The Redcoats are coming! The Redcoats are coming!
Remember what your elementary school teacher taught you about the War of Independence? The British wore scarlet coats, which made them easy marks and symbolized institutional pomposity, adherence to status over efficiency and an out-of-touch empire bent on doing things the old way. The rebellious American colonists, on the other hand, wore whatever; they were nimble, unencumbered by institutional baggage and not too proud to employ guerrilla tactics.
Those lessons are as much about ideological indoctrination as they are about history. The secrets to America’s success, they tell us, are rebellion and innovation, the enemies of status and tradition.
The problem today, however, is that we’re the imperial power wearing the red coats. And we are so concerned about losing our global dominance that we’ve lost sight of the maverick qualities that made us preeminent in the first place.
Reflecting a widespread fear of internal decay and external competition, survey after survey shows that Americans think the country has seen its best days. Last month, a poll commissioned by the Hill newspaper found more than two-thirds (69%) of respondents think the U.S. is in decline, and 83% are very or somewhat worried about the nation’s future. Like almost everyone else on the globe, a growing number of us, according to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, believe that China will surpass the U.S. as the premier superpower.
But concern over America’s place in the world is one thing, hysteria is quite another. Paleoconservative commentator Pat Buchanan has just published a book, “Suicide of a Superpower,” in which he suggests that the United States will collapse by 2025. Likewise, Harvard historian Niall Ferguson, who only eight years ago argued that the U.S. was well positioned to play a constructive imperial role throughout the world, has a new book out in which he asserts the “imminence of our decline and fall.”
So noticeable is the naysaying that the editors of Foreign Policy magazine set up an online “Decline Watch” to track, and occasionally ridicule, the “gloom-and-doom punditry.” Each post comes with a rating system from 5 to 1. Five ( labeled “USA! USA!”) indicates good old-fashioned American triumphalism, and one (“We’re totally screwed. Start Learning Mandarin”) marks utter fatalism.
What this suggests is that Americans are spending entirely too much time defending their global status and not enough inventing a brighter future. It also suggests that being the sole world superpower is actually holding us back.
Our dominance has made us the castle on the hill rather than the rebels at the gate. And yet an essential component of our national M.O. is flouting the Old Guard. Indeed, the founders designed the U.S. government with the express purpose of constraining institutional power. When urging the states to ratify the new federal constitution in 1787, James Madison emphasized that the new American form of government derived its virtue from granting liberty to individuals rather than suppressing it with customs, tradition and social hierarchies.
Australian political scientist John Kane has gone so far as to argue that when the U.S. achieved global preeminence, there emerged an “irresolvable tension” between “American power and American virtue.” Sitting at the top precludes striving to be better.
As we’ve become more powerful, it’s not a stretch to say that it has changed the way we operate. It’s pretty much impossible to be iconoclastic and sacrilegious — essential elements in American inventiveness — and at the same time protective of one’s position of power.
Barry C. Lynn, the author of “Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction,” suggests that Americans’ growing infatuation with power has led us to cede too much control to corporate giants. Likewise, military historian Andrew Bacevich says our “penchant for empire” has fostered a culture of entitlement that saps innovation.
As a big portion of the world muddles toward what could be a catastrophic shutdown of the global financial system, Americans should keep in mind that our position at the top of the heap may have done us as much harm as good. Lynn is optimistic about our chances of surviving whatever gloomy days lie ahead. But it’ll depend on regaining our rebellious spirit.
“Everything is about to fall apart,” he told me over coffee last week. “The bright side is that we have an opportunity to reestablish our democracy after this plutocratic era. That’ll allow us to unleash pent-up creativity we need to rethink how we engineer competition and use corporations.”
So maybe America is in decline. But fretting about it won’t help a lick. It’s time to take off our red coats.