‘The spectator who casts a mournful view over the ruins of ancient Rome is tempted to accuse the memory of the Goths and Vandals for the mischief which they had neither leisure, nor power, nor perhaps inclination to perpetrate. The tempest of war might strike some lofty turrets to the ground; but the destruction which undermined the foundation of those massy fabrics was prosecuted, slowly and silently, during a period of ten centuries. The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness…the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest…we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted so long…’: (Edward Gibbon: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire).
There are many who do not agree with the cyclical decline and fall thesis where nations have periods of growth and expansion that are followed by eventual twilight, and then new nations rise, and the wheel of fortune thus keeps spinning endlessly. The alternative thesis of the linear historical growth model, or manifest destiny, remains deeply embedded in the psyche and the politics of Americans as it is based on their actual historical experience.
The vast north American landmass became a continental country in the 18th century, the hegemon of the Western Hemisphere in the 19th century, and a global colossus in the 20th century. Indeed, this was the most linear path to expansion and growth that could ever be imagined. In accordance with our tendency to claim that we are victors by merit and villains by necessity, manifest destiny is stated to be the direct consequence of the special virtues and unique attributes of the gifted people, who have limitless capacity, nay the right, to continue unabated expansion and linear growth. It is natural for the beneficiaries of such a history of linear growth trajectory to believe that they are special and exceptional hence the historical laws of the rise and fall of nations may not apply to them.
Success has many fathers
It is interesting to observe how humans are eager to take credit for triumphs and accomplishments (as the saying goes, success has many fathers), but when profound consequences of suboptimal policy choices at last catch up and the sun starts to set, humans have the tendency to blame the twilight on external goths and vandals. ‘This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune, – often the surfeit of our own behavior, – we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as if we were villains by necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and teachers, by spherical predominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on: an admirable evasion of…man, to lay his…disposition to the charge of a star!’ (Shakespeare: King Lear).
Evidently, mortals are less inclined to make a confession of the ‘surfeit of our own behavior’, hence we tend to ‘make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars’, or external goths and vandals. Such evasive imputation on external agents is expected as it is against human nature and interest to make self-incriminating admissions.
Future of Manifest Destiny
This century has, however, dawned with new realities that are causing gargantuan transformations both in the domestic political structures of America and in the global balance of power. In this new era, the old confidence or hubris of a linear and infinite growth and expansion is slowly withering away. Historical laws that determine the rise and the fall of nations are slowly catching up with manifest destiny. As an outcome of these emerging new actualities, the painful reality of eventual sundown is slowly taking a seat in the hearts of the people, though there is yet no open admission of the oncoming dusk.
It is thus interesting to explore some questions: why has faith in manifest destiny declined? What could replace linear growth trajectory? Will democracy be able to solve the grievances of people who may have no choice but to climb down from their current ascendant position and become a new political minority? Will post-democracy models be explored by those reduced to new minority status inside the same country which they governed for more than three centuries? Could some segments of people prefer and opt for Apartheid-style or Brexit-like solutions (ala old confederacy) instead of choosing to live in a changed country where they are reduced to new political minority status? Could such domestic political alteration have implications for the entire English-speaking people around the world? Could the balance of power change if the global triangular relations are revised in which Russia and China join hands against the United States?
Of course, nothing in the future is certain and it will remain unpredictable. The objective of exploring these questions is to understand the ‘nature of the times deceased’, make sense of the changes that are brewing today, and to better grasp the new worlds that may emerge tomorrow from ‘their seeds and weak beginnings’:
Read more: Is US still the only superpower in world?
‘There is a history in all men’s lives
Figuring the nature of the times deceased,
The which observed, a man may prophesy,
With a near aim, of the main chance of things
As yet not come to life, which in their seeds
And weak beginnings lie intreasurèd.
Such things become the hatch and brood of time…’
(Shakespeare: King Henry IV-2).
Recapping America’s history and possible scenarios
Let us quickly recap how America reached where it is today in order to appreciate how contingent all historical trajectories are, despite their seeming inevitability to those who are in the center of the arena, and how many other futures were possible but did not happen due to policy choices made at that time by decision-makers. A few hundred years ago, infectious epidemic diseases caused the virtual genocide of indigenous people of North America, who had no immunity to the new diseases that the European colonists brought and spread amongst the locals. ‘The decimation of native Americans by European disease and genocide over five hundred years is indeed one of the great crimes of history’: (Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate).
