Category Archives: History

Thinking About the Unthinkable – Disunion

Then one must contemplate that perhaps Disunion is preferable to Civil War. An amicable divorce might be preferable to the inevitable civil strife. Is it feasible? Can American liberals and American conservatives imitate Czechs and Slovaks?

It is commonly accepted wisdom that the United States fought a Civil War to end slavery. While true, the need to remove that stain from the fabric of American society was not Lincoln’s primary motivation for prosecuting the war. It was instead his unshakable belief in the absolute necessity of preserving the Union, for by ‘giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free…We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.’ Lincoln surely believed that the dissolution of the Union would sentence the people of the United States, indeed most of humanity, to a future of poverty, enslavement and degradation.

There were several notable separatist efforts early in US history. But since the defeat of the Confederacy, no serious movement to sunder the Union has arisen. The country has been blessed with a century and a half of unity, prosperity and freedom – during which time it came to lead mankind toward those goals, by its example and by force of arms when freedom was threatened by tyrants and totalitarian regimes.

However, in that same period – especially in the latter two thirds of it – the US has undergone a fundamental transformation (if I might channel the phrase used by the latest engine of that change). Until roughly the dawn of the twentieth century, virtually all of the (free) American people were content that the principles upon which the nation was founded were sound, essential to the character of the society and worthy of continuation as the governing ideals of the country. But at that dawn, the nascent progressive movement began a century-long effort to radically alter the country’s political and cultural axioms.

The nature of the transformation has been described countless times by numerous authors. Suffice it to say that: the ultimate ideal of individual liberty has been superseded by the quest for equality and fairness; the reliance on free markets, democratic capitalism and entrepreneurial endeavors has been supplanted by an entitlement mentality and government control of business; American exceptionalism – the idea that the US has a special role to play in spreading the blessings of liberty around the world – has been jettisoned in favor of a multilateral approach to foreign affairs; and the notions of limited government, consent of the governed and constitutional federalism have given way to a mighty behemoth, i.e., the federal government, which dominates the lives of its citizens. This transformation, which took a century to bring about, was accomplished primarily via the progressive movement taking nearly complete control of the opinion-molding organs of American society: the media, universities, legal profession, libraries, seminaries, foundations, educational establishment, etc.

The miracle is that any resistance to the progressive putsch manages to survive. Truth be told, much of traditional America has been asleep at the switch for nearly a century. On the one hand, conservatives thought that perhaps some of the progressives’ explicitly stated objectives might conceivably smooth out a few of the rough edges that were natural consequences of America’s traditional rugged individualism – so conservatives acquiesced in their implementation. On the other hand, conservatives completely failed to appreciate how deeply and broadly the progressive initiatives were undermining traditional American mores, economics and politics. But there are signs that a substantial proportion of (what remains of) traditional America has finally awakened to the realities of the progressive onslaught. Moreover, that group of discontented conservatives is determined to stop the onslaught and restore the country that has been yanked away from them.

And so the nation finds itself sharply divided. With the advent of the Obama-Pelosi-Reid assault, the goals and methods of the progressive camp came into sharp focus. Many American conservatives are saying: no more compromise, no more blindness. It’s time to return America to its traditional moorings. But perhaps an equal number are satisfied with the progressive trajectory and have no desire to reverse course. Thus in the last few years, the nature of the sharp differences between the two sides has come into clear focus. As a consequence, the signs of disunity abound:

  • Washington is thoroughly dysfunctional as the two sides can find no common ground upon which to govern.
  • The current presidential campaign is marked by vitriol, hatred and a total lack of empathy as each side attributes lethal motivation to the other.
  • Thus our government – and thereby, our people – cannot come to grips with our problems – or even agree on what they are.
  • Supreme Court judgments are viewed as illegitimate.
  • There is a near universal dissatisfaction with standard politics, giving rise to non-standard movements, like the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street.
  • Each side blames the other for perceived signs of the decline of America.
  • The nation is on a crash course toward disaster as entitlements, the debt and deficits spiral out of control.
  • The culture is marked by moral squalor more than by wholesome morality.

What’s to be done? The current situation is unsustainable. One of two things must happen: Either one side or the other will win the argument – the losing side will accept defeat and agree to live peacefully in a nation governed according to the precepts of its rival. Or not! That is, the stalemate will persist, grow more intense and result in a calamity for the nation – the exact nature of which is almost impossible to predict.

