Our American Catharsis

Will Obama-time be a transitory experience or an enduring tragedy?

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

For years conservatives have railed about the creeping welfare state. They have tried to tag liberals with being soft on national security, both for courting those who faulted America and for faulting others who courted it. The parameters of all these fights were well known, as talk radio, the blogs, and cable news hourly took up hammer and tongs against the creeping “liberal agenda.”

But for all the furor, there were few unabashed leftist gladiators in the arena who openly fought under the banner of radically transforming the country into something that it had never been. Bill Clinton was a centrist pragmatist who put Bill Clinton’s political interests well above any ideology. His brief flirtation with Hillary’s hard leftism was rendered inoperative after the Republicans took Congress in 1994. Indeed, Hillary herself eventually ended up running as a blue-collar, Annie Oakley centrist alternative to Barack Obama.

One-termer Jimmy Carter remained a Democratic embarrassment. He was elected on the fumes of Watergate — and through his own efforts at convincing voters for a few crucial weeks in the autumn of 1976 that his folksy Southern Christian Democrat persona was no veneer, but the natural expression of a true conservative.

By 2000 even Democrats talked more fondly in retrospect of the Reagan years than of the era of appeasement and stagflation of 1977–80. The old progressive dream of electing a genuine leftist president was rendered quixotic by the disastrous campaigns of Northern liberals like George McGovern, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, and John Kerry.

All this is not to say that statism did not make advances. By 2008, almost 40 percent of the population was either entirely, or in large part, dependent on some sort of government handout, entitlement, or redistributive check. The size of government, the annual deficit, and the aggregate debt continued — no matter who was president — to reach unprecedented highs.

Nonetheless, until now we had not in the postwar era seen a true man of the Left who was committed to changing America into a truly liberal state. Indeed, had Barack Obama run on the agenda he actually implemented during his first year in office — “Elect me and I shall appoint worthies like Craig Becker, Anita Dunn, and Van Jones; stimulate the economy through a $1.7-trillion annual deficit; take over healthcare, the auto industry, student loans, and insurance; push for amnesty for illegal aliens and cap-and-trade; and reach out to Iran, Russia, Syria, and Venezuela” — he would have been laughed out of Iowa.

It was not his agenda but his carefully crafted pseudo-centrism that got Obama elected — that, and a dismal McCain campaign, weariness over the Iraq War, a rare orphaned election without any incumbent candidate, the September 2008 meltdown, and the novelty of the nation’s first serious African-American presidential candidacy.

Now, however, for the first time in my memory, the United States has an authentic leftist as president — one who unabashedly believes that the role of the U.S. government at home is to redistribute income in order to ensure equality of results through high taxes on a few and increased entitlements for many, while redefining America abroad as a sort of revolutionary state that sees nothing much exceptional in either its past role or its present alliances — other than something that should be “reset” to the norms embraced by the United Nations.

In sum, for years the loud Right warned Americans about what could happen should they vote for a genuine leftist. We mostly did not believe their canned horror stories. But now the country has got what it unwittingly voted for — and at last we have evolved beyond the rhetoric and entered into the real liberal world of the way things must be.

In just a year, the manner in which Americans look at things has changed radically. Something as mundane as buying a Ford or a GM car now takes on ideological connotations: The former company, in politically recalcitrant fashion, resists government takeover; the latter has been transmogrified from Michael Moore’s Roger & Me bogeyman into a sanctioned, government-subsidized brand. Toyota went from the good green maker of Priuses to a foreign corporate outlaw whose handful of faulty accelerators symbolizes the non-union threat to fair-play American production.

The whole notion of capital and debt has changed — mostly on the issue of culpability. Buying too much house at too high interest is the bank’s fault. Not being able to pay a debt is certainly negotiable and most certainly nothing to feel bad about. Maxing out credit cards and getting caught with high interest is proof of corporate malfeasance. Cash in the bank earns little, if any, interest. Owing lots of money costs little, and it does not necessarily have to be paid back, if one is able to stake a persuasive claim against “them.”

The reaction to a hated and greedy Wall Street is now to be an omnipotent, all-wise, and all-caring state technocracy. Today there is nothing so simplistic as the actual “unemployment rate”; “jobs saved” by government borrowing is the better barometer of who is actually working and who is not. A $200-billion shortfall is a “deficit”; a trillion-dollar one is “stimulus.”

Not purchasing a cheap catastrophic-healthcare plan is quite understandable. The Department of Motor Vehicles, Amtrak, and the Postal Service are models of what good government can do. Social Security and Medicare are not unsustainable or insolvent; those loaded adjectives are simply constructs of a wealthy class unwilling to pay the taxes needed to fund them.

