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Monday, November 15, 2021

The Fall of the American Empire?

 Six years ago, in a post entitled "The Fourth Great Crisis in American National Life," I argued that the crisis in our civilization was ending in a new Gilded Age of personal individual freedom and massive corporate power and economic inequality.  I am now wondering whether I was too optimistic.  I did not foresee, at that moment in December 2015, the nomination and election of Donald Trump and his effective takeover of the Republican Party.  Corporate power was continually expanding regardless of which party held the White House, and had no need to rig elections.  I had already recognized the judicial coup d'état that had given George W Bush the presidency in 2000, but I couldn't envision a sitting president inciting a riot to try to overturn clear results in four different states, or the amendment of state laws to allow gerrymandered legislatures to overturn the popular vote.  Nor did I imagine a great pandemic and what it would reveal about the United States in the 21st century.

Our nation, as I have seen clearly reading early presidential addresses, was founded on the principle that human reason could promote the greatest good for the greatest number, and that elected governments could work.  Lincoln explicitly began the war to suppress the confederate rebellion to prove that democratic government could survive.  Franklin Roosevelt justified his policies, both domestic and foreign, on the same grounds.  In the last two years, a new crisis--the pandemic--has split the nation over the question of the authority of science, with whole sections of the country defying it at the cost of the lives of tens of thousands of their citizens.  So hostile to our central government has the Republican party become that it now wants to strip it of perhaps the most fundamental attribute of a modern state, a monopoly of legitimate force.   And activists and bureaucrats on the other, Democratic side of the political fence have adopted a world view based upon identity instead of universal human reason.  People, and their ideas, are bad or good based upon the racial and gender characteristics of those who hold them, and many of them, implicitly or explicitly, also condemn the whole enterprise of western civilization as nothing more than a scheme for straight white male dominance.  And while Republicans reject all restrictions on private firearms, leftist legal reformers have decided that punishment is more of a problem than crime.  They also stand in the way of a consensus based upon data and reason that might restore faith in our institutions across party lines.

In the spring of 1969 I took the second half of a course on modern France taught by Stanley Hoffmann, who later became a good friend of mine.  That course began around 1890, when a new generation of intellectuals-- both left and right--rebelled against the highly bureaucratic and uninspiring Third Republic.  The same thing was already happening in Hoffmann's other ancestral home, the United States--I learned only much later that his father was American--but oddly, I do not remember him mentioning that, even when leftist revolution brought classes to a halt for about a week that April.  I had grown up believing in the New Deal, the New Frontier and the Great Society, and for the most part I still do, but I have now concluded that there is something about a bureaucratic state based upon reason that repels significant elements of human nature.  The impulse towards nationalism and national pride that dominated western nations from the 18th century until the last third of the twentieth also seems to have proven to be just one historical phase.  One reason, ironically, has been the invention of nuclear weapons.  They have as it turned out eliminated war among the great powers, vastly reducing the size of national armies and removing another element of the glue that formerly held nations together.  Thus, even if war were to break out between China and the United States over Taiwan--which is quite possible--it might just as easily divide the US further as unite us, especially since we would probably fail to keep Taiwan out of Chinese hands.

Lastly, while so many millions of ordinary people have lost faith in our intellectual class, that class is more confident than ever of its right to rule based on its own beliefs.  That may be why the Democratic Party no longer bothers to make national effort to sell policies like Obamacare or the bills that Biden is now trying to get through Congress.  Their righteousness is supposed to be self-justifying.  Our foreign policy elite, despite the catastrophes into which both parties have led us in the last twenty years, still sets goals for all the world and zealously sanctions anyone who stands in their way.  

Where will all this end?  The Supreme Court may very well overturn Roe v. Wade by next spring, and the Republicans seem likely to win back control of at least the House, and possibly the Senate, next fall.  Those developments will, I suspect, accelerate demands to break up the country.  Faith in our institutions held us together for more than 200 years, but that faith is gone.  Prominent academics such as Harvard Law professor Noah Feldman are rewriting our history to undermine it.  Summarizing his new book, Feldman  two weeks ago in the New York Times argued in effect that Lincoln's decision to put down the rebellion in 1861 was unconstitutional and that the Emancipation Proclamation had no proper legal foundation.  Yesterday Professor Sean Wilentz, to his great credit, showed clearly how wrong Feldman's historical interpretation is, but he is one of the rare academics who has not repudiated the early American experiment. Feldman's view is mainstream.  Without a critical mass of Americans devoted to our best traditions, we cannot maintain them.  I do not see that critical mass today.


10 comments:

Paul Zimmy Finn said...

The second part of the second-to-last sentence is the key one..."devoted to our best traditions". There is no longer basic agreement on what those "best traditions" are, largely because there is no longer basic agreement on the meaning of "freedom" and on how equality should be pursued.

It's clear in retrospect, that the upheavals of the Sixties paved the way for the chasm we see today. Those with what Thomas Sowell has called "the unconstrained vision" declared, then, that America was irredeemably flawed because it wasn't living up to its stated ideals...and over the ensuing five and a half decades, people holding that vision came to dominant academia, K through 12 education, social activism, the Democratic Party, almost every outlet of cultural transmission, and finally Big Tech and the business world.