After those twin calamities, there was no chance for the local populations to survive and grow, not to talk of maintaining their freedom and independence, except in a minimal number of reservations far away from new population centers where the Europeans congregated. Epidemic and genocide paved the way for European colonists to create a vast continental-country and an empire. The entirety of the land which was grabbed using the logic and rationale of manifest destiny thus came from those eliminated indigenous people.
It is an interesting ‘what if’ of history: what if all indigenous people had not died en-masse due to infectious epidemics, and what if they continued to exist and maintain large populations on the American continents? Would they be co-equals today: both the locals and the new European entrants living together in the same country? Or would the original people be colonized: both segments existing in similar population ratios, but under hierarchical relations with the European colonists on the top of the totem pole? Or would the indigenous people be colonized India-style: with the locals living in large segments under the minuscule ruling caste of European colonists? Or, would the indigenous people go on to have their own independent countries and the European colonists their own separate countries, and North America divided into multiple medium-size states, just like the South American continent is today?
Historically speaking many other futures were also possible. The current outcome (total mastery of a landmass) may seem to the beneficiaries as inevitable but was actually shaped by and contingent upon the decision of the political actors at that time in history. The key policy that needed to be rationalized and justified under the rubric of manifest destiny was land grab from coast to coast through the elimination of indigenous people that allowed ‘free’ land supply, and the main instruments that drove the entire process of this land grab was epidemic diseases and genocide.
America’s two icebergs
The current global pandemic has rekindled interest in the question how in the past infectious diseases (black death, plague, smallpox, measles, typhus, and cholera) drove change on many continents (including Americas, Australia, Asia and Europe), and how such mass-infectious diseases may also impact future historical change.
Today, it is not infectious diseases that are driving the historical transformation in America. A large segment of white people in America have now started to believe that they are suffering due to two changes: first, the asymmetric domestic population growth of non-white people, and second, the asymmetric external economic growth of China (and to some extent Russia). Such groups feel that their majestic titanic world is slowly sinking and drowning in the oceans of historical change after hitting these two icebergs.
In accordance with ‘this is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune’ we impute our troubles to external goths and vandals, such groups in America blame non-white people and external agencies for both these calamitous changes: non-white population segments are accused of outbreeding the local white people which is causing demography-driven domestic political change, and China is blamed for growing far too rapidly, and Russia is blamed for too much assertive global policies, thus shuffling the global balance of power and displacing America from its unipolar dream-world.
These two changes are the invisible well-springs of the two visible existential angsts of large segments of the white people in America: Immigration & Trade. The emotionally catchy, but completely fallacious, answer for these two existential fears comes in the form of The Wall and The Tariff, both of which are based on the same logic, according to which external goths and vandals are responsible for the creeping change and the sneaking decline. The fantasy marketed by the con-artists, who prosper on the dread and apprehension of the common people, is simple: we have done nothing wrong, we are the best people, we deserve our manifest destiny, and all the regression has emanated from differently hued people and from the external goths and vandals.
Such deceptive marketing carries two simple messages: we have found the reason for our creeping decline (Immigration and Trade), and do not worry about those two existential fears as we have also found the solution how our majestic titanic will survive these two icebergs (The Wall and The Tariff). The first message generates fear and anxiety, and the second one relaxes and assures that the final solution is on the way and that the savior has arrived who will erect The Wall (and thus stop non-white population growth) and who will impose Tariffs (and thus defeat China).
Domestic demographic change
Let us first look at the iceberg of domestic demographic change that has hit manifest destiny and is the source of the most deeply felt grievances among large segments of white people in America. According to reliable estimates, if the current asymmetric population growth rates hold, by the middle of 21st century, non-white people in America will attain numerical majority. Historical change was caused by the genocide of indigenous people; current change is driven by higher growth of non-white population segments in America, primarily those whose origins are in the southern part of the Western Hemisphere.
Historical change was caused by expansion of European colonist population; the current change is happening due to shrinking of white population segments in America. In the future, the white segments of the population will not be able to attain majority of votes without aligning themselves with other non-white people. This will indeed have serious political consequences for current dominant white population groups.
Human views and ideas are shaped and determined by their interests and needs. As circumstances and environment change, our views and ideas necessarily get altered. Once the current ascendant white population segment is reduced to the status of a political minority group, it is inevitable that its views and feelings about majority-rule (democracy) will drastically transform. It will stop supporting the existing social-contract under which the majority is expected to make the laws. The existing social-contract will be seen as outdated, redundant, and counter-productive, and demands for its amendment will become inevitable. The new minority group will stop trusting majority-rule (democracy) and will start exploring and supporting the so-called post-democracy models, serious intellectual exertion on which has already begun. It will suddenly be considered extremely unfair to allow a permanent political majority to decide the fate of the permanent minority.
