If we take the idea seriously, that the United States has not become an empire, but always, since its founding, has been an empire, we could be situated, I believe, better to evaluate its present position.
If ever there is a political arrangement which distorts actual facts in service of an imagined ideological view, it is that of an empire. The German Empire, for example, was always an affair that corresponded very badly with the actual political facts, whether you are talking about the Holy Roman Empire of the 14th century or the Wilhelmenian Empire of the late 19th century; the first of these spoke (without admitting it) of a force which rested on Papal tolerance of a sort of subordinate in Europe north of the Alps, the second unified a state in Central Europe which rested upon the (assumed) hostility of the states, France and Russia, to either side. Once France and Russia became allies, the German Empire was unable to go to war — either in the First World War or the Second. Hitler succeeded so long as he could count on French (and English) estrangement from Russia. The wonderful accomplishments of the magnificent German People counted for very little, in the end.
A little more reflective of our present circumstances is the Soviet Union. The ideological blinders are even more evident in that history than in that of the German empire. Here, in what really was, both before and after the 1917 revolutions, a Russian empire, there was (before the revolutions) an imagined special destiny which ruled out any change from an autocratic state totally inappropriate for an industrialized society, followed by (after them) a magnificent belief system, with virtually no basis in reality, proclaiming an economic system run by and for the working class. From total denial to proclamation of utopia, with no acknowledgement of reality, even as an intermediate between the two. Wow.
The American Empire rests, I think it fair to say, upon a belief in ineluctable progress. I’m not saying things have always gotten better — certainly not for the Native Americans — but that the imperial ideology rests upon that belief. The most searching examination of this, to my knowledge, was Christopher Lasch’s most penetrating and ambitious work, The True and Only Heaven, the 1991 work which showed the erasure we have applied throughout the history of the country, to those who opposed the various “progressive” economic, social, and political changes which destroyed groups hitherto enjoying autonomy and self-reliance.
Not the Enlightenment thinkers, but the Calvinist theologians, appreciated the costs of the establishment of industrial factories; not the unions, but the rural populists, imagined a radical future of equal dignity for all. And, in the twentieth century, Lasch argues, the Civil Rights movement succeeded in the South because of a supposedly “backward” community of religiously-connected poor blacks, and failed in the North because of the very lack of that ethic of responsibility. It wasn’t “white racism” in the North that defeated Martin Luther King, since it was if anything stronger in the South, where he succeeded. It was a shared community with white people in the South that informed the common struggle and which had been lost by the dominance of secular individualism in the North.
In those circumstances (setting aside the reasons and arguments Lasch advances in favor of his thesis), the construction of an “identity politics” within the imagined realm of the American Empire is fatal to its existence. To insist that we must divide the resources and wealth according to population groups — a tactic, that, to be fair, has worked in many other circumstances and situations — undercuts radically the ideology which supports the imperial enterprise.
Personally I consider the American Empire a brutal installation of exploitation by violent means of global hegemony. Its dissolution is not something I consider an unmitigated evil. But speaking from an impersonal viewpoint, it is interesting that just that attitude which will destroy the cohesive myth that holds the country together, as an empire with a raft of competing populations and groups, is the one most popular with current educated opinion.