Worrying about the deficit or national debt is a neurotic tic. Why fret, when millions in the oppressing class have enough money to eliminate these problems whenever we acquire the backbone to make them pay what they owe us? We are in a them/us, winners/losers zero-sum age, one in which a forever static pie must have its finite slices radically reapportioned.

Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice were not paradigms of racial equality, as we once assumed. The new correct protocol of unity and togetherness is not to ignore race but to accentuate difference whenever possible. Thus we have a uniter and his flock talking of a “typical white person,” of white country folk who “cling” to their fears and superstitions, of “cowards” who refuse to discuss racial matters, of a “wise Latina,” of police who “stereotype” and act “stupidly,” and of polluters and high-school mass-murderers identified as typically “white.” In place of real civil-rights marches, we have psychodramas where congressmen wade into a crowd of protestors in search of a televised slur. To this president, the tea-partiers are sexually slurred “tea-baggers,” in his Manichean worldview of opponents to whom we are “to get in their faces” and “bring a gun” to their knife fight — all as we praise “unity,” “bipartisanship,” and “working across the aisle.”

Fourteen months ago, the number $250,000 meant little. Now the arbitrary figure is an economic them/us Mason-Dixon line seared into our collective thoughts. Those who cross it are the proven greedy who profit inordinately and must have their payroll, income, and healthcare taxes commensurately increased. But those who earn below it are still kind and decent folk deserving of credits and entitlements.

I used to think that old-stand nations like Britain, Canada, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Israel, Norway, and Poland were our natural friends by virtue of a shared Western heritage and values, commitment to constitutional government, and acknowledgment of a distinguished intellectual history. Today their leaders are to be snubbed, ignored, or lectured; we are unsure only whether their sin is post-imperialism, post-colonialism — or pro-Americanism.

In contrast, more revolutionary states that bore America ill will, and certainly despised George W. Bush, must ipsis factis have been onto something — and therefore can be courted. Iran, the Palestinians, Russia, Syria, and Venezuela are, at worst, misunderstood. At best, their strong leaders are somewhat sympathetic for their prior opposition to much of what America has done and stood for.

In 2008 I had no idea of what an “overseas contingency operation” or “man-made disaster” was. And even Michael Savage could not scare me into thinking that the U.S. government would attempt to try the beheader and architect of 9/11, the self-avowed jihadist Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, in a civilian courtroom, replete with Miranda rights, lengthy appeals, and government-appointed lawyers — all that a couple of thousand yards from the scene of his own mass murdering.

The watchdog media have become a house kitten that purrs rather than barks at such radical change. Mass assemblies — so common in protests against wars during the last decades — are now racist and subversive. Grassroots political expression like talk radio and cable TV is in need of government-enforced fairness. Hollywood no longer produces movies like the anti-war, anti-administration Redacted and Rendition; Knopf no longer publishes novels likeCheckpoint; and there are, we may be thankful, no longer docudramas about shooting presidents — the latter would be both unpatriotic and clearly defined as hate speech. Filibusters are not traditional ways of checking Senate excess; the “nuclear option” is now a slur for legitimate majority legislative rule; and recess appointments don’t thwart the legislature’s will but resist its tyranny.

In other words, the last 14 months have been a catharsis of sorts. At last the world of Rush Limbaugh’s fears and Sean Hannity’s nightmares is upon us, and we can determine whether these megaphones were always just alarmists — or whether they legitimately warned of what logically would follow should faculty-lounge utopian rhetoric ever be taken seriously. Europe screamed for a multilateral, multipolar, non-exceptional America. Now in place of the old Johnny-on-the-spot NATO colossus, they are quickly getting what they wished for — America, the new hypopower. Perhaps the European Rapid Reaction Force will take on the Milosevices and Osamas to come.

Keynesians have sermonized for decades about a truly appropriate mega-debt. Now we’re quickly on the way to achieving that vision, to testing just how much debt a country can incur and still survive. If Reagan and Co. talked about “starving the beast” — cutting needless government spending by first reducing tax revenue — this is the age of “gorging the beast”: borrowing and spending as much as possible to ensure later vast increases in taxes, and with them proper redistributive change.

Politics is high-stakes poker with real losers and winners, not a mere parlor game. The country voted for the party of Pelosi, Reid, and Obama, and for once such statists are governing in the manner of their rhetoric. Time will soon tell whether this strange American experience is transitory and so becomes a needed catharsis, or whether it will be institutionalized and thus result in an enduring tragedy — this rare moment when the dreams of a zealous few are at last becoming the nightmares of a complacent many.

©2010 Victor Davis Hanson

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