An apocryphal tale tells of an American who claimed to own George Washington’s axe. “Three times,” he exclaims, the axe has “had its handle replaced, and twice had its head replaced!”
This is a joke that has been rendered in more serious form by philosophers throughout the ages — perhaps most famously in Plutarch’s Life of Theseus — and it may be time now to consider it in relation to the United States. People and countries change, as they must. But, as with Washington’s axe, to change too much is to invite the possibility not merely of alteration, but of replacement. Predicated, as it is, on an established set of principles — rather than merely on geographical or racial fact — America could presumably reach a point at which it could no longer usefully be called America. How close to that point are we?
I was born in England in 1984, two days before Ronald Reagan was elected to a second term. As a small child, I watched the Space Shuttle take off from Cape Canaveral in Florida. I had an Apollo 11 lunchbox. With varying levels of awareness, I saw the United States defeat Communism, come to Kuwait’s aid in 1991, and rise to hyperpower status. During the 1990s, I watched in awe as Silicon Valley revolutionized the world. Once, my father told me that the difference between the average Briton and the average American was that a Briton looks at a man driving a Ferrari and thinks, “What a b*****d,” while an American thinks, “I’ll be him one day.” This my father considered a great virtue — as do I. By the time that I was ten years old, I didn’t just think that America was the world’s great hope, I knew it.
On frequent visits across the pond, I saw little to disabuse me of these notions. America was just different: There was no crushing class system, and it had a genuine and unique scope for immigrants to integrate fully, and the virtue of living under the protection of the greatest constitution in the history of the world. There was opportunity, too. Christopher Hitchens, by no means short of talent, once wrote that he had been compelled to move to America because “life in Britain had seemed like one long antechamber to a room that had too many barriers to entry.” Britain treated me well in a great many ways, but I understand what Hitchens meant: America is mercifully lacking in gatekeepers.
Inevitably, this translates into politics. British elections are mean-spirited and meretricious affairs that reveal what the country has become in its post-imperial form. In them, the focus flits between mercenary discussion of what the government is going to give the people and petty bickering over inconsequential details such as which schools the candidates went to and how much money they have. Few principles are at stake because classical liberalism is largely dead, so debates ultimately boil down to the question of who is going to run the welfare system more efficiently. The candidates’ arguments are full of nebulous, slippery words, such as “fairness” and “investment” — and the never-ending substitution of the word “community” for “government.” You would never hear Kennedy’s famous “Ask not what your country can do for you” line in a British political context because nobody would understand what he was talking about. Only in America. Anyone can make it there!
But, consider this: A president of the United States just ran a reelection campaign based on the promise of government largess, exploitation of class division, the demonization of success, the glorification of identity politics, and the presumption that women are a helpless interest group; and he did so while steadfastly refusing to acknowledge the looming — potentially fatal — crisis that the country faces. And it worked.
Worse, as David Harsanyi has observed, “the president’s central case rests on the idea that individuals should view government as society’s moral center, the engine of prosperity and the arbiter of fairness.” This stunted and tawdry vision of American life was best summed up in his campaign’s contemptible Life of Julia cartoon, which portrayed the American Dream as being impossible without heavy cradle-to-grave government, and in which the civic society that Tocqueville correctly saw as the hallmark of the republic was wholly ignored — if not disdained outright. “Government is the only thing we all belong to,” declared a video at the opening of the Democratic National Convention. In another age, this contention would have been met with incredulity and confusion; in ours, it was cheered.
So, too, were the two central achievements of Obama’s first term: the spending of an unprecedented amount of borrowed money on the president’s political allies, and the turning of the health-care system over to the bureaucracy in a “reform” that, inter alia, stipulates that to be alive is to owe something to Washington. The latter move involves a claim on the people that no free government should ever make, and that no American government has ever made before. For these grave missteps, the president suffered an epic loss in Congress in 2010. The revolt looked promising, but then — for whatever reasons — he was reelected. Now, Obama has the chance to remake the Supreme Court and remake America’s Constitution, too. Who doubts he will take it?
If we are to lose America as it has been, could we not ask that it be lost to something better than this? Our president, a Narcissus masquerading as a Demosthenes, makes big speeches packed full of little ideas, and he is applauded wildly for it. His, says Marco Rubio, “are tired and old big-government ideas. Ideas that people come to America to get away from. Ideas that threaten to make America more like the rest of the world, instead of helping the world become more like America.” I will vouch for the verity of these words. I have watched how these sorry ideas play out in the real world, and it is not pretty: They make people’s lives worse, and yet simultaneously convince them that any reform will kill them — a fatal combination. Americans should avoid this path sedulously, for that way lies decline.
Rubio is correct in another assessment. How small Barack Obama’s politics are! How deficient and outmoded are his ideas; how limited his understanding of America’s value; how dull his magniloquence. The president has an ample library of ideas from which to choose, and yet he raids the Old World. Compare Barack Obama’s entire oeuvre to a single line from Thomas Jefferson or Emma Lazarus or Frederick Douglass — or even Ronald Reagan. Does it stand up? Only in a society that has lost touch with the ancient and is reflexively in love with the new could such a man be considered to be an inspiration.
