The election of Barack Obama and a hard left Congress has not been a boon to the cause of individual liberty in the United States. Obama has worked hard to advance his goal of transforming America into a government-controlled, social welfare state. Among other steps, he has: appointed two ultra-left Supreme Court Justices; filled the executive branch with all manner of socialist radicals; proposed, and had adopted by a complicit Congress, budgets with deficits guaranteed to bankrupt the nation; nationalized car companies, insurance firms and financial institutions; excused GSEs Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac from culpability in the creation of the housing bubble; prolonged the 2007-2008 economic downturn by pursuing ruinous Keynesian policies; refused to enforce immigration laws in the hope that the ensuing flood would boost leftist voting rolls; weakened America’s strategic defenses; and changed our foreign policy posture from strength to obsequiousness.
These stunning achievements are topped by Obama’s three signature “triumphs”: the (nearly) one billion dollar stimulus bill, Obamacare and “finance reform”. Thus far, fortunately, the US has been spared amnesty for more than 10 million illegal aliens, as well as cap and trade, but it is feared that he will try, with his duplicitous allies in the federal bureaucracy and Congress, to impose these de facto through executive action (or inaction as the case may be).
It is not surprising, therefore, that those of us who oppose his makeover of America should be feeling somewhat dejected. One manifestation of that demoralization is the appearance of a host of gloom and doom books on the future of America. The author reviewed two of them recently in this journal (http://www.thelandofthefree.net/conservativeopinion/2010/07/24/the-future-of-america-is-the-prevailing-pessimism-warranted/). Those books do not paint a cheery picture; indeed, they foresee America sinking into a collectivist morass of big government, declining freedom and vanishing prosperity.
However, it is gratifying to learn that the doomsayers have not cornered the market. Several books, which can only be described as bullish on America, have also been written recently by conservative authors. Two of the best are: To Save America by Newt Gingrich and After the Hangover by R. Emmet Tyrrell. These authors acknowledge the damage done by Obama and his leftist minions, but they look forward optimistically to a strong, resilient and prosperous America nevertheless – and they tell us what we need to do to get there. Is their optimism warranted? I will attempt to answer that question in this piece.
First, it is irrefutable that there is much cause for pessimism. The contents of the two introductory paragraphs above provide said cause. But rather than pile on with more concrete examples of the woes that the left has inflicted on unwary Americans, let me identify four major themes that will highlight the gravity of the problems we face.
1. The length of the path that we’ve already travelled is great. The nature of American politics and society would be unrecognizable to our Founders. Over the last 100 years, America has ceased to be a limited government republic that enjoys free markets and is also a bastion of liberty and a beacon of freedom to the world. Through the corrosive influence of the progressive movement, we have morphed into more of a Euro-style social welfare state, with a gargantuan government and a mixed economy – more of a populist democracy than a Constitutional republic, a nation that is not particularly admired or feared around the world. We would have to travel a very long road back to restore America to its founding ideals.
2. This transformation is not widely understood by the populace, and where it is understood, many approve. The people have been so thoroughly brainwashed by the media, academia, the legal profession, politicians and the education establishment that they have completely lost sight of what America used to stand for. They cannot imagine a US without government entitlement programs, direct election of Senators or the federal income tax. Yet a century ago, none of those existed. A liberal was a person like Madison, de Tocqueville or Gladstone who believed in individual liberty and that government posed the greatest threat to its existence.
3. The character of the American people has changed. Whereas we were once a fiercely self-reliant people who looked to our family, friends and neighbors, religious and civic organizations and above all ourselves to deal with our problems, today we increasingly depend on the government. We have traded liberty for security. More specifically, the proportion of the population that depends on the government for its sustenance – as a salaried employee, grant recipient, benefits recipient, contractor or in any other of the myriad ways that one’s personal finances or welfare may be intimately tied to federal purse strings – that percentage is impossible to estimate precisely, but it is inordinately high and growing.
4. Sheer magnitude of the required correction. Suppose miraculously the American people came to their senses and decided to restore America to its traditional mode and values. We would need to dramatically downsize the Federal Government: eliminate scores of departments and agencies; lower taxes and spending; curtail regulatory powers; divest property; and drastically shrink that unstated percentage described in #3. While in the long run, this would be of enormous benefit to the country and its citizens; in the short run, it would be exceedingly painful for a huge number of people. Could we find the political and economic will to initiate and sustain such a difficult course of action?
