The French scholar Patrice Gueniffey, a specialist in the French Revolution and the leading contemporary authority on the Napoleonic era, refers to Walter Bagehot on the two essential requirements of any regime, dignity and efficiency.
Without an aura of dignity, Bagehot believed, the constitutional powers of a regime, and notably those of its executive, lose their authority and sooner or later the system breaks down. Gueniffey sees this process in the Gaullist Fifth Republic. The system, combining central executive authority with representative government, worked until successively less able presidents undercut their own authority by letting opposition parties set their own agendas at the expense of the president’s dignity. This led to paralysis or, as Mark Lilla has put it, domination by current events.
Following the diminution of executive dignity, the Fifth Republic system was hollowed out by the way the treaty on European Union was formalized in the first decade of this century. The sovereign people found themselves replaced, through a legerdemain their own political class pulled on them, by unelected, unaccountable, unknown rulers in Belgium (a little country created to deal with the aftershocks of Napoleon’s wars). The chasm between people and government filled with mutual contempt.
Elected in 2017 on a reform program against the conventional political establishment, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, quickly passed measures in labor rules and fiscal policy, but he has been challenged since last November by a tax revolt that snowballed into broad protests against rather vague, but humanly significant, unhappiness with public services, wealth inequality, the cynicism and aloofness of the “elites”, the tone-deafness of the government. Lacking prestige or dignity, the would-be great reformer has increasingly appeared a pretentious flop. His program has been reduced to legislation that would restrict public demonstrations, though these have continued with, so far, broad public support.
Is something comparable happening to us? Are democratic republics becoming too difficult to manage?
Surely there are sectional differences that touch the core constitutional ideas with which we began, in the 1790s. But there are also social differences that cut across regions. As surely there were then. There are, too, deep disagreements on questions of public policy, domestic and foreign, that separate large swathes of the American Nation — you look at age groups as well as occupational sectors and you see this.
My favorite senator, Daniel Webster, used to greet people with, “How fares the Union?” Extra unio non est salus (“There is no salvation outside the Union”) might have been our motto, notwithstanding it sounds more authoritarian than E pluribus unum.
I like Henry Clay, too, and Sam Rayburn was pretty impressive, as was Everett Dirksen. Yes, compromise is the key to America’s great destiny, and if you want to know, it is because there is no greater threat to liberty than he who has all the answers and brooks no dissent. Such a man — or woman — defies Divine Providence, whose ways are mysterious.
Disagreements, dissent, should always be forceful, vigorous, in the press and in the public debates and assemblies, elected or neighborly. They should be unsparing, but they should remain civil, even courteous: respectful of the dignity of so remarkable a regime as ours. Facts should be abounding, evidence should be in surplus, when the press does its job, for which it should be thanked. Democracy does not die in darkness, it dies when men choose or pretend not to see and hear.
How often have I bemoaned the deafness of the Bush elites when the senator from Virginia, Jim Webb, presented them with the case against invasion and occupation of Mesopotamia. They could have listened. They might have gone forward, but out of the argument might have come a better plan.
Could Abraham Lincoln and Sam Houston, fundamentally in agreement in 1861, have found a common voice that would have been heard above the drums and the din of men who thought they knew better?
We’ll never know.
Curiously, our country, in strong health in so many respects, seems riven by pathological hatred. But let us be fair and accurate, the hatred comes overwhelmingly from the left side of the political world and is directed at a man who, to stay fair and accurate, is in actual real fact one of the more pragmatic and non-confrontational presidents since Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Rhetorically, to be sure, D.J. Trump can be a handful, if you include tweeting in the sphere of rhetoric. Anyway, his haters use this same device — which I do not know how to access, though I do use email, so it is not as if I am retro — and they use it as wildly as he, more so in fact.
Indeed, the president’s tweets are not wild. They are somewhat simplified or mildly intemperate, but normal, commonsensical, reactions to the ambient hysteria that our mighty, ever-dynamic country always produces. They bring out a vituperative hatred that is truly alarming.
