By A.D. 200, the Roman republic was a distant memory. Few citizens of the global Roman Empire even knew of their illustrious ancestors such as Scipio or Cicero. Millions no longer spoke Latin. Italian emperors were rare. There were no national elections.
Yet Rome endured as a global power for three more centuries. What held it together?
A stubborn common popular culture and the prosperity of Mediterranean-wide standardization kept things going. The Egyptian, the Numidian, the Iberian and the Greek assumed that everything from Roman clay lamps and glass to good roads and plentiful grain were available to millions throughout the Mediterranean.
As long as the sea was free of pirates, thieves cleared from the roads, and merchants allowed to profit, few cared whether the lawless Caracalla or the unhinged Elagabalus was emperor in distant Rome.
Something likewise both depressing and encouraging is happening to the United States. Few Americans seem to worry that our leaders have lied to or misled Congress and the American people without consequences.
Most young people cannot distinguish the First Amendment from the Fourth Amendment — and do not worry that they cannot. Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln are mere names of grammar schools but otherwise unidentifiable to most.
Separatism is thought to bring dividends. In California, universities conduct separate graduation ceremonies predicated on race — sometimes difficult given the increasingly mixed ancestry of Americans.
As in Rome, there is a vast disconnect between elites and the common people. Almost half of Americans receive some sort of public assistance, and half pay no federal income tax. About one-seventh of Americans are on food stamps.
Yet housing prices in elite enclaves — Manhattan, Cambridge, Santa Monica, Palo Alto — are soaring. The wealthy like to cocoon themselves in Roman-like villas, safe from the real-life ramifications of their own utopian ideology.
The government and the media do their best to spread the ideals of radical egalitarianism while avoiding offense to anyone. There is no official war on terrorism or against radical Islamism. Instead, in “overseas contingency operations,” we fight “man-caused disasters” while at home deal with “workplace violence.”
In news stories that involve crimes with divisive racial themes, the media frequently paper over information about the perpetrators. But that noble restraint only seems to incite readers. In reckless fashion, they often post the most inflammatory online comments about such liberal censorship. Officially, America celebrates diversity; privately, America is fragmenting into racial, political and ideological camps.
Why is the United States not experiencing something like the rioting in Turkey or Brazil, or the killings of thousands in Mexico? How are we able to avoid the bloody chaos in Syria, the harsh dictatorships of Russia and China, the implosion of Egypt or the economic hopelessness now endemic in southern Europe?
About half of America and many of its institutions operate as they always have. Caltech and MIT are still serious. Neither interjects race, class and gender studies into its engineering or physics curricula. Most in the Internal Revenue Service, unlike some of their bosses, are not corrupt. For the well driller, the power plant operator and the wheat farmer, the lies in Washington are still mostly abstractions.
Get up at 5:30 a.m., and you will see that most of the nation’s urban freeways are jammed with hardworking commuters. Every day, they go to work, support their families, pay their taxes and avoid arrest — so that millions of others do not have to do the same. The U.S. military still more closely resembles our heroes from World War II than the culture of the Kardashians.
Like diverse imperial Roman citizens, we are united in some fashion by shared popular tastes and mass consumerism. The cellphones and cars of the poor offer more computing power and better transportation than the aristocracy enjoyed just 20 years ago.
Youths of all races and backgrounds in lockstep fiddle with their smartphones as they walk about. Jeans are an unspoken American uniform — both for the Wall Street grandees and the homeless on the sidewalks. Left, right, liberal, conservative, professor and ditch digger have similar-looking Facebook accounts.
If Rome quieted the people with public spectacles and cheap grain from the provinces, so too Americans of all classes keep glued to favorite video games and reality-TV shows. Fast food is cheap and tasty. All that for now is preferable to rioting and revolt.
Like Rome, America apparently can coast for a long time on the fumes of its wonderful political heritage and economic dynamism — even if both are little understood or appreciated by most who still benefit from them.
Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.