Bye Bye, Miss American Pie?

Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry.

The famous refrain from Don McLean’s hit song, adjusted for context, has an ominous ring to it as America drives its Chevy, or its Volt, toward the levee of its future. There are fewer than two years to go before the United States will decide whether it intends to survive or to call it quits — a stark choice, and no doubt a simplistic way of putting it — but it’s no reductive exaggeration. To see how the process of degeneration works, we need only look across the Atlantic. America’s European parent is clearly in the throes of slow but inexorable disintegration. Fiscal recklessness owing to socialist economics and out-of-control entitlement and welfare spending, rampant multiculturalism leading to a rapidly expanding and hostile Islamic demographic, the politically correct war against truth allied with growing censorship and prosecution of free expression, virulent anti-Semitism, the transnational weakening of cultural solidarity, and a precipitously declining birth rate combine in an unholy amalgam to guarantee a desolate posterity. Beneath its cultivated facade, Europe looks increasingly moon-cratered.

Those of us who have observed the European denouement and retain some sense of history’s centrifuge know that Europe is finished. Perhaps not today or tomorrow, but certainly the day after tomorrow. The question is how much of the European DNA persists in America’s sociogenetic system. “Are we,” asks Steve Balch, chair of the National Association of Scholars, “along with Europe, drifting toward an acceptance of Tocqueville’s soft despotism?” -- that is, according to the French philosopher, toward “servitude of the regular, quiet, gentle kind” which ultimately “stupefies a people.” And the answer is profoundly alarming.

For despite the exceptionalism of its founding and historical career, America remains Europe’s child. The unpalatable fact is that the United States currently suffers from many of the same infirmities that bedevil the European polity. The family resemblance is undeniable. There is probably no need to expect what Glenn Beck has somewhat extravagantly called a "Reichstag moment," but every reason to fear the weakening of constitutional authority, budgetary implosion, and the eclipse of the sovereign individual and empowered citizen on which the greatness and uniqueness of the United States is predicated.

America’s descent from its founding principles did not begin with the administration of Barack Obama. The virus of dissolution may always have been inherent, but a modern starting point may plausibly be located in the unworldly idealism of Woodrow Wilson, who tried to make the world "safe for democracy," an agenda which tends to make the world unsafe for everyone. In particular, Article 10 of his “Fourteen Points” for peace obligated member nations to intervene in the affairs of other countries in order to defend their independence, the forerunner of today’s invasive and double-edged R2P legislation. (See Libya.) For there is often no reliable way of distinguishing the oppressor from the oppressed. (See Egypt.) And political calculation may well target the truly endangered. (See Israel.) “The downside of allowing human rights to guide foreign policy,” remarks Daniel Flynn, “is that often human rights paradoxically suffer.” Wilson’s legacy is still with us today.

This strain of quixotic intrusiveness, both foreign and domestic, continued through a succession of presidents and their defining policies: FDR’s New Deal, which many scholars now believe actually prolonged the Great Depression by nearly a decade; Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, which created a culture of crippling dependency on government programs and the emergence of an "entitlement mentality"; Jimmy Carter’s thoroughgoing ineptitude in the arena of foreign affairs, which gave us the Islamic Republic of Iran and a world on the brink of nuclear proliferation; and George W. Bush’s pixilated project of exporting democratic institutions to societies in the Muslim world where such institutions can find no historical and cultural purchase, producing a fractured Iraq, a corrupt and fragile Afghanistan, and a terrorist state in Gaza, to name only the most prominent instances of social and political delirium.

The installation of Barack Obama in the White House can be regarded as the end point of this malign declension. This is a president who has not only repeated the errors of his predecessors but seems intent on compounding them. We might assume there is no way out of the impasse and that America is irretrievably lost. But the ascendance of Obama might also be considered as the watershed event in which America either succumbs to the forces of dispersal and becomes one more failed state — or experiences a redemptive moment of national self-recognition and acts to restore itself as a viable and flourishing constitutional republic.