The problem is, most Americans DON'T subscribe to this vision...either because they merely see the world differently, or because their more modest day to day concerns preclude them from consuming themselves with "how to change the world", according to the commonly understood meaning of that phrase.

The Democratic Party and the American Left, in their drive to enshrine the ideals of the Sixties permanently, have long since ensconced themselves in their own worldview cocoon, and sought in ways big and small to disparage, demonize, and destroy people who are in the way, who they deem inferior, and who they subjectively decide engage in "wrongthink". "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction."

As someone who produces a podcast about The Fourth Turning, I confront the possibility every day that my content could be removed from YouTube in the blink of an eye, simply because ideas associated with Steve Bannon's name are seen as wrongthink by the people who sit behind desks and in corner offices in Silicon Valley. As a Millennial who has changed political stripes since his 20s, I have the advantage of (A) knowing where the social idealism of the Sixties actually led, (B) understanding that the worldview of "woke" so dominant in people my age and younger didn't come about by accident, and (C) seeing how my generation's decided un-penchant for introspection could provide the margin of difference in taking America to a point where ideological disagreements on any issue are no longer tolerated.

There is plenty of blame and criticism to go around on both sides of the divide. But if the 2020s end up going as badly as I fear they might, the breakup of the country won't come on account of the trucker in Texas, the farmer in Iowa, the insurance salesman in Ohio, or the podcaster in New England who voted for Trump. What's more, it won't be because of the indefensible actions by the rioters on January 6th. It will be because the cosmic justice-seeking crusade by the powers that be on the Left has already taken America to a point of no return.

PJ Cats said...

Dear Prof. Em. Kaiser,

I agree with you on your sad conclusion, but would like to add my European and personal perspective. Through a broken system, your country is effectively held hostage by a conservative minority that hands them the house and especially the Senate. This system is exacerbated by corporate lobbying, political polarisation and corrupt practices such as gerrymandering and obstructions to voting. Then there's the Supreme Court. Oh dear. Another four years of Trump -which you WILL get- will put a virtual end to democracy. What will be left is, I think, a kind of Brazil in the 1960's and '70's. A closed, nasty sort of society with lots of violence, lots of poverty and an absence of judicial power and rational government. By the way, it looks to me like that is not good for corporate profits. As Piketty has shown, profits in the real economy don't matter anymore, so that's probably fine with the corporations.
I don't agree with your objections to 'wokeness', so to speak. Firstly because they seem to me to be based on a kind of rationalism and enlightenment worldview; secondly because they represent the views of the majority of the people and thus have a democratic legitimacy.
How would the country break up? Would California secede? It would be fun to see conservatives and Trumpists react to that; most of them were ardent supporters of Brexit, so they really can't have anything against it. MAybe, come to think of it, it's the way forward: a union of East and West Coast States, leaving the heartland to drift on it's own, as per it's wishes. Maybe we can move England-after-Brexit enough miles west to join the New Confederation of Ancient Blockheads so they can sit together and rant at the neighbours.

Unknown said...

"The Supreme Court may very well overturn Roe v. Wade by next spring, and the Republicans seem likely to win back control of at least the House, and possibly the Senate, next fall. Those developments will, I suspect, accelerate demands to break up the country."
Truly, it is the rule of law that binds the citizens of the US, more even than traditions that are now breaking down. The effects of a decision to vacate Roe v Wade will likely cause West coast states, and possibly northeast ones as well, to defy the authority of the national government by continuing to provide medical care to women under the auspices of "states rights." Texas and Florida, among others, have already started down that path. When the laws of the US as proscribed by Supreme Court decisions or enacted by Congress are ignored or violated by large segments of the population, what then binds us? Certainly not the divided Congress, or the wounded executive branch. It is doubtful that secession will occur, but rather slow disintegration of the union.

Energyflow said...

We humans are irrational. I think that when a system is set up like the constitution that the context is everything. After 250 years, 100 times increase in population, change from upstart primitive east coast British colonies to continental power and global empire we have a different situation. Emotion and immediate need is more critical than hair splitting legalisms. I tend to agree that seccession was a legal right violated by a usurping centralistic neo- imperial northern industrial states center to maintain and expand a continental power base against all comers, American or European. Modern secessionists demand rights which are being slowly usurped by an ever increasing power hungry center, via corporations and bureaucracy working hand in hand with central authorities. I would say good luck, you'll need it, much like the old south. I think that this center will firstly shred rule of law and kill millions before relinquishing control over the states. Whether or not however they withdraw troops abroad is another question. Foreign powers are catching on to Creating their own hi tech military and reserve currencies and Nato type alliances. America is a place. How power is shared legally, geographically, economically between states, regions, cities and rural, races, etc is going to be perhaps the crisis brought about precisely de to collapse caused by imperial overreach. Russia did well being rid of Stans, baltic, Ukraine without civil war. Yugoslavia had a rougher ride. China still formally seems to be in civil war between kuomontang and CCP. They could live easily without Tibet, Xinjiang though. India, China are ethnically similar to outsiders but internally very diverse ethnically, linguistically.