And yet, he has now won twice. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to elect such a man once may be regarded as a misfortune, but to elect him twice looks like carelessness. (Or, rather, criminal negligence.) This year, certainly, was not the perfect storm of 2008. Then, novelty and redemption played a role; this time, an insipid bore ran on an openly statist platform and won the day in a country that is supposed to be “center right.” Maybe it no longer is. In 1980, when faced with a set of policies that demonstrably hadn’t worked and a president who wanted to take America leftward, America chose a different path; in 2012, it doubled down. That says a lot about a people. The central problem, then, is not that Obama will be president for the next few years, but that the American people — knowing him — chose to reelect him. Even if this is put down to a failure of Romney’s turnout operation or Hurricane Sandy or Obama’s brilliant targeting, it does not say much for their commitment to classical liberalism that a significant group of Americans stayed away from the fight because they didn’t like Mitt Romney. That this was not a clear-cut repudiation of the president should sound the alarm.
Many had hoped that Tuesday would be 1980 revisited. It was not. Instead, in its effects at least, it was more like 1945 in Britain, in which year the Labour party was elected and began to put into place the foundations of a government-owned and -run health-care system that would quickly displace the established church as Britain’s national religion. (If you question the believers’ zeal, take a look at the frenzied NHS worship at the Olympic opening ceremony.) As Mark Steyn has correctly observed, in Britain as elsewhere, the National Health Service paved the way for a “permanent left-of-center political culture” that obtains regardless of who wins office. Obamacare will now go into effect, and Americans will soon feel entitled to its fruits. Those who doubt that this will have a deleterious effect on American republicanism have clearly never been bribed with their own health care. Almost certainly, Obamacare will fail. And then, as always, it will be replaced by something even further left. For the model, see Obama’s record on student loans.
Economic gravity will prevail, as it always does, and it will eventually yield another conservative president. Indeed, the nature of the two-party system all but guarantees it. But this won’t do much good in and of itself. The growth of the state is a one-way ratchet, and its size and intrusion are almost never retrenched. Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1788 that “the natural progress of things is for liberty to yield, and government to gain ground.” “A government bureau,” added Ronald Reagan, “is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth.”
How true these words are. Mrs. Thatcher, fittingly lionized by those on the right, certainly achieved a lot. But she could do nothing about Britain’s creaking welfare system or its antediluvian National Health Service. Nobody can. Nobody would even try. (Consider what an Augean task it is even to get people seriously to discuss Medicare’s disquieting trajectory.) Mrs. Thatcher’s party is well named: They are, quite literally, the “Conservatives,” and their role now is simply to run the government better than the socialists. Britain once had an Empire that stretched across one quarter of the globe; it provided the world with a common language, many of its institutions, global trade, and cricket; we did Great Things at home and abroad. Now, we wrangle over whether state spending should be 39 or 40 percent of GDP, and we hold the prime minister personally responsible for hospital conditions hundreds of miles from London. It’s debilitating.
Once upon a time, when civic society flourished in Britain, it was uncontroversial to observe that to demur at government involvement in the achievement of an end was not necessarily to consider that end undesirable. Under Leviathan, such distinctions draw blank stares. In 2010, on the BBC’s Question Time — a British current-affairs show on which the guests trip over one other to display the appropriate degree of fealty to whichever orthodoxy is in the news that week whilst the audience tries to be as clever as one can be without doing any reading — the question of impending government spending cuts was raised. One audience member stood up and, waving her hands around, asked who would mow her elderly mother’s lawn if the government no longer did it. The audience clapped. The host looked serious. Not a single person on the panel said, “You!” Neither of the putatively Conservative guests even raised an eyebrow. A particularly oleaginous MP proceeded to tell her that it was a “good question.” I threw a coffee cup at my television.
“In August 1914,” wrote the historian A. J. P. Taylor, “a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policeman. He could live where he liked and as he liked. He had no official number or identity card.” A century later, he does not even expect to have to tend to his own family’s garden. That’s some shift in the Overton window.
I quite earnestly believe in all of the stuff that I’m not supposed to. I believe that America is exceptional; that it is an objectively better nation than any other that has ever existed; and that it is, as it was explicitly designed always to be, the last, best hope for mankind. As Winthrop’s sermon poetically put it, America is the “Shining City upon a Hill,” there so that men without liberty have somewhere to turn and a light that they might follow. I followed that light — 3,500 miles from my friends and my family — because I believed that my life would be better here, because I wanted to be free, and because I felt that under American liberty I would be able to be myself more honestly and more fully. There is nowhere else I could have gone.
Alas, there is nothing written in the stars that says that America will always be America. “Rome,” as Joseph Heller brutally reminded us, “was destroyed, Greece was destroyed, Persia was destroyed, Spain was destroyed. All great countries are destroyed. Why not yours? How much longer do you really think your own country will last? Forever? Keep in mind that the earth itself is destined to be destroyed by the sun in 25 million years or so.” There will be little virtue in America if it becomes a larger version of Britain, but with free speech and the right to bear arms.
On Tuesday, America took another giant leap away both from its revolutionary mission and from the classical liberalism that it has successfully incubated for so long. This is a rotten thing for America, and also — though it might not realize it — for the world; for, like Anthony Blanche, Evelyn Waugh’s “aesthete par excellence,” should the United States descend into the mire, it will “take something away with it.” If America ceases to be America, it will “[lock] a door and hang the key on a chain.” And then? “All [its] friends, among whom [it] had always been a stranger,” will realize they need it. I know I do.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.