Now let’s turn the page on the preceding gloomy assessment and examine a few of the causes for optimism at this stage. Here we will highlight some of the themes that run through the works of Gingrich, Tyrrell and other optimists.
• Saving remnant. As the emergence of the Tea Party movement shows, there remains in America a saving remnant – a small but passionate group of people who have not forgotten the true historic nature of American society, who remain committed to the ideals of individual liberty, free markets and Western Civilization, and who wish to purge the country of the sickness of collectivism that has infected it. The remnant probably constitutes no more than 20, perhaps 25% of the population; but its desire to restore America to the principles of freedom, individual responsibility and American exceptionalism laid down by the Founders is fervent.
• The ‘independents’ are fed up. The percentage of the population devoted to individual liberty and a Constitutional republic is probably matched by the number devoted to its antithesis. The hard core leftists who wish to complete the transformation of the US into a multicultural, collectivist, Euro-style, social welfare state also comprises likely 20-25% of the nation. That leaves roughly half of the population in neither camp, the ‘independents.’ People might fall into this category because they are apolitical, confused or ignorant. Unfortunately, many of these are also brainwashed and so routinely side with the left. How else to explain why, despite the rough parity in basic strength, the left has been able to outmaneuver the right for nigh on a century. But there are clear signs that the wantonly corrupt and destructive behavior of our current liberal regime (the Obama-Pelosi-Reid gang) has seriously gotten under the skin of the independents. Many of them are waking up to recognize the dreadful destination that the gang has in store for us. The independents are not happy about it and they are reevaluating their core beliefs or lack thereof.
• Obama’s success is far from total. Yes, he got the ‘stimulus,’ Obamacare and ‘financial reform.’ but he didn’t get cap and trade, card check and amnesty for illegal aliens, and Fox News is still on the air. All is not lost yet. Yes, he can still wreak a lot of damage in the 29 months left until – God willing – he is tossed out of the White House. But hopefully the forthcoming midterm elections will substantially cripple his ability to implement his nefarious agenda. One might even hope that the momentum to recapture America from his and his cronies’ collectivist clutches will continue to build.
• Nancy Pelosi. There is no better symbol for the 21st century liberal than Nancy Pelosi – angry, mean-spirited, arrogant, dictatorial, closed-minded, and downright unpleasant to look at or listen to. She represents perfectly the bleak vision that modern liberalism wants to impose on America – a future of enforced equal poverty, subservience to a gargantuan federal government composed of haughty bureaucrats and elitist politicians, diminution of America’s historic role as a bastion of freedom, and a multicultural polyglot of favored groups and compliant individuals. An increasing number of Americans see her liberal agenda for the calamity it would inflict and they are recoiling in horror. Perhaps it took too long to recognize the true nature of the liberal utopia that Nancy, Barack and their ilk have planned for us – but better late than never. This dastardly duo has given America a clearer vision and a better understanding of the utopia that awaits.
• Ronald Reagan. There is no better symbol for the 21st century anti-liberal than Ronald Reagan – optimistic, cheerful, modest, kind-hearted, clear-thinking and mindful of history. He represented perfectly the grounded, yet vast vision of the grand experiment in individual liberty that America’s Founders intended for us. Although not strictly speaking a religious person, he understood that man is not the ultimate arbiter of his fate. Reagan preached that there is an unseen power that has contributed at least as much as man to the unfolding human drama and that the liberal atheist’s faith in human ability to totally plan mankind’s future is as dangerous as it is foolish. America resonated to Ronald Reagan. America is revolted by Nancy Pelosi. That is certainly cause for optimism.
• Center-right. Finally, polls, pundits and politicians continue to acknowledge that the American people remain more center-right than center-left. The instincts of the majority of the independent camp lean right – even if their behavior has unfortunately often tilted left. Perhaps that explains why it took the progressives a century to (nearly) achieve their objectives. If we are truly on the cusp of a counter-revolution, then unlike the progressives, we traditionalists/conservatives/19th century liberals will be swimming downstream as we try to correct the egregious mistakes of the last 100 years. Maybe we can get it done in half, or even a quarter of the time.
