Arguably there were several points during Rome's long and ugly fall at which a twist of history might have averted chaos and barbarism. If Gaius Gracchus had not established the bread donative as a sacred right, of course -- that is the easiest "what if." Rome at that time (2nd century B.C.) was a strong and independent republic of fierce and loyal warriors, demanding self-discipline and virtue from her citizens. Her leaders refused on principle to call themselves "king" -- but that was before they discovered that they could call themselves something else and have all the power of a king, and then some. With the establishment of statist welfare provision as a sacred right, the plebeians became a permanent dependent class and their support automatically went to their feeders.
If only the party of Marius and the party of Sulla had avoided violent retribution against their political enemies, but instead practiced some of that historical self-discipline (it was a recent memory then) in steering Rome toward a course that didn't involve demagoguery. If only Julius Caesar had been less imperialistic, or, if not that, once he had conquerered Gaul, if he had retired quietly to Rome without his army like Cincinnatus, content to act in an advisory role in the Senate. After his assassination, if Augustus had been less insistent on his own godlike prerogatives and turned his considerable administrative skills to supervising a reasonable transfer of power to the Senate. Certainly, it would have been nice if Augustus had chosen a wiser successor than Tiberius; better yet, if he had set up a system for ensuring a peaceful succession that did not depend on one man's ego.
Tiberius. Tacitus complains about Tiberius that new words had to be invented to describe the depravities he committed. There was to be no change for the better under his rule; in fact, the Praetorian Guard took on new and excessively unsavory duties, while Tiberius himself disengaged from public affairs and left governance to his underlings, who had their own agendas.
There were brief moments when the Republic might have been restored, or at least, the absolute power of tyrannical emperors might have been curtailed. There were even a few good emperors; "good" in that they were competent administrators and took necessary steps to ensure peace and stability - Vespasian, Titus, Trajan, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius. But the high places were not destroyed, and they continued to accept and even demand the worship of the people as a basic pledge of allegiance. And of course they continued the official policy of persecution of Christians, that dangerous sect loyal to a city not of this world, who were viewed as dangerous because they were not "Roman" enough.
Marcus Aurelius, the scholarly Stoic. He had considerable wisdom as a philosopher, but spent his life in the saddle carrying out increasingly futile wars against masses of barbarians. Plagues and natural disasters added to the burden of leadership. He also was curiously unwise in his selection of his son Commodus as his successor. Commodus was narcissistic and perverse, and his reign began a period of social instability and financial collapse lasting more than 100 years. The Praetorian Guard could be bribed by anyone who really wanted to be emperor; but as soon as money to pay the legions ran out, so did the emperor's time in office. The people who had once refused on principle to negotiate with an armed enemy took to paying off the barbarians to leave them alone. By the time marginally competent leadership emerged once again, it was too late. Rome had lost its cultural integrity and its ability to convince the world that "Roman" was a good thing. The Empire was too big to be ruled by one man, and even the barbarians knew it. It has been fashionable for centuries to blame the Christians for the fall of Rome, but that argument ignores the very obvious trail of internal corruption and self-absorption that is available to any serious student of history.
The American presidential election last Tuesday gave us an extremely clear-cut choice; I see it as a little like choosing between Tiberius and Marcus Aurelius. And we rejected a decent, capable, intelligent man in favor of a self-absorbed, detached man-child who sends his own thugs out to do his bidding while trying to find himself. But as long as we get our free birth control and entertainment, about 50.5% of Americans prefer to return the party that feeds us to power. Granted, there were good leaders after Tiberius and very few after Marcus Aurelius. Granted, Obama is not the pervert that Tiberius was, and Romney is a Mormon, not a Stoic (both of which have been confused with Christianity in the past, by the way). A checkpoint has been passed, and we are quite a bit further down the road to chaos. When the Chinese become the majority shareholders in the American GNP, when Russia demands even more "flexibility," when the true barbarians in the world today demand that we implement Sharia law, will we have enough cultural cohesiveness to stand up to them? Will we be able to convince them that being American is a good thing?
If you want some analysis more directly related to the election, I enjoyed David Bahnsen's blog post. For the ominous implications of Obamacare alone, check out this article. Plenteous opportunities for observing the political circus games can be found on the Drudge Report. And how about those incredible imperial scandals with the Petraeus Guard, I mean the Praetorian Guard, and the various cherchez-la-femmes associated with them? Who even lives like that?! For us plebeians raising kids in non-gated communities, working a dead-end job that barely pays for the gasoline for the commute, it's quite entertaining to see the soap operas unfold. It keeps our minds off the worry that we will be forced into the bread lines next.