How might one side win? One can envision two scenarios – of totally different natures. First, the Left might triumph through demographics. The organs described earlier have been doing an effective job of brainwashing the body politic. That might continue and accelerate. Furthermore, the Left’s favorite constituents – e.g., women, minorities, immigrants and, alas, the poor are growing faster than those groups who gravitate to the Right. (It’s true that the Leftists are having fewer babies and killing more in utero than the Rightists are – but that effect is overshadowed by the rapid growth of the Leftist constituencies.) Thus the current 50-50 split in the nation might become 2-1, or even 3-1 for the Left, and the Right will be silenced.

How might the Right win? I can only envision one way. A very serious spiritual/moral/religious revival sweeps the country, blowing away the secular, dependency-driven milieu that nurtures Leftist ideology. It’s a big stretch to imagine, but not totally beyond the realm of possibility.

But maybe neither of these eventualities occurs. Then one must contemplate that perhaps Disunion is preferable to Civil War. It’s a horrible thought, terrifying to contemplate. But if the country remains roughly evenly divided between two fundamentally different and irreconcilable visions for its future, then it is hard to believe that the unity and cohesion, civil calm and common sense of purpose, and faith in a shared destiny that has characterized American society for so long will endure. An amicable divorce might be preferable to the inevitable civil strife. Is it feasible? Can American liberals and American conservatives imitate Czechs and Slovaks?

Probably not! The reasons are legion and could fill a book. They range from legal to geographical to financial to the allocation of resources. In short, no matter how desirable it might become, it is impossible to imagine a peaceful division of these United States according to the dual philosophies that divide its citizens.

So, either the Left wins; or the Right wins; or an endless, fraternal, yet internecine, struggle saps the vitality of the US and leaves it adrift, with diminished stature, unexceptional, no longer dynamic, prosperous, patriotic or free. Ronald Reagan said that: ‘Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on to them for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States when men were free.’ God forbid that this is the generation whose advent Reagan feared.

This article also appeared in The Intellectual Conserative at:

Liberal Train Wreck Begets Conservative Passion – Or Does It?

It’s summer reading season. Bookstore shelves and electronic book catalogs are full of samples lamenting the sorry state of affairs in the age of Obama. Four that I have read are: The Tyranny of Clichés by Jonah Goldberg, The Road to Freedom by Arthur Brooks, No, They Can’t by John Stossel and    The Amateur by Edward Klein. For those who, like the writer, rue the day that the American electorate took leave of its senses and installed into the Oval Office the least qualified, most inexperienced and furthest left candidate in the history of the nation, these books are preaching to the converted. One hopes that at least some of those who perpetrated the dastardly electoral deed are drinking from the ‘I told you so’ wisdom in those pages.

All four books are severely critical of Barack Obama and the ultra-liberal philosophy that motivates his thoughts and actions. Four years ago, when he ran on a nebulous ‘hope and change’ platform, shielded by an adoring media, and unburdened by any meaningful record that could conclusively tag him for the ultra-leftist that he is, it was easy for the electorate to ignore the few – but, in retrospect, completely clear – signs of his statist political persuasion. That is no longer the case. Three and a half years of damning evidence cannot be ignored. Although he obfuscates regularly, anyone with half a brain recognizes Obama’s:

  • solution to every national problem involves expanded government, less individual freedom and an imaginary, egalitarian nirvana;
  • preference for collectivist, Euro-style socialism over bedrock American founding principles;
  • un-American, class-conscious demonization of entrepreneurial success accompanied by redistribution of wealth and the promotion of an entitlement mentality;
  • Keynesian economics, despite the fact that everywhere it has been tried, it has failed – every time.
  • shameful castigation of America as the cause of certain of the planet’s geopolitical and environmental ills; non recognition of the salutary role that America played in the defeat of totalitarianism; failure to acknowledge anything special about America’s role in world history; and his purposeful diminution of America’s capability to influence world events;
  • lack of respect for forces and institutions that are responsible for America’s astounding success in the last quarter millennium – e.g., Christianity, entrepreneurial businessmen, military preparedness, rule of law, civil society, traditional family values, the Constitution and Western Civilization. Instead he wishes to replace them with: a powerful central government, secular humanism, crony capitalism, multiculturalism, globalism and environmentalism.

Indictments such as the above are rife in the pages of the four cited books. Here are a few examples:

Klein: [Describing Obama’s assessment early in his presidency of what he expected to achieve] It was, by any measure, a breathtaking display of narcissistic grandiosity from a man whose entire political curriculum vitae consisted of seven undistinguished years in the Illinois Senate, two mostly absent years in the United States Senate, and five months and ten days in the White House. Unintentionally, Obama revealed the characteristics that made him totally unsuited for the presidency and that would doom him to failure: his extreme haughtiness and excessive pride; his ideological bent as a far-left corporatist; and his astounding amateurism.