Daniel Webster would not be surprised. The broadsides hurled by adversaries at one another, in his time, were no less vicious and intemperate.
Nor is it reassuring to know this, considering what came next. But in looking to other times, by way of trying to understand what we are going though, you are drawn also to other places.
For much of last year, the leaders of gallant France and little Hungary traded hate-laced insults, like a pair of Calhoun’s and Stevens’s, threatening doom and perdition if the opposite rascal had his way. I owe it to a dear and loyal friend of this paper, Mr. Clark Judge, that in our country, on the side that led with inexorable rigidity toward exactly that, doom and perdition, there was a profound anti-constitutionalism, a rejection of the premises of our national pact, which the great Webster and Henry Clay sought to maintain.
But which side was that?
Neither allowed it might be his.
The gallant French president claimed that little Hungary was subverting the lodestar of ever closer union that the Eurocrats in Brussels have been promoting since the late ’80s, at the expense, many feel, of the continent’s working classes.
Until then, you had basically a customs union, it was called the Common Market or the European Economic Community, and its principal purpose was to prevent yet another attempt at mass suicide by co-managing the coal and steel resources of the regions between the Ruhr and the Meuse.
This was, of course, what we know as Lotharingia, but few people knew this, and even fewer do now. De Gaulle and Adenauer and di Gasperi knew but they were old, white, and Catholic.
It worked pretty well, withal. Their heirs got it into their heads that what was needed was something they referred to as “ever closer union,” and boy did they go for it! It was like when the U.S. Congress went whacko and thought Washington is the World! Tax and spend and the hell with the rubes and their tiresome where-could-I-go-but-to-the-Lord whining. We know better!
Observe that de Gaulle believed a federation of European states was a reasonable proposition if approached gingerly, which is why he insisted on moving toward a “Europe of nations” and was skeptical of British participation. I sometimes think Boris Johnson and his band of exiters are the last Gaullists in Europe, but I’m still waiting for his invitation to attend Wimbledon. Mr. Johnson, in his day mayor of London and foreign minister in Her Majesty’s guv’mint, is a fine tennis man, but from the way he responds to calls you would not know he claimed in leaner days to be a true friend of Mr. Tyrrell. Maybe he dislikes the Irish? Or he is selfish?
To get back on track, the young French president, intelligent, literate, so-so tennis player, but lacking in modesty and reckless in his personal associations, thought to feather his virtue cap with some targeted remarks about little Hungary’s government. The latter’s prime minister is a Richard Daley look-alike named Viktor Orbán. He is popular enough for his party to have won a super-majority in their parliament, but there is discontent due to his somewhat self-interested preference for a favorable press, his views on marriage, and his disapproval of illegal immigrants, notably those of far-off tribal and religious backgrounds.
That little Hungary might have a say in its own immigration policy or the nature of families does not strike one as bizarre, let alone extreme, even in these days when a simple matter of border security, which along with delivering the mail and defending the nation against all enemies (foreign and domestic), are the purposes of government, seems to cause panic in Washington (highest per-capital income in the U.S.).
Mr. Orbán’s demurral, when the Europowers said it was time to take them in by the millions — them being undocumented masses from infidel and heathen lands where the Crusades are still a mental and political reference — brought down upon his little country the wrath of the Jupiterian — his own choice of sobriquets — Emmanuel Macron, at 40 the youngest leader of gallant France since Louis XV, who ascended the throne at age 5. De Gaulle was in his late 60s when he founded the Fifth Republic and he told his critics he was old enough to be past delusions of military dictatorship.
De Gaulle, be it said in passing, was no Viktor Orbán, or more accurately Orbán is no Charles de Gaulle, but on this issue of elementary national sovereignty that vexes the holier-than-thou’s in Brussels, they might have appreciated the value of Henry Clay’s oft-used political idiom, pronounced com-pro-mise.
