Think Again: The un-American

Suspicion of both government and experts with grand solutions to all problems runs old and deep in the US.

In May 2008, I wrote a piece entitled “Why Obama won’t be president,” arguing that Barack Obama was too out of touch with America’s most cherished values to be elected.
Needless to say, that piece subsequently provoked a good deal of merriment. It would now appear that I was not so much wrong about Obama’s alienation from core American values as premature in noticing it.
In that piece, I pointed out that Obama had consorted for decades with a long list of radicals – e.g., William Ayers, Rev. Jeremiah Wright – who displayed a visceral hatred of America. From his early refusal to wear an American flag pin to his wife’s characterization of America as “downright mean,” a country in which she had never taken pride prior to her husband’s ascent, it was clear that Obama did not share the belief that America’s ways are superior to the rest of the world.
That perception has been reinforced by the seemingly endless stream of presidential apologies to the world for America’s “sins” – dropping the bomb on Japan, not adequately taxing carbon emissions, the Arizona law permitting police to inquire about the immigration status of those arrested, and, most notably, the recent State Department self-critique sent to the UN Human Rights Council – an organization dominated by the world’s leading human rights violators – of America’s human rights failings.
The current Democratic Party narrative is that its bleak electoral prospects are primarily a reflection of the equally bleak state of the economy. Had the $787 billion stimulus prevented, as advertised, unemployment from reaching 8 percent, instead of the current 10.1%, the Democrats’ prospects would no doubt be brighter.
BUT THE argument cuts two ways. Until the great financial meltdown of 2008, John McCain was leading slightly in most polls. The Democrats misinterpreted their victory – or took advantage of the crisis, in Rahm Emanuel’s formulation – as sanction for a whole slew of policies that did not command majority support: a radical overhaul of the health system, cap and trade of carbon emissions, partial nationalization of the auto industry.
At one level, the furor of the Tea Party movement continues to focus on economic issues and the fear that future generations of Americans are being saddled with unsustainable levels of debt that spell the end of American greatness. The total national debt accumulated over 220 years has increased by a third over the last two years. But at root the argument between the Tea Party, on the one hand, and what Prof. Angelo Codevilla terms the “ruling class” – i.e., politicians of both major parties, heads of large corporations, those tied to the “nonprofit” and “philanthropic” sectors – is over the proper scope of government.
The essential divide is between those who orient their lives toward government, who see in an expanded government the solution to most problems, and those who still subscribe to the Jeffersonian ideal of the best government as that which governs least.
The former are the modern inheritors of the Progressives and FDR, who sought to frame most issues as technocratic in nature, and therefore subject to solution by “brain trusts” of the best and brightest. In his 1937 State of the Union address, FDR sought “unimagined power” to enforce “proper subordination of private interest.” He succeeded only in plunging the country into the most severe decline in industrial output in its history.
SUSPICION OF both government and experts with grand solutions to all the problems runs old and deep in America. American federalism is inherently decentralized and reflects a bias against single grand solutions, in favor of testing many possible solutions tied to local conditions. In Justice Louis Brandeis’s famous formulation, each state is a separate social laboratory.
Quite apart from the current economic doldrums, many Americans are up in arms over what they see as the arrogance of the ruling class, starting with the president’s professorial tones and evident petulance directed at those who question his superior wisdom. In particular, citizens who elected the first black president by a comfortable majority are sick of being accused of racism when they now express their strenuous opposition to his policies.
And given the virtual absence of attacks on Muslims after 9/11, the Fort Hood massacre and numerous foiled Muslim terrorist plots, they resent being accused of Islamophobia for opposing the Ground Zero mosque. They are incredulous that its defenders show not the slightest interest in how it is being funded and are unwilling to consider how the close proximity to Ground Zero will play with Islamists around the globe.
Codevilla, speaking for the “country class,” accuses the “ruling class” of viewing the rest of Americans as “racist, greedy and above all stupid.”
From the ruling class perspective, their fellow Americans are irritable, uninformed children throwing temper tantrums, whose arguments against Obamacare or the stimulus bill are not worthy of consideration. Obama’s campaign comment to wealthy San Francisco donors about small-town residents bitterly holding onto their “guns and religion” captures the contempt of the ruling class.
When Tea Party demonstrators carry signs proclaiming Obama to be a socialist, they are signaling that the debate is not about technical economic solutions to the current stagnation, but about the proper economic organization of society. German writer Thomas Straubhaar contrasts relatively homogeneous European societies, in which the state has always played a large role in the economy, to America, where government intervention has always been suspect. The unifying role of ethnic homogeneity in European societies is played in America by a libertarian creed that “the state should not interfere in people’s lives, aside from securing freedom, peace and security.”
The progressive model of a European-style bureaucratic state flies in the face of that ethos, and in so doing, Straubhaar argues, risks “destroying the bonds which interlink America’s heterogeneous society” – the belief that an individual can advance by dint of his own hard work. The new American ruling class seeks to maintain power, in this analysis, by creating a relationship of dependency on the government for as many people as possible. The opposition to ever new government entitlements by the “country class” is not just that those entitlements are unsustainable, but that they destroy the vigor of society by creating people who are the very antithesis of the Jeffersonian noble yeoman.
To preserve its power, the ruling class creates a nation of peasants, in Victor Davis Hanson’s words, jealous of anyone who has more than they do. Instead of encouraging individuals to use the examples of others’ successes as a spur to their own efforts to better their situation, the ruling class plays to jealousies by offering to redistribute the wealth through ever higher taxes on society’s most productive members.
The bureaucratic state drains the necessary “animal spirits” from American capitalism. It discourages the entrepreneur and small businessman eager to get ahead by virtue of his determination, guts and hard work. Ever multiplying regulatory schemes strangle such people, and the job creation that flows from their efforts. Instead, in Codevilla’s analysis, economic success becomes more determined by the relation to the government than by one’s own efforts.
Large corporations are quintessential parts of the “ruling class,” and devote ever larger efforts in lobbying regulatory agencies. “By endowing some in society with the power to force others to sell cheaper than they would, and forcing others to buy at higher prices – even to buy in the first place – modern government makes valuable some things that are not, and devalues others that are,” charges Codevilla.
The proliferation of regulations is necessary precisely so that government can specify how people will be treated unequally. For example, the financial regulation bill spends thousands of pages tilting the field toward some and away from others. Those who pass such laws cheerfully admit that they do not read them, for they are no more than grants of huge, and largely unreviewable, discretion to various bureaucrats.
Does the rejection of the ruling class mean that Obama will not be reelected? Not necessarily. His best bet may well lie in a Republican Congress preventing him from embarking on any more domestic policy crusades against the will of most Americans, though I suspect that more attention will focus on his foreign policy failures.
But the wild adulation of the 2008 campaign, the projection of diverse longings on a quasi-messianic candidate offering hope and change, that is surely gone forever.
The writer is the director of Jewish Media Resources. He has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.