Goldberg: [Commenting on social justice, another term for the far-left statism/collectivism/corporatism practiced by our benighted president] Meanwhile, what does social justice bring with it? On virtually every front where social justice claims the high ground, it does so by appealing to the authority of a mirage and grounding its arguments in nothing firmer than an ill-defined sentiment. Intellectually, it has no more weight than a gesture, no more substance than a wish. Yet those who fight for it do not care; indeed, they like it that way, because it prepares the battlefield for them. They promise to deliver a better world, but haven’t the foggiest idea how to provide it. The Romans knew how to build roads and toilets; all the centurions of social justice know how to provide is someone else’s money. It’s imperialism fueled by guilt and sustained by smugness. But it is successful. These centurions and citizens of social justice run our schools, our charities, our newspapers, and, if they have their way, our world.

Stossel: It is unfortunate that the United States, a nation founded on more libertarian principles than most other countries, now seems incapable of admitting that government has gotten too big. One ‘problem’ is that we’ve had things so good for so long that most of us simply don’t believe, in our guts, that government control can strangle the golden goose…I can go to a foreign country, stick a piece of plastic in the wall, and cash will come out. I can give that same piece of plastic to a stranger who doesn’t even speak my language – and he’ll rent me a car for a week. When I get home, Visa or MasterCard will send me the accounting – correct to the penny. That’s capitalism! I just take it for granted. Government, by contrast, can’t even count votes accurately.

Brooks: Politicians who pretend that we do not have to choose between these two ideas of America are mistaken or less than honest. They want us to think that statism and free enterprise are ultimately compatible; that bureaucracy is not antagonistic to self-government; that we can remain exceptional when our system is indistinguishable from collectivist systems around the world. But this is deceit. Not choosing is effectively just the choice for big government. Unless we actively choose free enterprise and make the tough choices to limit the government, we will slip down the road toward European-style social democracy. We know this to be true because it has been happening for nearly a century. To be honest, big government is an easier choice than free enterprise. In the short run, it allows us to avoid sacrifice. Politicians who ask for sacrifice face a tough battle with voters, so they tend not to. But this laziness – on our part and on the part of the governing class – endangers all of us in the long run. It will mean the end of our Founders’ vision for our country. It will end any hope of limited government. And it will saddle our children and grandchildren with crushing debt.

Klein: Obama’s supporters claim that he has been falsely charged with being a leftwing ideologue. But based on my reporting, I concluded that Obama is actually in revolt against the values of the society he was elected to lead. Which is why he has refused to embrace American exceptionalism – the idea that Americans are a special people with a special destiny – and why he has railed at the capitalist system, demonized the wealthy, and embraced the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Despite the similarities, there are some significant differences among the four books. Brooks’ and Goldberg’s works are quite scholarly in nature. Brooks’ main emphasis is on what he sees as the moral case for free market capitalism as the best economic structure for the United States. He explains why, to his thinking, this choice not only maximizes the chances of the most people prospering, but in terms of right and wrong, good and evil, it is the proper choice over collectivism. Goldberg’s book is built around various sayings, slogans and ‘truisms’ that we have come to accept as legitimate or even factual; but which in fact merely represent liberal dogma that upon close examination is exposed as wrong, immoral, incoherent and often utterly vapid.

Goldberg writes with great wit, Brooks with great clarity. The other two books, while well-written, are less serious – more aimed at being a best seller than having a profound impact on the country’s great philosophical debate. Stossel’s reads like the script of one of his TV programs. And Klein has the breathless, gotcha, yet undocumented flavor of an exposé – which is exactly what it purports to be.

But there is a missing ingredient in all four – a sense of extreme urgency, unchecked passion or great fervor. If these authors – like so many of the other Obama-bashers – are correct, America is in mortal danger and if we don’t reverse course quickly, we are headed for disaster. If that is the case, where is their call to the barricades?

To be fair, some of this summer’s reading material exhibits that passion. Three that come to mind are: Ameritopia by Mark Levin, Still the Best Hope by Dennis Prager and America-Lite by David Gelertner. I have dwelt on the first two here and here, and I hope to address Gelertner on another occasion. Let me just say here that the following malady is aloft in the land. Tremendous numbers of people – mostly, but not exclusively, on the right – believe that the country is at – and conceivably past – the tipping point. The century-long progressive remake of American society has proceeded so successfully that there is little, if any, time left in which to change course. Moreover, it would take drastic, likely revolutionary action to accomplish this. But the trumpet has not sounded. Few authors are channeling Tom Paine: ‘Give me liberty or give me death.’ Why is that?

