Reflections on History and America

It was only a question of time and time is now foreclosing. Winners infallibly become losers in the chronicle of nations, cultures and civilizations, tracing, as I wrote several years ago in an analysis of the ideas of the philosophers of decline, “the deciduous arc into the mulch of history.” The decline is invariably accelerated by “the inner loss of the civilizing imperative, the erosion of pride in accomplishment, of political integrity, fiscal sobriety and belief in a system of core values, laws and conventions.”

One recalls Alexis de Tocqueville’s well-known and oft-cited passage from Book Four, Chapter VI, of Democracy in America, worth quoting more or less in full:

After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp, and fashioned them at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a net-work of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided: men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting: such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd…Our contemporaries are constantly excited by two conflicting passions; they want to be led, and they wish to remain free: as they cannot destroy either one or the other of these contrary propensities, they strive to satisfy them both at once…A great many persons at the present day are quite contented with this sort of compromise between administrative despotism and the sovereignty of the people; and they think they have done enough for the protection of individual freedom when they have surrendered it to the power of the nation at large.

Tocqueville’s premonition of what lay in store for America is an expansion of Benjamin Franklin’s famous observation from the Historical Review of Pennsylvania of 1759: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Franklin’s apothegm itself derives from Aristotle’s seminal discussion in Politics: A Treatise on Government, where he stresses the necessity of active and committed citizens if the state is to flourish and remain strong; where such commitment is absent, the state invariably grows weak and decays into anarchy or absolutism. When one examines the social and political conduct of the United States today, one sees both anarchy and absolutism at work: a divided citizenry, giving the impression that America comprises really two -- or more -- competing nations, with the threat of secession floating in the air and economic chaos in the offing; and an increasingly autocratic political administration governing via executive privilege, the bypassing of Congress, the proliferation of draconian laws and regulations, internal espionage, stygian secrecy, constitutional delinquency, bureaucratic engorgement and the assumption of elitist privilege converging in the person of a “great leader.” The octopal state has its tentacles everywhere and its citizenry is subject to the invasive probing of a panoptic and all-encompassing entity. “1984 is here,” writes Roger Simon, “Someone is watching me, monitoring whatever I do. If I make a mistake, I will pay for it. My future will be bleak." "And here’s the big problem,” he continues, “it’s hard to see how it’s going to get better.”

History has been kind to America for an ephemeral moment in aeonian time; and America has been good for the world. But not everyone loves a winner. Envy and resentment rather than gratitude have been its international reward. But what is even more damning and far less resistible is the spirit of envy and resentment that emanates from within the republic as it turns against itself -- envy directed toward the productive classes; resentment for accomplishment and earned stature. And once an entitlement mentality asserts itself and begins to determine public policy, as Milton Friedman warned, the tipping point relentlessly approaches. When, as it has been said, there are as many people riding the wagon as there are pulling the wagon -- the socialist conundrum -- the wagon moves ever more slowly before grinding to a halt. This is precisely the condition of America today, where we appear to be witnessing the impending end of republican democracy and the “fundamental transformation” of a flawed but admirable nation into a neo-Marxist caricature of itself.

The only issue that remains is whether a winner that is losing can reclaim its place on the podium. Secession of a vital part from a sickly and imploding whole may go some way to restoration, but only for the part, and even then it is a risky proposition. A noble and determined leader -- charisma is not enough and may often be destructive, as we have seen in the U.S. today -- emerging unexpectedly on the scene may stave off disaster, at least for a time. For all his foreign policy blunders -- withdrawing the marines from Lebanon, arming the Islamists in Afghanistan -- such a leader was Ronald Reagan, who in his Farewell Speech pointed out “what it means to be an American,” namely, “a love of country and an appreciation of its institutions,” without which that “rare” and “fragile” thing, freedom, would be lost. A winner who lets freedom slip away becomes a loser before his time.

But the forecast is not encouraging. Reagan’s proud city “strong and true on the granite ridge” is sliding brick by brick and building by building into the environing ocean whose waves he thought it could withstand. Barring a miracle or a propitious awakening, the future has been written. History is claiming its due and history does not play favorites. Indeed, history does not play.

(Thumbnail on PJM homepage based on a modified image.)