been doing for years? We dug in our heels and refused to budge. (Just for perspective-looking at the money involved, it would be like going to war over cigarette and gasoline taxes today.)
I think it's even fair to say that the stronger society won. American will for self-government broke the British will to control. America's freedom was truly born in the hearts and minds of the people who had been left by the British to govern themselves for nearly a century with little interference. When the king tried to reassert his power, even in a small way, Americans pushed back in a manner that was more in proportion to their will for freedom than to the provocation that had been offered. This is especially true, considering that England had just won the French and Indian War on America's behalf, at a cost that the tea and stamp taxes would not have repaid.
Societal momentum and human stubbornness can be seen in any number of different contexts. Germany showed incredible societal momentum when it attempted, not once but twice, to conquer the western world. Rome's societal momentum carried it to actual success in conquering and pacifying a comparable chunk of the world in its time. Roman society lasted for nearly a thousand years before it slowly waned and fell into ruin.
America has never even come close to attempting such a feat, regardless of what anyone tells you. The population of Germany and Rome were tiny compared to that of the rest of Europe. It would be like the United States trying to conquer the entire world at once. The American Imperialism that radicals scream about is just a high-school marching band in comparison to German or Roman ambitions.
Nor has American societal momentum ever really tended toward imperialism.
Historically, even when we had the power to enforce our will on other nations, all America has done to others is poke our nose in their business, not kill half of their population and transplant the others half way across the known world in the true imperial fashion.
So, then, what are we? It is certain that America is no longer the plucky survivor. We left that behind many years ago. So, too, we left behind the energy and drive that pushed us across the continent, into the industrial age and victorious through World War II.
In a historical sense, economic troubles are a passing woe. The real danger for America is that the stability of our government relies on the wisdom and integrity of its people, and those have been steadily on the decline for many years.
Societal momentum is a force in America, just like every other society, but momentum does not destine a society for greatness in either a good or evil sense. It simply carries that society to its logical destination, often in a spectacular and totally unstoppable fashion.
Right now, America is approaching a place where the track divides. For better or for worse, it seems obvious that we have left behind much of what we once were as a society, but like a freight train that took 200 years to build up steam, America still has its momentum. It does not take a prophet or a great statesman or even a trained navigator to point out the window of the train to where the tracks divide to lead either over the edge of a cliff or into the darkness of a tunnel and point out that one way or another, we are all in deep trouble.
All of the problems that we see in America today, chief among which I believe to be the overwhelming foolishness and shortsightedness of the vast majority of our people, are taking our country to the point where we are no longer capable of governing ourselves.
If we, the people, still have the will to attempt self-government, then our society will almost certainly collapse under its own weight. What, then, are the alternatives?
Anarchy is one possible end, though power normally concentrates instead of disintegrating. Historically, the most common end is either dictatorship, in which case America could easily be the next Rome, or foreign conquest, though in the case of a country with significant military might, that normally requires a substantial power vacuum.
Nothing seems really certain except that the current state of things will not remain sustainable for much longer.
Jared Michaud is a freelance writer living in Wyoming.