Conservative critics often say that the US looks increasingly like France or the Netherlands, or Greece or Spain: once glorious nations that are mired hopelessly in statism, secularism, socialism and stagnation. In fact, I think that the country whose trajectory we most clearly mirror is our progenitor – Great Britain. England was the most powerful nation on Earth for three centuries. When the progressive virus was born (in the late 1800s), it took hold in England as well as in the US. Both countries elected multiple progressive heads of state in the early twentieth century (David Lloyd George and Ramsay MacDonald in England, Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow and Wilson in the US). But while America has resisted the virus to some extent (Coolidge, Reagan), England succumbed. Churchill provided the last few moments of glory, but the English people showed their true feelings in the election of 1945. By the time Thatcher arrived, it was already game over. There was no longer any will to resist. Alas, the lack of a clear clarion call in the US to combat the alien, progressive disease might signal that we too no longer have the ability to resist.

The US today bears great resemblance to England just after World War II. As I have written elsewhere, the Suez affair of 1956 marked, with unmistakable clarity, England’s permanently diminished status. What particular event shall herald the final closing down of the American experiment? The fact that even the most severe critics of the progressive project cannot summon the will to call for the revolutionary steps required to restore America is likely a harbinger of our British-like fate. But to avoid closing on such a deeply pessimistic note, let’s acknowledge that England had no analog of the Tea Party. Its emergence is a hopeful sign that perhaps the ardor that is missing in the four references will yet be marshaled to save the republic.
This article also appeared in The Land of the Free at:

Does John Roberts’ Capitulation Spell Doom for the US?

Anyone who engages in a competitive sport has experienced the moment when, even though the outcome of the match or game is theoretically still in doubt, the participants know absolutely who shall prevail. To look in your opponent’s eye and to see that he believes he cannot win brings an exhilarating satisfaction. By the same token, to see in your opponent’s visage the certainty that he will triumph is deflating beyond measure. Perhaps the most famous incident of such a moment in sport occurred in 1964 when, at the end of the sixth round, Sonny Liston peered across the ring at Cassius Clay and knew that his goose was cooked; so he dreamt up a phantom shoulder injury and conceded defeat.

Something similar often happens in the lifetime of a nation or a regime. The nation, or its present government, might appear to be sailing along smoothly, even successfully. But anyone paying attention realizes – generally because of one or more signature events that have happened recently, and because of the peoples’ and the government’s reaction to said events – that the regime (or nation) will not survive. The exact nature of the death scene might not be apparent, nor its timing; but its inevitability is assured and even those who recognize its imminence are powerless to prevent it.

A classic example is the Suez crisis of 1956, following which it was absolutely obvious that Great Britain’s three and a half century role as one of the paramount powers on the globe had come to an end. The nation did not disappear, but England had sunk to the level of a second rate power whose influence in the world was a mere shadow of its former scope. The monarchy continued, the Commonwealth limped along, England retained its permanent seat on the Security Council; but the entire world recognized that Britannia no longer ruled the waves, nor would it ever again.

At the opposite end of England’s reign one finds a moment when its predecessor surrendered the throne – i.e., the defeat of the Spanish Armada by Queen Elizabeth I’s forces in 1588, which marked the end of Spain’s century-long stretch as the world’s pre-eminent power. The Spanish ‘Empire’ lasted until the Treaties of Utrecht in 1713, or perhaps until Napoleon beat them up badly in the early 1800s, or maybe even until the US provided the final coup de grâce 90 years later. But three hundred years before San Juan Hill, Spain’s status as the major world power came to an end, and all knew it.

On the other hand, sometimes when the epiphanous moment occurs, it is not acknowledged, or if it is, its consequences are denied – making for an even more calamitous collapse in the long run. Two examples of the former are Nazi Germany immediately after the assault on Stalingrad stalled and Imperial Japan after the battle of Midway. Regarding the former, certainly many on Hitler’s staff – especially after America entered the fray – foresaw that the tide of the war would change. Some might have favored seeking a negotiated settlement with the Allied powers. But Hitler was blind to the tea leaves, and his was the only opinion that mattered. Had he entered negotiations for an armistice at that point, he might have salvaged some sort of regime – and millions of lives would have been spared. But he failed to recognize the inevitable.

Regarding Japan, in spite of having all the tactical advantages, the Japanese Navy was defeated at Midway, a mere six months after Pearl Harbor. Admiral Yamamoto – who is reputed to have seen the future accurately even as he planned the attack on Pearl Harbor – was in a distinct minority. Overall, Imperial Japanese militants failed to recognize that their war effort was doomed.