The irony is that for many centuries, it was considered perfectly normal, nay normative, for the majority consisting of European-descent to decide all the matters that impacted the other minorities in America. But after this demographic change, it is highly probable that the norm of majority-rule (democracy) will be thrown out of the window and post-democracy models will become the newest fad, all in accordance with the immediate needs and interests of those white population groups who will be deprived of their current majority (hence ascendant) status.
Loss in numerical strength will not be the sole cause that will dethrone majority-rule (democracy) from its pinnacle position. The distrust of democracy will also be driven by unspoken but firmly held views about racial hierarchies. Large segments of the white population groups simply do not believe in ‘psychological unity of our species beneath the superficial differences of physical appearance and parochial culture’: (Steven Pinker: The Blank State). These are not secret beliefs, though in urban centers where diverse populations mingle and co-exist such racist beliefs are not openly espoused in order to avoid social friction and disharmony. In the rural areas of America such racist beliefs are widespread and are less discretely held.
The normative revision away from majority-rule (democracy) will thus not be triggered merely because of numerical loss. The underlying cause of anxiety is the fact that the self-acclaimed superior white people will be governed in the future by people of darker skin-colors, which automatically makes those differently hued people less worthy in the eyes of the current ascendant groups. Therefore, the creeping but coming change is doubly pernicious for the shrinking white population groups: first, they suffer numerical loss; second, displacement by those people who are firmly believed to be less worthy. This pernicious change will make majority-rule (democracy) suspect or even abhorrent for the shrinking population segments, whose laments about the change may not differ much from the ancient complaints of nobility:
‘More pity that (now) the eagles should be mewed
While kites and buzzards prey at liberty…
That wrens prey where eagles dare not perch.
Since every Jack became a gentleman,
That’s many a gentle person made a Jack….
While great [honours],
Are daily given to ennoble those
That scare, some two days since, were worth a noble…”.
Many on the western and the eastern sea-boards of America, however, do not subscribe to such racial views. Thus, there is no agreed solution to the question that has become the biggest elephant in the political arena: how to adjust to the fast-materializing domestic demographic shift that has such wide-ranging political consequences?
In the future, different segments of the population may come up with different solutions to tackle this gargantuan change, some opting for peaceful adjustment, while others opting for aggressive reaction, some even dreaming Apartheid-style controls, while others pursuing Brexit-like (ala confederacy) solutions, depending on the level of their felt grievances, their worldview about racial hierarchies, and their outlook about the future.
It would be unnatural to expect that those who are long accustomed to being at the top of the domestic totem pole will take all these three steps quietly and peacefully: first, to step down from their ascendant position; secondly, to allow other people to climb up the ladder while simultaneously holding the firm belief that the new people climbing the ladder actually deserve a lower station; and thirdly, to allow new people to govern the previously dominant white population groups.
To expect domestic political restructuring of such a gigantic magnitude to happen in a peaceful manner is not truly realistic, especially when the dispute resolution mechanism of democracy itself will be suspected or even abhorred. Most disgruntled groups will deploy other more potent means to remain on top of the totem pole. The January 2021 attempted putsch in Washington DC was just a short trailer of what can be planned and executed by internal goths and vandals in order to retain domestic control.
The events that unfolded in January 2021 in Washington DC categorically proved the lesson of history: the decline and fall are always the works of internal goths and vandals and blaming external factors and agencies is an ancient diversionary tactic of those who are beneficiaries of those domestic policies that ‘slowly and silently…undermine the foundation of the massy fabric’ (Edward Gibbon) and are causing the decline in the first place.
The current beneficiaries of policies that create extreme wealth and extreme poverty, conveniently and deceptively direct masses to place the blame for their shrinking worth in life on the external goths and vandals. Mortals hate to confess their faults; it is only true leaders who are destined to learn, change and re-grow that admit their own faults. Mortals blame others; true leaders look inside for cure and reform. Many such attempts, some even more organized and more violent, may be made in the future in order to take back control. The more the internal goths and vandals slip down the totem pole, the more they will fight back and deploy more aggressive tactics to stop the shift from happening.