Obama repeats ad nauseam that it was George Bush’s policies that put America in its current doldrums – seemingly, idiotically unaware that there is a remarkable degree of similarity between his (i.e., Obama’s) policies and those of his much-maligned predecessor. They both ran up huge budget deficits, expanded government regulation, initiated massive new entitlement programs, increased the power of the federal government at the expense of the people and the States, and failed to set clear goals in the battle against Islamic fundamentalism. Yes, they had some differences (on taxes, nature of Supreme Court appointments, various social issues). But in the grand scheme of things with regard to moving America from a Constitutional republic to a statist society, they are cut from the same cloth. Of course, Obama is much more extreme in the collectivist direction than Bush, but Obama’s assertion that he is the anti-Bush is laughable.
The latter point and many of those in the bullets above are treated in the current small spate of optimistic books. Here are the final two paragraphs from the two books I cited earlier:
Gingrich. We [the American people] have the energy and we have the determination to save America. November 2010 will be our first big chance to render judgment on the Left’s healthcare bill, and two years later we’ll have another opportunity. It’s easy to despair, but that energy is better put toward preparing for these elections, which will be the most consequential of our lifetime.
We must speak out, organize, and never forget what’s at stake: our livelihood, our freedom, and our precious country.
Tyrrell. Viewed from the perspective of history, the Liberals have been in a long, slow, but apparently unavoidable decline since the 1960s, when for them history stopped. From their excesses in the early Obama administration, it is clear that they completely missed the 1980s and 1990s. They have become fantasists. They believe all the legends they have created for themselves. As one after another is defeated at the polls, it might be difficult to get them to vacate their offices. Special counselors may have to be called in.
America’s political center is now a center shaped by conservatism. With the growth of the conservative counterculture, the prospects are good for conservatism now to do what it should have done in the 1980s and act not merely like a political party but like a political culture. Finally, the conservatives can stop pulling each other back. They stand poised to create what the New Deal created, a New Order. History rarely repeats itself, but it does occasionally approximate itself.
I pray that we are truly on the cusp of a counter-revolution to the progressive hegemony that has dominated our politics and culture and which has done so much terrible damage. But I want more than what Reagan and Gingrich were able to bring about. They achieved at best a slowdown in the inexorable march to the left that the US has been on for decades. I want it reversed – irrevocably. I want my grandchildren to look back in 50 years and understand that their beloved America was almost lost because of traitorous progressives who introduced the poison of collectivism into the American bloodstream, and also due to the lack of faith by the people in the historical purpose, culture and values of the nation. My grandchildren should be incredulous that these developments almost cost us our freedom and they must be dedicated to preventing progressives and self-doubt from ever threatening the country again.
Is that too much to hope for? Is it too great a miracle to count on? Human history is replete with shocking and unanticipated developments – both good and bad. Ahead of the actual occurrences, few if any foresaw: the fall of the Soviet Union, the Holocaust, the rebirth of Israel, the advent of the United States, the carnage of the Great War or of the American Civil War. Perhaps the rebirth of the United States as a limited government republic devoted to the ideals and laws of our Constitution and Declaration of Independence, drawing inspiration from 19th century liberalism, is not beyond the realm of possibility. Perhaps all that is required is to remind the people of Franklin’s famous quote: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
This essay also appeared in The Land of the Free; as did the following essay, which was inadvertently deleted in the transfer of the blog from Townhall to this site:
The Future of America: Is the Prevailing Pessimism Warranted?
There is no denying the heightened level of concern among the public for the future of our nation. Polls consistently reveal that optimism among American adults about the future welfare of their children and grandchildren is plummeting. Angry town hall meetings, anti-incumbent sentiment and the rapid growth of the Tea Party movement all reflect the deep misgivings that increasing numbers of Americans feel about what’s in store for our country. Another manifestation: there is no shortage of doom and gloom books that give vent to these concerns. Although these books have a common theme – namely, America is in trouble and if we don’t reverse course, the nation may cease to exist in the form that we have known it for more than two centuries – both the root cause of the malady and the remedies prescribed to fix it vary from book to book.
Most lay the blame squarely at the feet of the Leftist regime that has come to rule over America during the last 75-100 years. The common theme is that we have lost our way as a ConstitutionalRepublic founded on individual liberty, limited government and a traditional culture based on the tenets of Western Civilization and replaced it with a Euro-style, social welfare state that prizes equality of outcome, massive government control of all aspects of society and a secular creed steeped in multiculturalism.
