People often compare America’s decline with the fall of Rome or the Ottoman Empire.
Another apt parallel to our time can be found in the British experience with the American Revolutionary War.
The British Army and Navy was much bigger, more well-trained, and more highly funded than the Continental Army, and most observers — on both sides of the conflict — were convinced that the American uprising would be short lived.
They turned out to be wrong, mainly because of a little-known revolution that changed everything. Historian Joseph J. Ellis described it eloquently:
“[T]he strategic center of the [American] rebellion was not a place — not New York, not Philadelphia, not the Hudson corridor — but the Continental Army itself.”
The British thus got their tactics all wrong. They were accustomed to fighting armies in a place, taking over the homes and controlling the travels and commerce of a locale, and using this strength to force submission.
They did all these things in the American colonies, but it didn’t work because the Continental Army simply moved.
This was a new reality, and the British didn’t figure it out and adjust until it was too late.
This is what happens when true human revolutions occur. The changes in the people happen quickly, but institutions can take years or decades to catch up and adapt.
The British generals thought the goal was to take over New York, or Boston, but by misunderstanding the goal they failed to win. They achieved their goals, but never obtained victory.
A similar thing happened, albeit on a different scale, in the Vietnam conflict nearly two centuries later. A bigger force was unable to use superior technology and firepower to overcome guerrilla warfare.
The French and later the American forces thought the goal was to win in battle, but their enemy simply wanted to outlast them. The Soviet Union learned the same lesson in Afghanistan.
In our day, we face an even bigger problem. We seem to be an America headed nowhere. Many people believe in American exceptionalism, and others disagree with this view, but few are clear on exactly what is exceptional — or not — about the United States.
This challenge is rooted in a significant problem: The concept of “America” has lost its original meaning.
Many Americans want the U.S. to be great, to be the world’s superpower, to be the most free, wealthiest and strongest nation on earth. They want it to be an example to the world, to stop modern Hitlers and check modern Stalins and Maos. Or they want it to be like the nations of Europe and work as a team to improve the world.
In all of these, the heart is missing. The passion is gone. People still speak with fervor for their partisan views or against those they dislike, but America doesn’t anymore speak with one, united, unmistakable voice for one great thing.
The problem is that the ground has shifted. Like the British in 1780 or the French and Americans in 1960s Vietnam, we keep hitting our goals only to realize that aren’t winning.
“Why?” we ask, as we struggle to make sense of it all.
We have come to consider America great because America is great, but this isn’t enough. We look at power, wealth and strength, and we wonder why these are in decline. We want them back.
We want good, secure jobs for our kids in a time where such jobs are very rare.
We want the promise of “staying in school, getting a good job, and then making enough to support a family,” to still be real — even though the evidence shows it is clearly now a myth.
We want our kids to grow up and obtain a better standard of living than we have, even though nearly all Americans now doubt this will occur.
We want America to be America again, and we blame Washington, Wall Street, Hollywood, NBC or Fox News, Congress or the CIA, illegal aliens who come looking for a better life, or anyone else who might fit the bill.
We want America to be America, but we have forgotten what this requires.
Indeed, we have forgotten that America wasn’t great because of our wealth, power or strength. America was great because it embraced freedom. Of course, it was the kind of freedom that put God at the center, that believed in duties as well as rights, that printed everywhere the motto “In God We Trust.”
It certainly wasn’t the libertine kind of freedom that said anything goes as long as you are strong enough to force your will on others. It was the opposite of this.
Nor was it the kind of freedom that was limited to voting in elections, waving a flag on the 4th of July, and otherwise leaving our nation’s leadership to the politicians and experts. That kind of freedom never lasts.
American freedom was built on a nation of people who read the great classics of freedom, who studied bills, laws, court cases, proposed treaties and budgets.
If we aren’t such people now, it is no surprise that our freedoms are being lost.
America became great because it stood for freedom. America is only now great to the extent that it still, too rarely, stands for real freedom.
It was freedom that brought American wealth, strength and progress — not vice versa. It was freedom that made America a light to the world, not the other way around.
And because we now give significantly less passion or effort or thought to freedom, we are losing it.
We want American greatness back, but American greatness was built on, in a word, freedom.
It bears repeating: Freedom made America great. Today we are losing our greatness, and we will continue to do so unless — and until — freedom is once again put at the center of our society.
A revolution came after World War II, when most people stopped reading and approaching their citizenship in the ways described above.
What is needed today is another revolution, a revolution in reading and entrepreneurship. This one change — regular citizens reading great classics, studying government documents, and engaging more entrepreneurship — will bring back freedom.
These are what free people in history have always done. When they, or their posterity, stopped doing these things, they lost their liberty.
This is what Orrin Woodward and I wrote about in our book, LeaderShift. America needs a bunch of regular people to start leading. To start making these changes. To read, study government documents, and innovate in business.
We can do this, and unless we do freedom will continue to decline.
The future of freedom, and America, is up to us.
Among many other works, he is the author of A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the 21st Century, The Coming Aristocracy, and FreedomShift: 3 Choices to Reclaim America’s Destiny.
Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.