A while back, in a post titled The Rising Fall of the American Empire, I offered some thoughts about the parallels between ancient Rome and the United States. I’m certainly not the first or only person who has noted the striking similarities. Now that we are only days away from electing our next president, I’ve found myself contemplating the choice in terms, not of who can best keep America foremost among the nations of the earth, but of which candidate would best shepherd us into the inevitable sunset of Superpowerdom.
We don’t have to look all the way back to Rome to see what kind of national leader arises within a fading empire. Great Britain provides a modern glimpse of the evolution from formidable sovereigns of global dominance to affable, intelligent, but benign nursemaid of a nation’s dotage. Before the American hegemony, Great Britain’s was the empire upon which the sun never set. But as her power waned, the character of her leaders changed too. The British monarchy slowly but surely ebbed from the 19th century’s towering dominatrix Elizabeth, spiked at the wartime nova Winston Churchill, hesitated at his distant echo Margaret Thatcher, ultimately to ease into the very likeable, but decidedly tame Tony Blair, who set the tone for governing a marginal nation of faded glory.
By most accounts, America has already seen its last days as the world’s rightful overlord. There is a growing consensus (among conservatives and liberals alike) that the time is past for well-meaning but pugnacious leaders like George W. Bush who are convinced that the United States must remain the unrivaled power broker in the world. Insistence on unilateral privilege feels archaic and more often than not proves polarizing and unproductive. The need of the times, it seems, is a less strident, less prickly White House, one that does not define the United States by its enemies or insist that the U.S. play both savior and supreme judge of the world.
As I have been contemplating the choice between Senator McCain and Senator Obama, I have begun to ask, not which man most closely reflects my own perspectives, but which candidate would best preside over what I believe is the nation’s deserved, divinely mandated slide toward political twilight. This is a surprising consideration, one based not on the direction I think the country should go but on where I think it will go.
John McCain strikes me as someone who would not ride easy into the sunset of empire. His is an equation of good and evil, of inconvenient but inescapable responsibilities, of resistance. He is the levy protecting against the storm surge of hostile powers. He is Rocky Balboa who, in spite of the ravages of time, is always up for a fight. Obama, on the other hand, strikes me as one who could make the journey into memory palatable. He is reassuring, fueling comfort and hope by redefining the terms of engagement. He is a bright window to a cosmos that is essentially benevolent, a cosmos which would surely not assault a people who are reasonable, open, and self affirming. Obama is the sage who will help us like ourselves again.
The question is not which candidate can save us from national decline, but which one would best help us make the political and psychological transition from undisputed heavyweight champion of the world to a gracious, soft-spoken relic of a former glory. Which is the man who will teach us the beauty of eclipse? Who will shield us from our failures? Who will quiet the migraine of manifest destiny?