Two examples of the latter – i.e., where recognition occurs, but is ignored – are Lee after Gettysburg and Gorbachev after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Both saw the handwriting on the wall — one of them literally. But Lee was unable or unwilling to try to convince his superiors to sue for peace. And although Gorbachev clearly saw that he was playing a losing hand, he fooled himself about the coming total collapse of communism and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Unlike the German military staff or Yamamoto, neither of whom was in a position to change the history that they saw unfolding, both Lee and Gorbachev might have been in such a position.

A common thread in virtually all these scenarios is the presence of war. Indeed, the decisive moment in the death of a nation or a regime is often marked by a military event. But not always. The Brits were actually victorious in the brief 1956 Suez skirmish – admittedly against a vastly inferior foe. It was in the aftermath, in which Eisenhower unceremoniously and unconditionally ordered the English to withdraw, that it became clear that Great Britain – despite its former military élan – was now a zephyr compared to the US and no longer controlled its own fate.

Here are three more such existential moments that did not involve war at the defining instant:

  • When de Klerk freed Nelson Mandela, it was completely clear that the days of the apartheid regime in South Africa were numbered.
  • A hundred years ago, Argentina was poised to rival the US as an emerging entrepreneurial society. But then they fell off the track by experimenting with collectivist policies. The US left them in the dust. Then when they elected Juan Peron, the Argentineans sealed their fate as a statist and corrupt society.
  • It is hard to pinpoint a single event in the last 70 years that heralded the fall of Europe. But after 40 years of self-flagellation for the horrors that they inflicted upon themselves in two world wars, at some point in the last 30 years it became clear that Europe had totally lost faith in its culture, its heritage and its religion. (After all, another word for Europe for centuries was ‘Christendom.’) As the institutionalization of the European Union progressed, it became evident that the Europeans were basically committing political and cultural suicide.

Has the US just witnessed a defining moment? Does the betrayal of the conservative cause by Chief Justice John Roberts – a distinctly non-military event – qualify as such a moment for the US? Certainly some of the conservative pundits think so. And yet the right wing ether is full of hopeful articles about the ‘clever, ulterior’ motives of the Chief Justice and how in the end his ruling will redound to the advantage of the conservative cause. But anyone with his head screwed on straight recognizes that Roberts was intimidated by Obama and the mainstream media, and that he represents yet another in a long line of supposedly conservative Supreme Court justices who have defected to the liberal enemy. Moreover, this monumental surrender is indicative of a loss of faith – both by the people and by so-called conservative leaders – in the nation’s ability to reverse a century long slide into Euro-socialism.

Have we indeed passed the tipping point? It is not unreasonable to survey the wreckage inflicted on the nation since Reagan by progressives (Clinton, Obama) and faux conservatives (both Bushes), and thereby conclude that the Constitutional Republic known as America is doomed, and perhaps has already expired. Our economy is at best in a state of permanent semi-stagnation; our military capabilities are in sharp decline; the progressives control virtually all of the opinion-molding organs of society, which they use to brainwash the people; the federal debt is a major calamity that will wreak havoc very soon; our culture is saturated with pornography, drugs and violence, multiculturalism and secularism; we sit on the world’s greatest energy resources and we refuse to tap it; the federal behemoth consumes a fatal proportion of our GDP and regulates the minutiae of our lives; and worst of all, more than half the population is either oblivious to or favors these developments as evidenced by the, at least, 50-50 chance that it will compound the astounding error of 2008 and re-elect the only anti-American president in the nation’s 236-year history.

One could, on the other hand, claim that the preceding argument is excessively pessimistic. After all, our nation has experienced times of greater stress and weakness than the present: the Civil War, the Depression, the 60s and 70s when society seemed to be unraveling before our eyes. Moreover, as a stock broker said to me in 2010: ‘The market factored in Social Security; the market factored in Medicare; the market will factor in Obamacare.’ And perhaps he is right as clearly the market’s reaction to Roberts’ treachery has been mainly a yawn.

But perhaps the market’s yawn is not one of a large, successful and complex society simply digesting an alien body; but rather that of an organism meekly accepting the inevitability of its transformation under the influence of that foreign body.

