Writing about David Brooks, who tries to hide tempered Republican partisanship behind a facade of punditry, usually strikes me as about as exciting as shooting a few fish in a barrel, but he said something so spectacularly wrong last week in response to President Obama's inaugural address that I think I'll spend today's post on it. He was trying to do what I do here--using history to make his point--but since he started with the point, rather than the history, his facts were. . .debatable. Brooks's remarks drew on a favorite Republican idea, "American Exceptionalism," which amounts to saying that the United States is somehow destined to turn its back on western civilization's finest achievements because of our unique heritage. Here is the key passage in his column.
"I am not a liberal like Obama, so I was struck by what he left out in his tour through American history. I, too, would celebrate Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall, but I’d also mention Wall Street, State Street, Menlo Park and Silicon Valley. I’d emphasize that America has prospered because we have a decentralizing genius.
"When Europeans nationalized their religions, we decentralized and produced a great flowering of entrepreneurial denominations. When Europe organized state universities, our diverse communities organized private universities. When Europeans invested in national welfare states, American localities invested in human capital.
"America’s greatest innovations and commercial blessings were unforeseen by those at the national headquarters. They emerged, bottom up, from tinkerers and business outsiders who could never have attracted the attention of a president or some public-private investment commission."
To begin with, I'm sorry to have to point this out, but what David Brooks knows about European history could apparently fit on the head of a pin. With the exception of England (not Great Britain), no major European nation has had a state church for over a century--and even England allowed different religions to flourish well before the United States became a nation. United Germany never had a state Church, the French government severed its ties with the Catholic Church over 100 years ago, and the Italian state was formed in defiance of the Papacy. What distinguishes the US and Europe today is the vastly greater degree of religious faith in the United States--a faith which openly impinges upon public policy and education in much of the country. If that makes him feel better it's his right under the First Amendment, but I'm not inspired.
But Mr Brooks also needs some help with America history. Our free enterprise system gave us the assembly line automobiles, railroads (far more than we ever needed, actually), and electrical appliances, but unregulated financial markets led us to disaster again and again, most notably in 1929. The whole New Deal was about planning: economic planning, transportation planning, and environmental planning. The TVA brought electric power to hundreds of thousands of customers whom the electric companies did not find it profitable to serve, and the Rural Electrification Administration did the same in other parts of the country. Just a few weeks ago PBS did a documentary about the Dust Bowl showing how federal soil conservation experts taught farmers to restore their land through contour plowing. Boulder/Hoover Dam, the Grand Coulee Dam, and many others stored up the water that allowed us to populate the southwest. And who, Mr. Brooks, gave us the Interstate Highway System? The Eisenhower Administration and a Democratic Congress, that's who. His point about higher education is equally weird: American states in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries created public universities that were the equal of any on earth, places like Berkeley and Michigan and Wisconsin. Yes, the Republican budget-cutting frenzy of the last thirty years has betrayed the purpose of those universities, which now provide a much inferior product at a much higher cost--but they were giants in their time.
And that leads me to my final, saddest point. The modern welfare state did not begin in Europe: it began right here under Franklin Roosevelt. The only major European country that undertook a broad-based response to the Depression was Nazi Germany, which built roads and housing projects as well as weapons, planned the Volkswagen, and got its people back to work, even though it could never feed them satisfactorily. The British, French and Italians took no major steps against the Depression at all. Franklin Roosevelt already embodied the hopes of the peoples of the world before the United States entered the Second World War for that very reason. And when that war was over, the western Europeans in many ways copied us. Germany picked up the kind of labor-management cooperation that had gotten us through the war and ran with it, Britain had its own New Deal (including national health care) under the Labor Government from 1945 to 1950, and France eventually followed suit under de Gaulle.
The Republican project of which Mr. Brooks is an acolyte is designed to undo modern government. This has already gone more than far enough, and the results are all around us: crumbling infrastructure, overcrowded schools, and a counterproductive austerity drive in state after state during the worst recession since the 1930s. President Obama in his address stoutly defended Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, but he did not dare propose much more of a role for the government than that. The United States and the major European nations have been experimenting with modernity now for nearly three centuries. We took the lead in promoting democracy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and we developed the democratic welfare state in the twentieth. Now, evidently, it is their turn to keep the hopes of modern society alive. I hope to live to see the day when an American politician can urge us to follow some of their examples, just as they have followed ours.