IS THE UNITED STATES AN IMPERIAL POWER? I would say that it is, and that the evidence for this view is overwhelming. We spend more on our military than all of our main rivals — combined. Our troops garrison the world, we have bases on every continent, our Navy rules the waves, and so on. We are not the world’s most powerful country just by some accidental circumstance, but by design.
Here is Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind describing a 2002 conversation he had with a “senior adviser to President Bush” (who is widely believed to be Karl Rove, though Suskind has not confirmed this):
“The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’”
Putting aside the glaring hubris of that official’s remarks, I would say he was wrong to use the descriptor “now.”
The temptation to empire is nothing new in the United States. It was certainly there throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. Manifest Destiny, the Mexican-American War of 1846, the Spanish-American War and other imperialistic impulses and enterprises betrayed the trajectory of the nation. Given all that and given the different missions of democracies and empires, democratic tension has been inevitable and constant. Empires serve and are run by elites; democracies (in theory, at least) serve and are run by demos, the people. Empires are maintained by violence, either implicit or acted upon. Democracies depend for their health on the consent of an educated, engaged citizenry.
Former New York Times foreign correspondent and author Chris Hedges sees our predicament in bleak terms:
“The words ‘consent of the governed’ have become an empty phrase. Our textbooks on political science and economics are obsolete. Our nation has been hijacked by oligarchs, corporations, and a narrow, selfish political and economic elite, a small and privileged group that governs, and often steals, on behalf of moneyed interests. This elite, in the name of patriotism and democracy, in the name of all the values that were once part of the American system and defined the Protestant work ethic, has systematically destroyed our manufacturing sector, looted the treasury, corrupted our democracy, and trashed the financial system.”
While I think Hedges speaks truth here, I also think he’s missing something: that you and I have the power to transform the country from an imperialist oligarchy to a functioning democracy. One of the great enemies of elitism, after all, is math: There will always be more of us than there are of them. All it takes is enough of us to catch on to the game, and we can put an end to it.
Another enemy of oligarchy is hope. Martin Luther King used to say that “You can’t ride a man’s back unless it is already bent.” Despair and passivity in the face of evil is the worst kind of cowardice. I hear far too many people say, “The American people are way too caught up in ‘American Idol’/Justin Bieber/(insert example of brainless bread-and-circuses distraction here) to wake up and take action.”
Such pointless (and groundless) despair betrays every sacrifice made by every labor organizer, every freedom rider, every abolitionist and every other citizen who sacrificed and risked all to change this country for the better. Americans from every walk of life have always stood for justice and against tyranny and slavery, often at the cost of their lives. We owe it to them to continue the struggle to make America a place where everyone’s voice matters, not just the media-amplified voice of the rich and powerful.
I think it is vital that any action taken in the cause of social justice depend on nonviolence for its legitimacy. Oligarchies rely on violence to impose their will; democracies depend on the consent of the governed. King again:
“(T)he nonviolent resister seeks to attack the evil system rather than individuals who happen to be caught up in the system. And this is why I say from time to time that the struggle in the South is not so much the tension between white people and Negro people. The struggle is rather between justice and injustice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. And if there is a victory it will not be a victory merely for fifty thousand Negroes. But it will be a victory for justice, a victory for good will, a victory for democracy.”