I was extremely depressed by Roberts’ betrayal. But I tend to be a ‘glass is half empty’ kind of guy. For once, I am hoping that the glass is still half full.
This article also appeared in The Land of the Free at:

King Kennedy

Ruminations on Justice Anthony Kennedy, who virtually holds the fate of the US in his hands

The well-respected columnist Charles Krauthammer recently referred to Justice Anthony Kennedy as “essentially the reigning monarch of the United States.” This reference to Justice Kennedy’s presumed exalted stature derives from his long-held position as the unique swing man on the Supreme Court. The Court is – as it has been for a while – comprised of four reliably conservative justices (currently Roberts, Alito, Scalia and Thomas) and four equally reliable liberal justices (currently Bader-Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan). In the last two decades, Kennedy has joined one or the other group to decide some of the weightiest issues confronting the nation by a slim 5-4 majority. Examples wherein Kennedy has sided with the conservatives include: Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010, campaign finance) and District of Columbia v. Heller (2009, gun control). On the other hand, Kennedy joined the liberal coterie in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992, abortion).

This ongoing history wherein Kennedy provides the deciding vote on issues of paramount importance before the Court is expected to continue with the forthcoming decision on Obamacare. Following the almost unprecedented three-day long oral arguments before the Court on the merits of President Obama’s signature legislation, expert opinion was nearly unanimous that the Court’s ideological pattern will hold, and that the deciding vote will be cast by “King Anthony.” It will be virtually his decision alone as to whether the individual mandate is constitutional, and if not, then whether the entire statute is to be thrown out.

Now, while the previously cited 5-4 decisions were all vitally important, it is widely believed that the upcoming decision on Obamacare eclipses them by far. Indeed, many conservatives consider the matter existential for the nation – the failure to overturn Obamacare will spell the doom of America as a constitutional Republic based on individual liberty and limited government.

So, with the awesome power and responsibility that thereby accrues to him, is it correct – as Krauthammer implies, and numerous others have asserted more pointedly – that the fate of the United States of America rests in the hands of Justice Anthony Kennedy?

Before the answer to that question is revealed, consider whether such a situation has ever existed in the past. Has the fate of our country truly ever rested in the hands of a single individual? And if so, who and how many times?

The answer is: America’s fate has indeed been entrusted unto the hands of a single person – more than once. It would be foolhardy to argue that George Washington was not such a person. The outcome of the Revolutionary War – and consequently, whether the USA would be stillborn or not – was completely dependent on the skill, courage, wisdom and leadership of General Washington. Without him at the helm of the Continental Army, there would have been no United States of America. The same is true of Abraham Lincoln. Had he not been president and dealt successfully (albeit perhaps a little too slowly) with the southern revolt, the nation would have been cleaved in two.

The preceding cases are self-evident. For other presidents, the issue is much less clear. For example, one could argue that had it not been for FDR’s leadership, the Axis powers might have triumphed and our nation could have succumbed to totalitarian evil. (But see below.) Some consider that JFK’s combination of steely nerves and cool composure kept the nuclear genie in the bottle in 1962. Perhaps.

One can make equally, if not more compelling cases for Generals Grant, Lee and Eisenhower. If Lincoln had not elevated Grant and had the latter not been so skilled a warrior, the Civil War might have ended in a stalemate and the USA would have fractured. The same might have occurred had Lee been a more skilled and/or ruthless commander than he proved to be. And perhaps it wasn’t FDR who saved Western Civilization nearly 70 years ago, but rather Ike’s extraordinary leadership and command capabilities.

Some would argue for FDR, not because of his role in WWII, but rather because his economic programs during the Depression saved the United States. However, with the passage of time, we have learned that, on the contrary, FDR’s New Deal prolonged the Depression rather than ended it. But one can argue that certain financial giants did indeed hold the fate of the nation in their hands: Haym Solomon during the Revolutionary War; J.P. Morgan during the Panic of 1907; or Andrew Mellon during the early 1920s following the Depression of 1920-21.

Presidents, generals and mega-financiers – but no judges. John Marshall did much to determine the role that the Constitution and the Court would play in the young nation’s life. And we have had other influential jurists (e.g., Story, Holmes, Warren), but no one ever asserted that they held the fate of the nation in their hands. Is Anthony Kennedy the first judge to do so?

No liberal would subscribe to that notion. Should Kennedy decide to ditch Obamacare, liberals will be sorely disappointed. But they will see it as a temporary setback on the long road to converting America into a collectivist, Euro-style welfare state. Liberals/progressives believe in such a transformation, have worked tirelessly for it for a century, have enjoyed remarkable success and expect to complete the metamorphosis. They anticipate that Obama (if he is reelected) or some successor, together with a compliant Court, will finish the transformation. Such people account for perhaps 20-25% of the country.

An equal number, perhaps somewhat more – that is, those of the conservative persuasion – are mortified at the prospect. They see a federal government that is out of control; racking up unsustainable debt; engaging in unchecked regulatory oppression; dismantling the country’s defenses and denying the exceptional character of its nature. They see Obamacare as the tipping point, beyond which it will be impossible to reverse America’s century-long slide into Euro-socialism. They foresee an inevitable loss of American exceptionalism, individual liberty and free market capitalism. For these people, there is no doubt that America’s fate is at the mercy of King Kennedy’s whim.