If you cannot win outright, go halfway to the other man’s offer. Thus, to end an endless war in Algeria, de Gaulle finally put it to the people over there: leave, or stay (you decide).
To his top aides, he said candidly, I shudder (this is a paraphrase) at the thought of a hundred [***] delegates in the National Assembly, so he privately favored a leave win, even though he was nominally committed to preserving the empire. The man could be blunt, but he had a point. However, his government negotiated a bad peace and they both lost the war and got the migrants, if not the delegates. Which is part of the reason why Macron, unable to manage the delayed consequences of that twisted peace, is trying to spread the pain.
To which Orbán replied, why us?
Apart from fingering little Hungary, Macron has succeeded in uniting the populist yellow jackets who launched the current rolling demonstrations with the CGT, the communist labor union federation. They were in the streets together yesterday in Paris as well as other cities across the country. The president is encouraging people to participate in a “debate” (including on-line questionnaires) on What to Do. Whatever it is, this is not Jupiterian government. There is talk of resignation or a referendum on whether he should stay in office. That way he would be near the U.S. Embassy.
Were it not for demos in downtown Budapest, protesting various matters of social policy, Orbán might be enjoying the discomfiture of his arch-critic, who among many other reproaches accuses the Lutheran — Macron is Catholic — of infringing upon the free press. Macron this week sent magistrates to the offices of a French paper, Mediapart, in search of leaks. For the moment, the sanctity of the source is being respected as the two sides back off, but observers note that it is a case of jamais-vu.
They say it is because the paper found some poop on underhanded (and venal) Russian influence. To us it must sound like déjà vu all over again, with Gallic tones. Actually it is a by-product of a scandal involving a young favorite of the president’s who got caught, not with his pants down but with a blackjack beating up a peaceful nonviolent person in the street. Pants down stuff, especially in the presidential entourage, is too old-hat for a French paper. Additionally, this one happens to be editorially on the pro-invert side (to use Marcel Proust’s idiom) in the global sex wars.
On that front, the boudoir activities of Bonaparte, the last French hero to mix it up with Hungarians, were conventional and passionate, and, sadly, not reciprocated by the love of his life, a creole belle named Josephine. He took out his frustrations on little Hungary, destroying its forces at the battle of Gyor on the 14th of June 1809. On July 5 he met the Habsburg-led Austrians at Wagram, and in two days of ghastly combat drove them off the field.
Having each experienced the frustrations of power, could Macron and Orbán come to a modus vivendi on the Large Questions before them? And think about the nations and the people whose interests they are, officially and legally, supposed to serve? Elections to the European parliament are coming up. They are largely symbolic as it is a toothless assembly, but politically it is an occasion to take hard positions, or find a compromise on whether they want a Europe of nations or a Europe of administrative statists.
These dust-ups in the Old World put our political whackiness in perspective, while they remind us of what we are — and are not. The feds do not go knocking down the doors of papers whose headlines they dislike. We do not go yelling at Canada and Guatemala to conform to our policies, on immigration or anything else.
We are disunited in spirit and temperament; we may yet hope that the legitimacy and prestige — and even the dignity — of our institutions are not in doubt. Maybe, when you think about it, we are in damn good shape.
With the Union, all is possible. Let haters blow steam off, no point in arguing. When they pause, ask: How fares the Union? What can we do, even incrementally, to efficiently advance its interests? We have borne a lot in confronting the world’s troubles; we can bear some more in showing again that we remain its last, best hope.
There is an avenueWagram in Paris, by the way, one of the fancy streets making rays out of what used to be called the Etoile, now Place de Gaulle. I often wonder whether this cheers the souls of the 80,000 men who turned that field crimson. Sometimes when I am on this theme, waiting for the mournful answer, I turn to Mark Knopfler’s “Done With Bonaparte,” a haunting song, a poem, that whistles, as someone said, in the wind.
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