Two representative examples that I read recently are: The Tyranny of Liberalism, by James Kalb (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2008) and The Struggle to Limit Government by John Samples (Cato Institute, 2010). I single these out not because they are the best of the genre – in fact, I think they are among the least attractive of the lot – but because each makes a critically important observation that is worth emphasizing.
Kalb’s book is really an exercise in political philosophy and psychology. His subtitle: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command is a giveaway to what the reader may expect to find in his tome. It is a treatise in behavioral psychology, seeking to explain what motivates liberals to believe and behave as they do, how their increasing dominance affects the members of society and why – in Kalb’s belief – what they have created is ultimately unstable and will eventually cause the collapse of society. It is a book that could easily serve as a text in a graduate school psychology or sociology course, which explains why it has not topped the best seller’s list.
But it does have one remarkably redeeming feature. In Chapter 5, entitled “Are Objections to Liberalism Overstated?”, Kalb presents one of the most compelling litanies of the perverse accomplishments of American liberalism that I have ever read. If I may be permitted several trenchant quotes:
“Continued faith in liberalism is supported by the common view that whatever its flaws, American society today is much more fair and decent than in the past. The correctness of that view is quite doubtful. Past discriminations led to many evils, but the triumph of advanced liberalism in the sixties has meant worse. Recent social changes have taken mothers away from their children; forced children to grow up without fathers; led women to destroy their children before or during birth; taught boys there is nothing specifically good about manhood or respectable about women; told girls that they are victims, predators, and commodities; destroyed common culture and common sense; multiplied crimes and prisons; increased economic disparities and the working week; imposed pervasive bureaucracies of racial preference and thought control; and led to rabid and mindless political partisanship, a radical decline in intellectual and cultural standards, and the degrading entertainment now seen on television and in theaters. There is nothing fair or decent about forcing people to live, and young people to grow up, in such a setting.
The welfare state makes us clients rather than actors. It makes us useless to each other. It separates conduct from consequences and undermines personal responsibility. It weakens connections between the sexes and generations by insisting that dependence on particular persons is wrong. It deprives personal loyalty and integrity of their place and function by making us rely on the system as a whole rather than on ourselves and each other. The result is that people feel alienated and lack civility, couples do not stay together or have children, the ones they do have are badly brought up, and men and women do not know how to treat each other. In the long run—with the growth of crime, corruption, abusiveness, and other social disorders—costs soar, efficiency drops, dependency outruns productivity, and the system loses the ability to achieve its basic end of securing a reliable minimum of security and well-being.
The changes brought about by the radicalization of liberalism in the sixties and thereafter have hurt the weak and marginalized more than anybody. The liberation of women and of sex has deprived women of masculine support, feminized poverty, and turned girls into sexual commodities…Gay lib has liberated conduct that destroys lives by glamorizing acting on weaknesses and facilitating preying on the confused. Black progress slowed or reversed in most ways for most blacks after the sixties, the period that was supposedly a new dawn in fairness and decency on racial issues. None of that is progress, any more than it is progress to make people generally worse—less social, loyal, and disciplined, and more grasping, cynical, and self-involved—and to deprive them of concrete models and standards for a good life. All those conditions have been consequences of a post-sixties order emphasizing social justice and consequently downplaying the need for people to keep their own lives in order and to treat each other well in daily life.”
These powerful remarks are backed up by numerous illustrations throughout the book. They are representative of Kalb’s basic thesis, which can be summarized in these bullets:
- Liberalism preaches tolerance, but is famously intolerant of those who don’t subscribe to its preachings.
- Liberalism advocates inclusiveness, but excludes from the mainstream any who disagree with its premises.
- Liberalism celebrates diversity, but crushes any whose views diverge from standard liberal thought or dogma.
- Liberals profess to be non-judgmental, but they judge as unworthy any and all conservative thought or opinion.
Kalb goes to great lengths to explain why liberals must behave in this fashion. His explanations are, as I said, rooted in psychology, sociology and philosophy. His arguments are dense and at times impenetrable. Thus I fear that his book will not be widely read. That is perhaps unfortunate since his Chapter 5 contains many insightful and well-stated arguments. So if a copy falls into your hands, turn to Chapter 5, and then turn to something more readable and optimistic like the recent books by Gingrich (To Save America: Stopping Obama’s Secular-Socialist Machine) or Tyrrell (After the Hangover: The Conservatives’ Road to Recovery).