But what of the rest – the independents, moderates, centrists? In fact, given the starkly different and irreconcilable visions for America espoused by the left and right, the centrists are arguably either confused, apathetic or inattentive. It appears not to occur to them that their children’s fate will be determined by what the King decides. But the King will decide soon. Should he decide in favor of the progressives, it will not take long to see whether the dire consequences predicted by conservatives come to fruition. But should he go the other way, then one can hope that it will signal the end of the progressive slide and the beginning of a return to a more traditional America. With those diametrically opposed possible outcomes, it is clear that, indeed, Anthony Kennedy holds the fate of the nation in his hands.

This article also appeared in The American Thinker at:
and also in The Land of the Free at:


Coming Apart at the Class Seams

A review of Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart, and some comments on Yuval Levin’s review of it in The Weekly Standard

Charles Murray has written several books that have had a major impact on cultural and political discussion in America. Losing Ground (1984) and The Bell Curve (1994, with Richard Hernnstein) are the two best known – although Levin believes that In Pursuit (1988) is Murray’s finest work. Murray’s thoughts have been propelled to the forefront of the nation’s attention again with his most recent book Coming Apart.

In the book, Murray documents – and I mean documents; the charts, tables and graphs are copious and convincing – his latest thesis, which is: “America is coming apart at the seams, not seams of race or ethnicity, but of class.” Murray draws a detailed and poignant portrait of two new classes that have sprouted in America – which he calls the new elite or new upper class and the new lower class. Put simply, the former consists of people with very high levels of education, vocational achievement and wealth, whereas the latter is made up of those who lack all three and instead manifest poverty (or at best bare subsistence), no more than a high school diploma (and often not that) and either no vocation or only menial and inconstant paid labor – likely on the government dole in one way or another.

Now America has never lacked for people who fit either description (except perhaps for the government dole component). But their existence in the past was accompanied by connections between them and shared values amongst them. These commonalities increasingly do not exist between the two new classes. According to Murray, this disjointedness arises in two ways. The first is geographical. The new upper class typically lives and works in enclaves which are so sheltered that the denizens barely (and in many cases, never) interact with members of the new lower class. The latter might have some feel for how the former live from the media, but the new upper classes often have absolutely no idea how the lower class lives. More devastatingly, asserts Murray, the more critical divide between the classes is reflected in each group’s manifestations of the civic virtues that were always responsible for and reflected American exceptionalism – or as Murray labels it, the American project: that is, those special qualities or behaviors displayed by her citizens that made America unique among the nations. That special code (or as it used to be called, the American creed) consisted of a set of ideals or virtues, identified by the Founders and elaborated upon by De Tocqueville, around which America organized itself, and through which it expressed its devotion to the cause of individual liberty, limited government and the pursuit of happiness. In Murray’s words:

The American project…consists of the continuing effort, begun with the founding, to demonstrate that human beings can be left free as individuals and families to live their lives as they see fit, coming together voluntarily to solve their joint problems. The polity based on that idea led to a civic culture that was seen as exceptional by the world. That culture was so widely shared among Americans that it amounted to a civil religion. To be an American was to be different from other nationalities, in ways that Americans treasured. That culture is unraveling.

Murray selects four aspects of the project (or creed), against which he measures the state of compliance with the creed by the new classes’ members: industriousness, honesty, marriage and religion. He reveals statistically the health of these components of the creed for each of the two classes. Later, he broadens these four aspects into wider areas of life – vocation, community, family and faith – against which he engages in an even more elaborate data analysis to ascertain how well each of the classes is upholding its role in the American project.

Murray’s conclusion is that the project is alive and well among the new upper class, but nearly defunct within the new lower class. Moreover, Murray claims, despite their ability, indeed obligation, to do so, the upper class makes no attempt to promote its values to the lower class. It fails to “preach what it practices.” Thus unlike any time in the past, America has become a society with disjoint classes. One class no longer subscribes to the tenets of American exceptionalism, and although the other practices them, it no longer has faith in the ideal. Murray asserts that the situation is unsustainable. If it persists, the American project will die. America will cease to be an exceptional nation and the precious heritage of human freedom that America has stood for will vanish from the Earth.