It is but natural that these shrinking and aggrieved groups, once they become a numerical minority, will demand a new social-contract that will invert the current norms and allow the minority to be in control of the majority, which is the very definition of a non-democratic system or the quintessence of post-democratic systems.
The most notorious minority-control system was practiced in South Africa during the Apartheid era. If some among these waning population groups dream of converting America into new apartheid-style South Africa, they will need more than the attempted putsch of January 2021 to achieve their dream regime. Consistent and widespread violence necessary to implement and enforce an Apartheid regime will not be feasible and practical as it may result in a new civil war.
Other more drastic solutions may be explored and pursued by the peeved white population groups. They may start demanding new self-determination, Brexit-style solutions, separate states for themselves (ala old confederacy) where they can be the dominant majority once again. If they fail to reach a consensus on how to manage the demography-driven domestic political change, is it possible that America will become three separate states: US of Western seaboard, US of Eastern seaboard, and US of Midwest?
In the 19th century, such a Brexit-style solution was attempted in America during the civil war. The cause of the prolonged civil war was the desire of some segments of the population to ‘preserve their way of life’ and their refusal even to countenance merely the nominal change of the emancipation of the enslaved black people. It was only a nominal change as there was no threat in the 19th century that the emancipated black people were going to govern their former white masters or going to be treated at an equal level.
In fact, Abraham Lincoln continued reassuring the white segments of the population in America that the end of black slavery did not mean end of white ascendancy: ‘I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races…I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races from living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be a position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.’ (Abraham Lincoln: Debates with Sen. Stephen Douglas, 1858).
After the civil war, far from ruling their former white masters, the newly freed black people were not even allowed to cast a vote or sit in jury, and pro-slavery confederacy ‘preserved its way of life’ through other means and policies, that triggered a civil rights struggle which has yet to be judiciously resolved. The issue at stake in the 21st century is not the nominal emancipation of a small segment of the black population but irreversible and permanent minority status for the currently dominant white segments of the populations coupled with displacement by those people who are firmly believed as belonging to lower station in the racial hierarchies.
Unlike the emancipated black people after the 19th century civil war, the new majority will have the opportunity and the freedom to govern the land in accordance with the majority-rule (democracy) of the existing social contract. Thus, the irreversible shift that is happening in the 21st century is actually much more transformative than the issue that was at stake during the civil war of the 19th century.
And this colossal change does not have merely domestic implications. As America is the capital of the English-speaking world (which includes, inter alia, people of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and Britain), this shift in the domestic political structure in America will have far-reaching global implications. This domestic political transformation will mean that the global hub and center of the English-speaking people will in future will be governed by new groups of people who will speak multiple other currently peripheral languages. This will mean that the English language will also gradually be dethroned from its current position of lingua franca of the planet.
The English-speaking people in the rest of the world will also be seriously concerned as this will have an impact on alliances worldwide and the distribution of global power. The ‘special relationship’ between the English-speaking world, modulated by the hub in America, will be drastically frayed once the center itself will be governed by new people. The stakes and the consequential angst could not be higher, and the tribulation of this shift in fortunes and circumstances could not be deeper.
It is not credible to expect that people who could start a devastating and protracted civil war on an issue of nominal emancipation of a small segment of black population which was not going to dislocate them from their governing position, will quietly adjust without any resistance to all the irreversible changes that are happening now, especially when these changes will have repercussions not only for the English-speaking people in the rest of the world but will impact the distribution of global power. What is at stake now in domestic political restructuring in America is thus no less than the future of a continent, an empire, and the world itself.
Large segments of the white population in America, which are directly and adversely impacted by these demographic and political changes and by these tectonic power shifts, are deeply hurt and acutely apprehensive. This frustration and disquiet about irreversible demography-driven domestic political change in America has slowly eroded their previous confident world-view that was encapsulated in the concept of manifest destiny. This iceberg of domestic demographic change has thus the potential to sink the titanic of manifest destiny, the ripple effects of which will engulf the rest of the world and move global balance of power away from the English-speaking people of the world.
The second part of this article can be found here.
Asim Imdad Ali is currently a partner in an Islamabad-based law firm. He earlier served in Central Superior Services, at positions of increasing responsibility, in its prestigious DMG group (1992-2006), and later served as Head of legal and regulatory affairs in a major multinational company. He is LLB (gold) from Punjab University, LLM from Kings College London, and did Masters in Public Administration at Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University where he was an Edward S Mason Fellow. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.