An equally dense, yet valuable critique of liberalism may be found in Samples’ book. The reader will not find much psychology there, but instead the most intense political science, political history and political minutiae imaginable. As the author says in the Preface, “This book concerns the political [emphasis added] struggle to constrain the activities of the federal government.” The work is an incredibly detailed look at the political machinations of the federal government over the last 30 years. The author explores in the greatest detail the strategies, motivations and actions of myriad federal officials (elected and appointed), especially with an eye toward evaluating the effects of any action that influenced the size and scope of the federal government. There is a tremendous amount of nuanced information, some of it quite interesting. But far from all of it! Like Kalb’s, I fear that Samples’ book is a sleep inducer. It is too dense, with too many asides and far too many statistics.
But Samples’ book, like Kalb’s, has a strongly redeeming quality – it effectively makes a point that transcends the otherwise laborious chore of slogging through the manuscript. The point is this. Reagan was a singular President in the last 80 years – the only true conservative elected to the White House. Reagan was the unique President since Coolidge who actually believed – as he said – that government is the problem, not the solution and that he intended to address the problem by shrinking the size of government. The book makes a persuasive case that he did not succeed. He did succeed in reducing taxes, jump staring the economy and initiating 25 years of growth and increased prosperity. He did revitalize the nation’s defenses and defeated the Soviet Union to win the Cold War. But he utterly failed to win the ‘struggle to limit government.’ Once again, some relevant quotes:
“Reagan sought to control spending later by cutting taxes first. The prospect of substantial deficits would force Congress to choose cutting programs, a choice members did not like but would have seen as better than deficit spending. This strategy did…not work.
Overall, the Reagan years saw neither growth nor reduction of domestic discretionary spending. … Hence the period 1981-1989 is more appropriately characterized as one year of deep budget cuts, 1982, followed by rapid budget growth. … Between 1980 and 1987, the three largest social welfare programs (Social Security, Medicare, and other health care spending) increased their spending by 84 percent. … Even in the discretionary domestic budget, a relatively small part of overall spending, the Reagan administration produced only minor absolute cuts in spending. … The Reagan years did not see … a significant reduction in the size of government…
Did Reagan change the political culture of the United States? … Polling responses indicate that the number of people who wanted more government spending grew with each passing year in the Reagan presidency. A similar result marked ideological self-identification among Americans. During most of the Reagan years, the number of people claiming to be liberals rose and the number identifying as conservatives fell.
What explains Reagan’s limited success at limiting government? The …answer may be found in Reagan’s 1980 election campaign. Candidate Reagan promised to restrain the growth of government, not roll back the state. But candidate Reagan also promised to enact reforms that would constrain government spending and taxing. These changes did not happen. Year after year, the Reagan administration proposed cutting or eliminating spending on everything from small programs … to large programs… Yet after 1981, these budgets and their cuts were considered “dead on arrival” on Capitol Hill. … [One explanation:] There turn[ed] out to be relatively few fiscal conservatives in the administration or in either party in Congress… conservatives in both parties were more protective of programs that served their own states and favored constituencies than of their commitment to a responsible fiscal policy.
The old regime was built on entitlement expectations and concomitant spending. Reagan did not eliminate or significantly restrain major entitlement programs. Reagan did attempt, more than once, to constrain Social Security spending, and each time was met by an overwhelming political reaction that cowed most congressional republicans almost immediately…. Reagan did not come close to overturning the old regime. Its main policies and institutions resisted his efforts.”
Those words are found in a subsection entitled “Assessing Reagan” (pp. 142-154). Like Kalb, Samples justifies the words with ample evidence throughout the book.
It is possible to come away from these (and other) books profoundly depressed about the future of the nation. As Kalb demonstrates, liberalism is a self-contradictory, perverse philosophy that now rules the politics and culture of the USA. As Samples shows, the one serious effort that we have made to tame the beast did not succeed. Despair seems legitimate. And yet, the nation’s political literature has also been graced by the recent appearance of several hopeful books – some based on an abstract faith in American destiny and some bearing concrete proposals to recapture the country. America has shown amazing recuperative powers in the past and I think that Reagan would have more faith in Gingrich and Tyrrell than in Kalb and Samples. I’ll stick with the Gipper.