Energyflow said...

(cont)
Europe can and is falling apart again. Whatever happens in any scenario depends on the people. Are they young, angry, have weapons, well organized? Battle lines are slowly being drawn in the states just as between Poland, Hungay and Brussels, Taiwan and its allies and China. We seem to be at that 80 year crisis point. The good guys always win of course as they write the history books and the next boomers will believe as ardently as you do. Later generations like my own might be utterly cynical though. Might makes right. The Mexicans say "so far from God so close to the USA". Why are there no coups in the US? Because there is no US embassy there. But wait, Durham is uncovering a coup glacially now.
I recall a scene from a film about Stalin' s 1930s terror where a character looking out from his apartment window at the Kremlin sits in his bath slitting his wrists while whistling. There is no real justice where power is at stake. Everyone is a coward. The confusing thing about history is the lack of clarity while it happens. Are abortion and trans or gay rights something able bodied young men will lay down their lives for? No. Female and non straight or liberal intellectual soldiers are few. Maybe economic sanctions for secessionist radicals would be more effective. If nobody sheds a tear for the beltway lobbyist and congress but cares more about local or regional issues then why hold them back? The mid terms next year will show the direction. In Virginia just one odd man out confused trans in school seems to have galvanized the vote against left wing orthodoxy. Abortion is a substantial universal theme globally. Trans rights is not something people everywhere on earth can and will ever understand. To me it seems sci fi. Like the extreme peak of Rome where odd things occurred like gladiators and lions. One gets used to gay and lesbian rights but my father' s generation was hardly open to it. This may never catch on as a general trend on earth before civilization collapses again as it seems to be doing. We leave the Taliban alone to return to their burkahs and they leave us alone. Perhaps Texans and New Yorkers could have equal disinterest in each other. Liberalism meant freedom originally. Now it means freedom of " my way or the highway" by a consensus coastal elite and their Euro elite counterparts to impose nontraditional social roles on traditional societies( Poland, Kansas). How long can that last?

Bozon said...

Professor
This is, apparently, your method for finding out on what the nation was founded:

"...Our nation, as I have seen clearly reading early presidential addresses, was founded on the principle that human reason could promote the greatest good for the greatest number, and that elected governments could work...."DK

My suggestion is to look instead at Bailin, Ideological Origins; Clark, The Language of Liberty; and to a lesser extent, Palmer, The Age of the Democratic Revolution, and Catholics and Unbelievers.

None of the founders, or any president before the Civil War, certainly, ever dreamed of such a thing as "the greatest good for the greatest number". That is the purest of Whiggist historicism.

All the best

David Kaiser said...

You are wrong, Bozon. Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, and U. S. Grant all referred to the objective of "the greatest good for the greatest number" in presidential addresses. I am doing something unfashionable: a fairly exhaustive reading of primary sources. I've done it before. It never fails to reveal a lot of very interesting new, or forgotten, information.

Bozon said...

Professor
Very kind of you to take issue with this flagrant remark.
It is great, it seems to me, to do something now unfashionable.
Yet, I think "None of the founders...' stands quite firm.
At least Van Buren and Harrison, however, do ante date the Civil War.
But Grant does not.
I do not know what they mouthed in speeches.

Perhaps, as you assert, it was Benthamism.
I very seriously doubt that any of them, founders or Presidents, were ever rank utilitarians.
This is it, more or less:

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/utilitarianism-history/

All the best

Skimpole said...

There's a lot about the "both sides" frame that is eminently questionable. It's not so much intellectual arrogance that hampers the messaging of Obamacare and Build Back Better. It's the desperate need to appease a handful of "moderates" in both cases who are more interested in compromise for compromise's sake than in good policy. The Democrats were not and are also not helped by a media ecosystem where the right has a ruthless and deceptive new network on their side while the remainder is compelled to show they're not Democratic supporters. Blaming radical intransigence for torpedoing bipartisan compromise is silly. How much bipartisan legislation have the Republicans sought to pass since No Child Left Behind? As for identity politics, Kaiser would be manifestly helped if he got his knowledge of feminism from somebody other than a charlatan like Camille Paglia. The one actual example of unpatriotic extremism he mentions, Noah Feldman, is not only not an Anti-American radical, but in fact a squishy centrist, praising the good faith of Kavanaugh and Barrett in just the last three months, and generally being the Pollyanna of the court circuit. But actually it would best to refer to this article, which challenges the whole generational frame he has applied with Proctrustean subtlety for the last quarter-century: https://newrepublic.com/article/164374/end-generation-wars

Bozon said...

Professor
Skimpole is a voice in the wilderness.
But I love chunky rants like this.

I have found that even I can reason with you, even with your S & H shortcomings, dumping on Boomers only, and a penchant for Paglia!

All the best