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Our American Catharsis by Victor Davis Hanson

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


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 th
ose who faulted America and for faulting others who courted it. The parameters o
f all these fights were well known, as talk radio, the blogs, and cable news hou
rly 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 so
mething that it had never been. Bill Clinton was a centrist pragmatist who put B
ill 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 t
he fumes of Watergate — and through his own efforts at convincing voters for a f
ew crucial weeks in the autumn of 1976 that his folksy Southern Christian Democr
at 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 Du
kakis, and John Kerry.
All this is not to say that statism did not make advances. By 2008, almost 40 pe
rcent of the population was either entirely, or in large part, dependent on some
sort of government handout, entitlement, or redistributive check. The size of g
overnment, 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 B
arack Obama run on the agenda he actually implemented during his first year in o
ffice — “Elect me and I shall appoint worthies like Craig Becker, Anita Dunn, an
d Van Jones; stimulate the economy through a $1.7-trillion annual deficit; take
over health care, the auto industry, student loans, and insurance; push for amne
sty 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 e
lected — 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 can
didacy.
Now, however, for the first time in my memory, the United States has an authenti
c 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 resu
lts through high taxes on a few and increased entitlements for many, while redef
ining America abroad as a sort of revolutionary state that sees nothing much exc
eptional 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 radical
ly. Something as mundane as buying a Ford or a GM car now takes on ideological c
onnotations: The former company, in politically recalcitrant fashion, resists go
vernment 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 f
aulty accelerators symbolizes the non-union threat to fair-play American product
ion.
The whole notion of capital and debt has changed — mostly on the issue of culpab
ility. 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 b
ad 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. Owin
g 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-w
ise, and all-caring state technocracy. Today there is nothing so simplistic as t
he actual “unemployment rate”; “jobs saved” by government borrowing is the bette
r 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-health-care plan is quite understandable. Th
e Department of Motor Vehicles, Amtrak, and the Postal Service are models of wha
t good government can do. Social Security and Medicare are not unsustainable or
insolvent; those loaded adjectives are simply constructs of a wealthy class unwi
lling to pay the taxes needed to fund them.
Worrying about the deficit or national debt is a neurotic tic. Why fret, when mi
llions in the oppressing class have enough money to eliminate these problems whe
never we acquire the backbone to make them pay what they owe us? We are in a the
m/us, winners/losers zero-sum age, one in which a forever static pie must have i
ts finite slices radically reapportioned.
Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice were not paradigms of racial equality, as we o
nce 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 mat
ters, of a “wise Latina,” of police who “stereotype” and act “stupidly,” and of
polluters and high-school mass-murderers identified as typically “white.” In pla
ce of real civil-rights marches, we have psychodramas where congressmen wade int
o a crowd of protestors in search of a televised slur. To this president, the te
a-partiers are sexually slurred “tea-baggers,” in his Manichean worldview of opp
onents to whom we are “to get in their faces” and “bring a gun” to their knife f
ight — all as we praise “unity,” “bipartisanship,” and “working across the aisle
.”
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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. Tho
se who cross it are the proven greedy who profit inordinately and must have thei
r payroll, income, and health-care taxes commensurately increased. But those who
earn below it are still kind and decent folk deserving of credits and entitleme
nts.
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 leader
s 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 there
fore can be courted. Iran, the Palestinians, Russia, Syria, and Venezuela are, a
t worst, misunderstood. At best, their strong leaders are somewhat sympathetic f
or 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 d
isaster” 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 sel
f-avowed jihadist Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, in a civilian courtroom, replete with
Miranda rights, lengthy appeals, and government-appointed lawyers — all that a c
ouple 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 su
ch radical change. Mass assemblies — so common in protests against wars during t
he last decades — are now racist and subversive. Grass-roots political expressio
n like talk radio and cable TV is in need of government-enforced fairness. Holly
wood no longer produces movies like the anti-war, anti-administration Redacted a
nd Rendition; Knopf no longer publishes novels like Checkpoint; and there are, w
e may be thankful, no longer docudramas about shooting presidents — the latter w
ould 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 t
he legislature’s will but resist its tyranny.
In other words, the last 14 months have been a catharsis of sorts. At last the w
orld of Rush Limbaugh’s fears and Sean Hannity’s nightmares is upon us, and we c
an determine whether these megaphones were always just alarmists — or whether th
ey legitimately warned of what logically would follow should faculty-lounge utop
ian rhetoric ever be taken seriously. Europe screamed for a multilateral, multip
olar, non-exceptional America. Now in place of the old Johnny-on-the-spot NATOco
lossus, they are quickly getting what they wished for — America, the new hypopow
er. Perhaps the European Rapid Reaction Force will take on the Milosevices and O
samas 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 pos
sible to ensure later vast increases in taxes, and with them proper redistributi
ve change.
Politics is high-stakes poker with real losers and winners, not a mere parlor ga
me. The country voted for the party of Pelosi, Reid, and Obama, and for once suc
h statists are governing in the manner of their rhetoric. Time will soon tell wh
ether this strange American experience is transitory and so becomes a needed cat
harsis, or whether it will be institutionalized and thus result in an enduring t
ragedy — this rare moment when the dreams of a zealous few are at last becoming
the nightmares of a complacent many.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Instituti
on, the editor of Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall
of Rome, and the author of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Mo
dern.