America in the World   /   Spring 2003   /    Survey Data

The Evidence for Empire

Carl Desportes Bowman

A common clipboard. Via Wikimedia Commons.

From Boston to Baton Rouge, from L.A. to Muncie, Americans are speaking a once-dormant language. It is a language of national purpose and pride, of strength and preemptive action, of national will, and even (in whispered tones) of empire. This survey report is based on a 2003 national survey, Difference and Democracy, conducted by the Center on Religion and Democracy. Difference and Democracy was based on a “hybrid” research design. A brief, nationally representative phone survey was used to recruit participants to complete a 235-question mail survey. A total of 1,724 American adults completed and returned their questionnaires.

The empire they envisage, unlike empires of old, seeks neither to save infidels nor to expand national borders. It seeks neither to win royal subjects nor to seize wealth or precious metals. It seeks none of these, at least overtly. The emerging empire, if empire it can be called, is inverted in ways that transmute the concept almost beyond recognition. Empire’s old, more Machiavellian connotations—authority, acquisition, subjugation, hegemony, extension, central control—are supplanted in much public discourse by a rather myopic focus upon its beneficent face—care taking, protection, order, and economic prosperity. What kind of empire proclaims a basic respect for national sovereignty while acting in ways that suggest some nations are more sovereign than others? What kind of empire promotes democratic self-rule, so long as the nascent “democracy” does not reject liberal tenets such as the separation of church and state? What kind of empire imposes its imperial will in the name of human freedom and liberation? What kind of empire mobilizes overwhelming military force on behalf of subjects not its own, with no intent of exercising its own political sovereignty? If this is “empire,” it is one sweetened by a narrative of altruistic purpose and self-sacrificing pursuits. Indeed, these seductive qualities may be the reason that empire is more closely tied to the realities of American power and foreign policy than to public discourse itself. If we learn anything about empire from the Center on Religion and Democracy’s 2003 Survey, Difference and Democracy, it is that Americans embrace things once considered imperial without necessarily framing them as empire.

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