Our Ongoing Catharsis

by Victor Davis Hanson

PJ Media

Presidential Popularity

After just eight months, the President is at a 50/50 cross-roads in the polls. The once hope-and-change exuberance has dissipated. Such unpopularity is hardly new; what is novel is the rapidity in which a 70%+ approval rating has plummeted to 50%.

What’s Next?

The result is that Obama is increasingly at the mercy of events, rather than directing them himself. If the economy rebounds quickly, if his supporters vastly water down his cap-and-trade and health care initiatives and call such nuancing success, if energy prices stay depressed, if his administration stops the racial hectoring, if Michelle, Biden, and others are advised to smile rather than to speak, then Obama may, like Clinton in 1995, recover.

But if a recovery morphs into Carter-like stagflation with high unemployment, interest, and inflation, coupled with low growth, if Obama insists on a blood-on-the-floor flight for socialized medicine and radical energy taxes, if we get more “cowards” and “stupidly” editorializing, if Michelle gets angry and emerges with more “this is a downright mean country” sermonizing, if Biden starts talking his astrology, then we could witness a Carter or Bush meltdown in the polls—but in year one rather than four or five.

What Happened?

The public was mad at Bush for deficit spending, and yet Obama baited-and-switched and gave them much more of it. Americans perhaps were tired of “smoke ‘em out” and “bring it on” machismo, and then got off-the-teleprompter incoherence of the ‘inflate your tires’ type. Voters wanted Martin Luther King, Jr., and are hearing more an Al Sharpton. Wall Street greed continues, but the remedy for its excess instead falls on our family doctor, real estate broker, and accountant, and all the others who are demonized for making over $250,000 a year. Some believed Nancy Pelosi & Co. were genuine supporters of protest, and critics of government privilege—and only now learned that it was only liberal protest and Republican privilege she and her cohort praised and slurred.

Quiet Before the Storm?

The more I talk to Americans, the more they seem apprehensive. They are exasperated that the talk of all these new taxes won’t translate into balanced budgets, but into gargantuan new debts. More and more get the impression that the more we are to pay for taxes and the more entitlements are to expand, the more both are owed rather than appreciated. The more we say we are sorry abroad, the more a Chavez, Kim Jong Il, or Ahmadinejad may well confuse contrition for timidity and so try to readjust the regional order—as a warm-up for something really serious from Russia or China.

A Necessary Catharsis

If one reads the early plays of Aristophanes, Aristotle’s Politics, or later political observers like Tocqueville, then one appreciates that in a democracy there is always a certain tendency for ochlocracy. Popular demagoguery ensures that the better off are pilloried, and the public votes itself largess that it simply does not have. Indeed, in the ancient world, it is largely accepted that while democracy in name means power of the people in the sense of majority rule, it so often translates into the power of the poorer classes.

The corrective is for a conservative minority to win over a majority by appeals to reason and moderation, to stifle public appetites, to honor traditional values, to remind us all of the tragic limitations inherent in the human experience.

But when that cohort proves inarticulate, or itself succumbs to greed and self-interest, or abandons its principles for short-term political expediency, then the bridle (to use a Greek metaphor) is lost. And the people are free to follow their natural inclinations. The results are often predictable soaring entitlements, populist them/us rhetoric, unsustainable debt, inflation, redistribution of income, and an unraveling of the social contract between the classes.

Once conservatives could not balance budgets, close borders, win wars or at least explain why they should be fought, then the country was bound to have one of its ‘once every thirty-years’ fling with radicalism. And as usually happens (cf. FDR and Jimmy Carter), we saw a radical progressive on the campaign trail sounding like a new conservative/liberal—as a mechanism once elected to enact radical social and political change unimagined by the electorate.

Our New Cleon

So the Bush-era inability to articulate positions, to balance budgets, to explain what we were doing in Iraq, to admonish Wall Street grandees to slow it down a bit, translated into Obamism. By 2008, we did not wish to hear the surge finally worked and Iraq with it, that Bush gave billions to African AIDs relief, worked with allies, ran a clean government, and kept us safe from terrorist attacks for seven years. No, the country was angry for his lapses and was ripe for a Cleon right out of Aristophanes. And so again, we got Obama. And now the American public belatedly learns that the reaction to Bush is not balanced budgets, careful clear exegesis, but rather the Hollywood alternative of cap-and-trade, enormous tax increases, soaring deficits, nationalized health care, a general attitude that “they” owe “us,” and Europe is our model.

So we are experiencing a catharsis of sort. And, let us pray, for the next thirty years we will learn that if a candidate has no executive experience, had a history of eliminating his senatorial rivals through leaked divorce records, was the most partisan of some 100 Senators in his brief two-year tenure, had a disturbing affinity for radical anti-Americans like Rev. Wright and Bill Ayers, then he really was ruthless, largely inexperienced, and not at all convinced that American has ever been an exceptional nation.

So Where Are We?

We must remember that America is a naturally rich country. We inherited a lavish infrastructure. Our Constitution is singular. We largely solved the problem of a multi-racial, multi-religious society not devolving into the Balkans, Rwanda, or Iraq. Our higher education in the sciences is superb. American individualism is a magnet that draws kindred spirits the world over. Our military is 19th-century in its patriotic outlook, and 21st century in its competence. So the fumes of America are strong and can keep us fueled for a long time.

But like it or not, at some future date, we will lose what we inherited if keep borrowing trillions. At some point racial identity politics will result in factionalism. No country can survive with open borders. An educational system that is therapeutic rather than knowledge-based will result in that terrible combination of an arrogant and ignorant electorate.

And the Alternative Is?

The Republicans so far have no offered any alternative for Obamism. They need to craft a plan that shows us how we are to be balancing budgets in 24 months, and paying down the debt in 36. Federal spending must be frozen immediately at the rate of inflation, before being reduced. Critics must offer a plan to save Social Security and Medicare from themselves, make health care more competitive and cash-based. It is time to end federal subsidization of identity politics. The border should close now, before the thorny consequences of its thirty-years laxity are even addressed.

We have been in far worse predicaments before. In the late 1930s the unemployment rate was still hovering at 25%. Pearl Harbor revealed that we were ill-equipped to fight the Japanese, much less Hitler-controlled Europe as well. We all but disarmed in 1946-7 only to face massive communist threats in Europe and Asia. In June 1950, Americans were almost obliterated in Korea, and then again lost all that had been won in late 1950—only to recover by spring 1951.

So I remain optimistic that the good sense of Americans remains. They are waking up to their year-long somnolence, and beginning to see that Obamism is not what they bought into. Democrats, especially those from purple states and counties, are fearing that Obamism has not only the potential to fail, but to take them down with it. The next six months are critical, both at home and abroad.

©2009 Victor Davis Hanson

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