A history of past greatness at home and abroad, and, since 1960, of growing weakness, hubris, and failure.
AMERICAN LIBERALISM, synonymous today with big government, the exact opposite of the liberalism of Edmund Burke and other British champions of individual liberty, arose essentially from the use of the state to alleviate the most severe economic inequalities in society. In Great Britain this began in the competition between the Liberal and Conservative leaders, William Ewart Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli, between 1865 and 1880, and among major European powers with the quest for an unthreatening working class with the founder and first chancellor of the German Empire, Otto von Bismarck. Britain had a great battle over pensions under the chancellor of the exchequer just before the First World War, David Lloyd George.
The assassination in 1914 of the distinguished French socialist leader Jean Jaures, for advising against a headlong plunge into general war, was a grim harbinger of what was to come: ineffectual socialist pacifism that facilitated the advance of totalitarian regimes of hitherto undreamed of evil. Between the wars, in the aftermath of the hecatomb of World War I and through the Great Depression, there was a general drift to higher taxes, a more extensive social safety net, and the rise in Britain and France of democratic socialist parties to principal opposition status and a few turns at government (Ramsay MacDonald and Leon Blum).
In Germany, where the picture was much complicated by the bitterness of defeat in war and rampant inflation in its aftermath, the democratic socialists were outflanked and outmatched by the Communists, the National Socialists, and the principal upholders of Germany’s fragile democratic heritage, the mainly Catholic Christian democratic parties that were revolted by the authoritarian paganism of the Nazis and the totalitarian and atheist materialism of the Communists. The triumph of the Nazis and the dithering and waffling of France and Britain between conservative appeasers and pacifistic socialists, when crowned by the most cynical alliance in world history between Hitler and Stalin, infamously catapulted Europe into the Second World War.
From 1865, while the more advanced European countries were slowly conceding a larger share of public policy concern and fiscal largesse to improving working conditions, tighter restrictions on commercial fraud and exploitation of consumers, wider franchises and education, and some concessions to organized labor, and financing these reforms with increased taxation on higher incomes, the United States was in the full flower of economic growth, fueled by a colossal 60-year wave of immigration: economic growth rates generally exceeded 10 percent annually for most of that time. In such a climate, nearly 28 million immigrants arrived in America between the Civil and First World Wars, helping almost to triple the country’s population from 33 million to 98 million.
In this heady atmosphere, while there was labor unrest, individualism and pure capitalism reigned, and American exceptionalism had little time for what was generally considered proletarian, foreign-originated sniveling on behalf of the self-pitying indolent. Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson made a few gestures to restrain monopoly, assure a stable money supply, and discourage fraud in vital industries such as food processing and packaging. Several of these attitudes showed twitches of meliorism in respect of the working class, but it didn’t go much further. Immigration was rolled back in the 1920s. Federal taxation of incomes was only made constitutional in 1913.
WHAT IS CALLED LIBERALISM in America today had scarcely seen the light of day in the United States until Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated president on March 4, 1933, to face an unemployment rate generally reckoned at somewhere between 25 and 33 percent, with the banking and stock and commodity exchange systems collapsed and shut down, no direct federal relief for the unemployed, farm prices beneath subsistence levels for 75 percent of farmers, nearly half of residential accommodation in the country threatened by mortgage foreclosure, and no guarantee of any savings deposits. FDR led the country out of the Depression, saved 95 percent of the existing institutions and social framework with emergency relief and by bolting a safety net onto them, and channeled economic envy and anger against nonexistent groups (economic royalists, war profiteers, monopolists, munitions makers, malefactors of great wealth, etc.), and ultimately against the nation’s real enemies: the Nazis and Japanese imperialists. If he had once named any plutocratic wrongdoers, mobs would have burned down their houses, but he preserved the moral integrality of the country.
His New Deal unfolded in five phases. The first New Deal (1933-1934) consisted of gigantic workfare projects to absorb the unemployed in conservation programs and what would today be called infrastructure construction; a comprehensive banking reorganization with guarantees of deposits; agreed rollbacks of agricultural production, voted by sector, to assure viable pricing; encouragement of cartels and collective bargaining to raise wages and prices; evaluation of the dollar and a departure from the gold standard apart from international transactions; and legislated improvements in working conditions.
The second New Deal, 1934-1938, included Social Security, the Securities and Exchange Commission, some remodeling of the pyramidal corporate structure of the hydroelectric industry, and higher taxes as a sop to the demagogic political movements chipping at the two-party system. In the latter half of this phase, the workfare and conservation programs were rolled back, and the federal deficit was reduced. Depressive conditions began to reappear and Roosevelt reapplied workfare pump-priming on a massive scale in 1938-1939 (third New Deal), and shifted to the greatest peacetime arms buildup in history, including America’s first peacetime conscription, the fourth New Deal phase, which carried into the war, 1939-1945. Counting the workfare program participants as employed (which is as logical as including European military draftees and defense workers as employed), unemployment was severely reduced by 1935; counting them as unemployed, the unemployment numbers came down to the low teens by 1936, descended below 10 percent in 1940, and unemployment was completely eliminated before the Japanese attack plunged America into war in December 1941.