Now, while generally laudatory in his review, Levin (in the March 18, 2012 edition of the Weekly Standard) has two major beefs with Murray’s hypothesis. Murray identifies a date on which the tear in America’s class seam originated – November 22, 1963, the date of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The vast majority of Murray’s statistical measures compare the state of America today – or at some point in the last 50 years – to what existed the day before Kennedy was killed. Moreover, Levin asserts – correctly, I believe – that Murray is presuming that the classless nature of American society, and more generally, the almost uniform acceptance by the people of the creed, existed in an unbroken fashion from the eighteenth century until the 1960s. But says Levin:

The fact is that America in the immediate postwar years was made possible by an utterly unrepeatable set of circumstances, and setting out to re-create it is not a constructive objective for public policy. What we need to do, instead, is to seek for ways to achieve broadly shared prosperity and cultural vitality today – to balance cohesion and dynamism in our time, which is a time of great tension and change.

That this is hardly the first era of tension and change in our history should leave us more hopeful than Murray suggests, and should send us looking for guidance in eras prior to the postwar golden age. Murray implies that his description of America in 1963 applied to America before this time as well – from the era of the founding until half a century ago. But surely this is not the case. In other times—in periods of social tension, economic upheaval, mass immigration, and cultural transformation – America’s founding virtues have been under immense strain. But time and again, we have found our way to national revival – cultural, moral, religious, social, political, and economic. We have experienced multiple golden ages, and they have not all looked alike.

Perhaps it is this extraordinary capacity for the renewal of our founding virtues, rather than the particular strength we possessed 50 years ago, that really makes America exceptional. If so, then Murray’s project, which should be America’s project, is in better stead than this ultimately pessimistic book suggests.

Levin’s second beef is that Murray seems to be placing the blame for, and the need to fix the current mess on the upper class. Again Levin:

In this sense, Murray’s book suffers from a flaw that bears some similarity to the one that renders the liberal case regarding inequality largely incoherent. That case seeks to blame the wealthy for the growing gap between the top and the bottom, and in the process, treats the gap itself as the core problem when, in fact, it is the stagnation and decline at the bottom that should worry us most…[The] key factor behind the collapse of poor and working class life in America has been precisely the liberal welfare state [that liberals] hold up as a solution – a welfare state originally constructed on misguided moral premises, which has badly undermined the social institutions essential to human thriving in poor communities, and which now remains as a moldering relic growing increasingly bloated, inefficient, and regressive. The left’s cynical (or else pitiful) disavowal of this fact explains a great deal of its present obsession with inequality.

Murray, of course, suffers from no such self-delusion. He plainly sees how much the welfare state has contributed to the ruin of lower-class life. And he also understands…that the key problems faced by the poor today are fundamentally cultural (and therefore also moral), not simply economic.

Knowing that poorly designed welfare state institutions contributed mightily to these cultural problems does not solve them, however, and while the reform (greatly aided by Murray’s own work) of one especially counterproductive welfare program in the 1990s may have helped to slow the bleeding, it has hardly stopped it. Murray … suggest[s] that America’s elites could help a lot by offering a moral argument for their own way of life: By preaching what they practice, and therefore helping to link the traditional American virtues to examples of lived success…

But surely, this is a highly implausible practical solution to the immense cultural ruin that Murray describes. It is hard to see how the graduates of elite universities who live in their cultural islands of privilege could really speak with any moral authority to the problems of working-class life… Rather, the cultural disaster Murray describes seems to be a failing of America’s moral (and therefore largely its religious) institutions.

I believe that Levin’s second beef is legitimate, but his first is off the mark. Yes, the country has encountered grave crises in its pre-1960s existence – even existential ones such as the Civil War. And we managed to recover each time. But when we encountered major crises in the past, the American creed was intact. We did not have large swatches of the population who no longer had faith in American exceptionalism, who doubted that the US was and is a force for good in the world, who had rejected the basic tenets of our country’s founding, such as: individual liberty trumps group fairness, free markets work better than central planning, traditional morals grounded in religious faith produce superior civic virtues; the US Constitution (as amended) is the supreme law of the land to which all citizens owe complete fidelity. Well we do now. And so one cannot be so sanguine – as Levin is – that we will blast our way out of the sand trap as we have so magnificently in the past.

In the end, despite their disagreements, Murray and Levin come to the same ultimate conclusion as to the key component of the way out. There must be a great moral awakening in the country – among both classes – which recognizes the folly of the Progressive bad trip that we have been on, and results in a rededication to the classic moral principles that guided our Founders and also our ancestors who followed them. Murray thinks that the awakening must be lead by the new upper class. Levin feels that it must arise more spontaneously throughout the entire culture. Whoever is right, I pray that the awakening comes soon.
This review also appeared in The Intellectual Conservative at: