Land of the Free, Home of the Turncoats

In 1885, the year Johannes Brahms finished his Fourth Symphony, the German lands were the heart of European civilization. German was spoken in a thousand-mile belt extending from Koenigsberg (now Russia) to Strasbourg (now France). Germany, displaying the finest in music, science, and engineering, was overtaking Britain as the leading industrial power.

Modern and cultivated, 19th-century Germans remained alarmingly backward in one fatal respect. In contrast to most of the West, republican constitutionalism in the German principalities was feeble and stunted. Liberalism had only a brief, shallow vogue. In political economist Albert Hirschman's formulation, passions rather than interests were the currency of public and private discourse. German civic institutions were far too weak to broker irreconcilable passions into national consensus. As we know, this hole in the German version of the Enlightenment would have catastrophic global consequences.

The United States, meanwhile, had constructed a constitution that carefully balanced constraints on tyranny with a state strong enough to govern. Winning majorities did not treat losing minorities as traitors; the loyal opposition would play a constructive role and govern another day. Religion, the object of brutal state promotion and suppression in Europe, was kept in a private realm, with the result that Americans were the most religious of peoples. Civic republicanism -- the active engagement of the citizenry in the business of self-government -- flourished.

America and its Constitution, of course, were works in progress. Still to be engaged after 1789 were the blight of slavery, the casualties of the Industrial Revolution, the periodic financial panics and depressions. Although the Constitution's bias against action was a particular challenge in emergencies, government nonetheless took on expanded responsibilities beginning in the Franklin Roosevelt era, with the broad consent -- even acclaim -- of the governed.

Today, America feels more like 19th-century Germany. Contending interests cannot be brokered. Passions trump reason. Faith overrules science. An ordinary policy difference is a Kulturkampf, casually but vehemently branded as treason. One of our two major parties has turned nihilist, giddily toying with default on the nation's debt, reveling in the dark pleasures of a fiscal Walpurgisnacht. Government itself is the devil.

Though the tea-stained Republican Party and its allies on the Roberts Court claim fealty to the Constitution of Madison and Hamilton, their own weak-government constitution is whatever they deem convenient. For Rick Perry, it prohibits Social Security. To Ron Paul, it forbids a Federal Reserve. Eric Cantor contends that the Founders neglected a balanced-budget requirement.

Whether the target is the Environmental Protection Agency, the Dodd-Frank law, or the Affordable Care Act, Republicans are out to destroy government's ability to govern. This attack, not on policy differences but on government itself, is new and ominous. Its modern roots are as diverse as Ronald Reagan, the Dixiecrats, and the anti-New Dealers. But even Reagan knew when to compromise, and nobody would describe the Gipper as nihilist.

Politically, a weak president keeps vindicating the right's strategic paralysis of government. Many citizens not ideologically predisposed to loathe government are now disillusioned and debilitated. A progressive friend in his mid-thirties laments, "I just feel further and further removed from any confidence that our politics can make a difference." President Barack Obama's advisers, tragically, read that frustrated passivity not as a cry for stronger presidential leadership but as a cue for more accommodation.

Obama, uneasy about getting ahead of public opinion, hesitates to reassert the case for government activism. Most economists outside the radical right are calling for more stimulus. But Obama's advisers consult the polls, discern that the electorate mistrusts government to execute major public investment, and resist offering it.

As token outlays and budget hawkery fail to solve the economic calamity, the circular doubts about government are only reinforced. The more skepticism Democrats detect, the more they embrace the cheap political grace of tax cuts. The administration, trapped in the radical right's surreal logic, plays by Tea Party rules rather than changing the game.

If ever strong government is needed, it is in a national emergency. The fatal combination of a nihilist Republican Party and a weak Democratic leader will steadily erode government's competence to address a deepening economic crisis -- and the people's faith in government itself.

The demons of 19th-century Germany were only guardians of the gates of the hell that was to come. America, by contrast, has always relied on the genius of our constitutional government -- restrained in normal times, potent in times of crisis. The right's reckless assault on our public institutions is not just an attack on government. It is a war against America.

Comments

This is a very interesting read, thank you for posting.

What bothers me is how public opinion appears to be much more sympathetic to the anti-government ethos. If you read William Galston's piece over at The New Republic he is warning that Democrats are in danger (once again) of being marginalized politically because of voter movement toward the anti-government ethos of the right-wing. Americans, he writes, are right-of-center. Now of course there are qualifications to be made: Americans are rhetorically conservative while, in many respects, operationally liberal (in other words, they like liberal programs but don't like liberal rhetoric on government). Still, if the modern GOP does not repel people, what will?

I suspect the problem is the feebleness of left-liberalism, the liberalism of the New Deal and of the liberal reform tradition of the twentieth century. I know this is by no means a new idea, but I think we have to consider that liberalism as a rhetorical politics is too weak and too vilified to be effective. And that rhetorical weakness is terrible politically. The United States needs a more effective rhetorical opposition and if this rhetorically gifted president cannot offer it, who will? Who or what political movement will rescue reform government and the notion of government as marginal improver of lives? In other words, who will rescue reform liberalism? And if it cannot be rescued, what then?

Well said. This endless repetition of "liberty" does not mean anything. It sounds more and more like a mindless litany.

As with pre-war Germany, the criminas have ascended to power.

Re "feebleness": The Democrats do not have Murdoch's propaganda machine, nor the Koch brothers' enormous money behind them. The right wingers are a loud and strident voice because they own the loudspeakers. They do not possess logic, vision, or even a basic knowledge of our nation's history, economics, and conceptual background. They are disciplined but ignorant, loud but incoherent. Who are they? Look at their candidates now debating (if you can call it that). Lord help us, if one of them were elected president!

This is a moronic statement at best

People need to realize that this did not start with Obama. The Clintons were accused of all kinds of bizarre things up to and including drug running and murder. These were not just fringe events. There were official investigations into the supposedly suspicious death of Vince Foster because right wingers kept saying the Clintons were behind his death. The Whitewater "scandal" was completely bogus. The accusation was made by a known con artist, traffic court judge David Hale, something the public was not told. The Feds caught him embezzling a cool $2 million from the Small Business Administration so he came up with his accusations against Clinton to make a  deal. 

Rather than do their job the media joined in the trashing of the Clintons. In fact it was the NY Times' Jeff Gerth's "reporting" that drove the scandal. When two separate federal investigations conducted by Republicans (Jay Stephens and Robert Fiske) cleared the Clintons the mainstream media ignored or buried the stories. The Times went on calling for an independent counsel investigation which found nothing despite costing us $70 million and trashing the lives of innocent civilians in the search for "truth". (Read Conason and Lyons well-documented "Hunting of the President" to read the appalling details.)

It was this negligence on the part of our so-called liberal media that  allowed right wing fanatics to get away with these outrageous attacks. The organization that drove the attacks on the Clintons was strengthened and is now more powerful than ever. It is this strengthened, well-funded attack machine that is driving the lunacy today. Unfortunately the media is still playing along. For example, they portray Democrats as being as radical as  those on the right. They play up minorTea Party protests while overlooking much larger protests by liberals such as the Wall Street protests or the anti-war protests before the Iraq war. This makes  it seem that the country is much more conservative than it actually is. Surveys repeatedly show that the public agrees much more with Democrats on issues yet the public is led to believe that Democrats are out of step with the mainstream. Our democracy is dangerously weakened as a result.

good post!

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