The Progressives won on Tuesday.
I don’t mean the people who voted Democrat who call themselves “progressive.” Though they won, too.
I mean the Progressives who’ve been waging a century-long effort to transform our American-style government into a European-style state.
The words “government” and “state” are often used interchangeably, but they are really different things. According to the Founders’ vision, the people are sovereign and the government belongs to us. Under the European notion of the state, the people are creatures of the state, significant only as parts of the whole.
This European version of the state can be nice. One can live comfortably under it. Many decent and smart people sincerely believe this is the intellectually and morally superior way to organize society. And, to be fair, it’s not a binary thing. The line between the European and American models is blurry. France is not a Huxleyan dystopia, and America is not and has never been an anarchist’s utopia, nor do conservatives want it to be one.
The distinction between the two worldviews is mostly a disagreement over first assumptions about which institutions should take the lead in our lives. It is an argument about what the habits of the American heart should be. Should we live in a country where the first recourse is to appeal to the government, or should government interventions be reserved as a last resort?
These assumptions are formed and informed by political rhetoric. President Obama ran a campaign insisting that Democrats believe “we’re all in it together” and that Republicans think you should be “on your own” no matter what hardships you face. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ “keepers,” according to Obama, and the state is how we “keep” each other. The introductory video at the Democratic National Convention proclaimed, “Government is the one thing we all belong to.”
Exactly 100 years before Barack Obama’s reelection victory, Woodrow Wilson was elected president for the first time. It was Wilson’s belief that the old American understanding of government needed to be Europeanized. The key to this transformation was convincing Americans that we all must “marry our interests to the state.”
The chief obstacle for this mission is the family. The family, rightly understood, is an autonomous source of meaning in our lives and the chief place where we sacrifice for, and cooperate with, others. It is also the foundation for local communities and social engagement. As social scientist Charles Murray likes to say, unmarried men rarely volunteer to coach kids’ soccer teams.
Progressivism always looked at the family with skepticism and occasionally hostility. Reformer Charlotte Perkins Gilman hoped state-backed liberation of children would destroy “the unchecked tyranny . . . of the private home.” Wilson believed the point of education was to make children as unlike their parents as possible. Hillary Clinton, who calls herself a modern progressive and not a liberal, once said we must move beyond the notion there is “any such thing as someone else’s child.”
One of the stark lessons of Obama’s victory is the degree to which the Republican party has become a party for the married and the religious. If only married people voted, Romney would have won in a landslide. If only married religious people voted, you’d need a word that means something much bigger than landslide. Obviously, Obama got some votes from the married and the religious (such people can marry their interests to the state, too), but as a generalization, the Obama coalition heavily depends on people who do not see family or religion as rival or superior sources of material aid or moral authority.
Marriage, particularly among the working class, has gone out of style. In 1960, 72 percent of adults were married. Today, barely half are. The numbers for blacks are far more stark. The well-off still get married, though, which is a big reason why they’re well-off. “It is the privileged Americans who are marrying, and marrying helps them stay privileged,” Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, told the New York Times.
Religion, too, is waning dramatically in America. Gallup finds regular church attendance down to 43 percent of Americans. Other researchers think it might be less than half that.
In the aftermath of massive American urbanization and industrialization, and in the teeth of a brutal economic downturn, Franklin D. Roosevelt promised to fight for the “forgotten man” — the American who felt lost amidst the social chaos of the age. Obama campaigned for “Julia” — the affluent single mom who had no family and no ostensible faith to fall back on.
In short, the American people are starting to look like Europeans, and as a result they want a European form of government.
— Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him by e-mail at JonahsColumn@aol.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.