The final phase of the New Deal came posthumously to Roosevelt, 1945-1949, but was his GI Bill of Rights, which gave university tuition and a stake to start a business or buy a farm to 13 million returning American servicemen (almost 10 percent of the entire population), and effectively turned the working class into a middle class, having saved them from joblessness, trained and led them to victory in war, and staked them to new careers. The Roosevelt program kept extremists from making any headway in American elections. The Socialist Party vote declined by 85 percent from 1932 to 1936, and when asked if Roosevelt wasn’t carrying out the Socialist program, perennial Socialist Party presidential candidate Norman Thomas replied: “Yes, carrying it out in a coffin.”
THERE HAS BEEN A good deal of revisionist comment recently that Roosevelt’s policies did not end the Depression, but as U.S. GDP doubled in his 12 years in office and unemployment declined from roughly 30 percent to 0.5 percent, that case is difficult to sustain (and is in fact, nonsense). From this point on, the tussle between American liberals and conservatives has been over what emphasis to give unrestricted economic activity, which promises relatively high growth, but with sharp cyclicality of booms and busts; and alleviation of substandard social conditions through anti-poverty and health care programs. Most of Western Europe, as it rebuilt from the devastation of war, fearful for notorious historic reasons of the anger of the urban working class and of small farmers, has been lumbered by a system of social benefit and subsidized living that paid Danegeld to traditional disturbers of social peace at the price of minimal economic growth, though they are relatively high-income societies.
In the United States, conservative and liberal issues became tangled in foreign policy as well, as liberals tended to believe that stability in the world could be had with minimal recourse to force and with reliance on international organizations, while retaining a military adequate to deter direct national attack on the United States and defend its principal allies, and conservatives have been generally more proactive in seeking an improved strategic balance, by a combination of diplomatic innovation and assured peace through enhanced military strength.
In foreign affairs, President Truman devised the great instruments of anti-Communist containment — NATO, the Marshall Plan, etc. — and defied Stalin with the Berlin Airlift and resisted the Communist takeover of South Korea. President Eisenhower, the first Republican in 20 years, maintained virtually everything FDR and Truman had done, but did not expand the state socially (though he did build the interstate highway system and the St. Lawrence Seaway), and in foreign affairs, he ended the Korean War along the compromise lines sought by Truman, contrary to the wishes of more conservative Republican hawks, including Douglas MacArthur, Richard Nixon, and John Foster Dulles. Eisenhower refused to touch Vietnam as the French were pushed out of it, and cut the defense budget while relying on “more bang for the buck”: massive retaliation to deter aggression. He threatened a nuclear response to everything, even over the trivial Formosa Strait islands of Quemoy and Matsu. It was brinkmanship, but it worked. Eisenhower also began the de-escalation of the Cold War, with the first summit meeting in 10 years, at Geneva in 1955, where he proposed his “Open Skies” program for reciprocal aerial military reconnaissance.
Roosevelt’s social programs were left essentially unaltered for 20 years after he died, until President Lyndon Johnson cut taxes while expanding the social ambitions of the federal government with his Great Society War on Poverty, and massive job retraining efforts, coupled to great and long-delayed advances in civil rights. Kennedy and Johnson favored civil rights more actively than had their predecessors, and backed conservatives into pious humbug about the Constitution not allowing for federal imposition of voting rights and official social equality for African Americans. Johnson overcame that opposition and it was one of liberalism’s finest hours. But the long Roosevelt-Truman-Eisenhower consensus frayed badly when Johnson, who had been a congressman during the New Deal years, determined to take it a long step further and proposed a policy extravaganza that promised to buy the end of poverty through social investment. As all the world knows, it was a disaster that destroyed the African American family and severely aggravated the welfare and entitlements crises.
And in foreign and security policy, Kennedy abandoned massive retaliation, promised limited war by limited means for limited objectives, in unlimited locations, and the Communists took him up on it. Having claimed a nonexistent missile gap, he then squandered the U.S. missile advantage in favor of Mutual Assured Destruction; i.e., no advantage. Worse, he drank his own bathwater over Cuba. Before that crisis (1962), there were NATO missiles in Greece and Turkey, no Russian missiles in Cuba, and no assurance against U.S. invasion of Cuba. After the crisis, there were no NATO missiles in Greece or Turkey, nor Russian missiles in Cuba, and a guarantee of no U.S. invasion of Cuba. U.S. intelligence had not realized that there were already 40,000 Soviet troops in Cuba in the autumn of 1962, and that the nuclear warheads were already there and could be attached in 24 hours. The famous and photogenic sea blockade was closing the gate after the Trojan horse had entered. It was a triumph for Kennedy, in that he didn’t commit to an invasion that would have been a very rough business in a nuclear-capable theater and that would presumably have precipitated countermeasures in Berlin. (Khrushchev could not have sat inert while the U.S. overpowered two Soviet divisions in Cuba.) But it was no strategic victory, and discerning judges, especially de Gaulle and Mao Tse-tung and Richard Nixon (who lost the race for governor of California as a result of the perceived Kennedy tour de force in Cuba), saw that.
However, the liberal leadership thought they had a new and foolproof technique of crisis management, the critical path of graduated escalation, and that led us straight into Vietnam, with no notion of how to fight such a war; while LBJ’s application of overreach to domestic affairs drove America into the mire of the Great Society.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?
H/T to National Review Online