Obamamania took a big hit during the summer Congressional recess and Charles Krauthammer and Peggy Noonan, in their respective styles, have it pegged pretty well. In a word, Obama has shown himself to be a pretty ordinary politician, even boring in Noonan’s terms. And the American people have again demonstrated that they are very difficult to fool, provided they are given enough time to focus on the issue at hand. Fortunately, the Republicans, but mainly the “blue dog” Democrats, gave them enough time to focus. So what now? Well, mainly Obama must make drastic adjustments to his expectations for health care reform to get anything at all, which he will probably do in some shape or form. But more than that, the future of his presidency rests on his ability to recalibrate his assessment of the mood of the electorate, particularly its appetite for more government intrusion into the economy and their lives in general. I have said before that I believe that he doesn’t really know the people he purports to lead, and this has already been vividly demonstrated. He is also running out of time and sympathy for the message that every problem is “Bush’s fault”, and, by year end he will own them all. Underestimating someone who outsmarted and soundly defeated the Clinton machine would not be wise, but the mystique is gone, and it will be very difficult to recapture.
I want to be as fair as possible in remarks on the death of Edward M. Kennedy, just as all of us will want our survivors to consider the “whole package” and defer ultimate judgment to God. I never met him, but he was generally considered to have the most effective and most competent staff in the U. S. Senate; he was without doubt a very committed liberal warrior and probably an intellectually honest man of the left; he was highly respected and well liked by many of the conservative persuasion for whom I have high regard; and he obviously made a sincere attempt in his later years to atone for a number of egregious transgressions and indiscretions from his earlier days, the guilt from which must have weighed heavy on his soul.
He was as well the “poster boy” for everything loathsome about what 20th century liberalism morphed into after World War II. I will spare you the list here, but Jonah Goldberg covered it pretty well in his book, Liberal Fascism. His popular legacy will be his work in the years since the 1980 convention speech conceding the Democratic Presidential nomination, during which he worked tirelessly for the progressive agenda outlined in that speech, with considerable success thanks to Republican co-sponsorship in many cases and in spite of Republican majorities for most of that time. Some commentators applaud these measures as appropriate for the times, but I believe we will be living with both the intended and unintended negative consequences of most of them for a very long time.
My most vivid memory of Kennedy, however, will be his speech on the Senate floor during the confirmation debate on Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, which included these lines: “Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution.” Nothing from the so-called “extreme right” cabal rivals these remarks for their vitriol, their dishonesty, or their subsequent negative impact on civility in the public square. RIP.
One gets the intuitive feeling that “the other shoe will drop” in Iran following the unrest caused by the fraudulent election results last June. Among other things, our standing offer to talk now begs the question, with whom? Clearly, the Ahmadinejad regime has been severely wounded and the world has been exposed to the lack of credibility in the moralism of the mullahs and their Supreme Leader. There are other, deeper issues. Polls show that 36% of Iranians 15-29 want to emigrate and fertility rates have declined significantly to below replacement levels, not a good sign in a Muslim country. This damage will not be lost on their opponents in the region, nor will it be misunderstood by the new Israeli government, which understands the increased risk in dealing with a humiliated enemy eager to demonstrate its resolve. All of this poses a problem for the U. S. in terms of its priorities, which are increasingly imbalanced in the belief that all problems in the Middle East originate in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. In its zeal to abandon the policies of the Bush administration and pursue more “engagement” with Iran, this administration seems to have become somewhat detached from the nuclear threat it represents and the absolute commitment by Israel to insure that this threat does not become a reality, at whatever the cost. The latter should be our top priority as well.
I have become increasingly interested in the development of American political philosophy beginning in the period immediately after the Civil War, particularly the evolution of American thought leading to the progressive movement in the early 20th century through the New Deal. In other words, what happened to the principles of the original founding in the decades immediately after the re-founding of our country as a result of the Civil War? Beginning with The Metaphysical Club, which I reviewed a couple of years ago and read again earlier this year, I covered quite a bit of ground on this topic this summer, as follows:
Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect, by Paul A. Rahe. In 1989, when the Cold War ended, many intellectuals expected the “end of history” or the ultimate triumph of liberal democracy. However, this hasn’t materialized as expected, and the fact that there remains much discontent in democratic societies has been widely discussed. In fact, as Rahe demonstrates, the uneasiness that has prevailed among the modern republics and the drift toward “soft despotism” was anticipated by thinkers well represented in the history of the development of the American experiment. In this volume, he outlines their thought as it pertains to how this condition arises within a democracy when paternalistic state power expands and gradually undermines the spirit of self-government. A good analysis, well researched, but not long on solutions at this late date.
Beyond the Revolution: A History of American Thought from Paine to Pragmatism, by William H. Goetzmann. This is a pretty broad sweep of American intellectual history which tells the story of America’s greatest thinkers, writers, and other creators, showing how they built upon and battled one another from 1776 to 1900. I found the book to be a very helpful overview of the evolution of American political philosophy, however, some reviewers have been critical of its single-minded adherence to what is called the “Harvard Narrative”. This is a pejorative term for the standard rendition of the path of American political thought from the founders to a pragmatism that many believe is devoid of ideas and moral grounding, but seeks only acceptable results. I agree with some aspects of this criticism, but the book is good history, and it is what it is.
Woodrow Wilson and Roots of Modern Liberalism, by Ronald J. Pestritto. From his early days as a political scientist through his term as President of Princeton University and Governor of New Jersey to his election as President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson was a central figure in the development of progressivism and its successor, the liberalism that dominated 20th century political life and public policy in America. Wilson was totally committed to Hegelian historicism and the Social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer as organizing philosophies, and these of course were completely antithetical to the natural rights constitutionalism of the American founding. You wonder where we get the notion of the “living constitution”? Here’s your man. And this book has been described as the deepest and most comprehensive treatment to date of Wilson’s political thought. Very well done.
Living Constitution, Dying Faith: Progressivism and the New Science of Jurisprudence, by Bradley C. S. Watson. Legal historian Watson examines how the contemporary embrace of the “living” Constitution has arisen from the radical transformation of American political thought, particularly since the Civil War. He also traces the history of why our jurisprudence has become so alienated from the constitutionalism of the American founders. All of this is rooted in progressive legal theories, historicism, Social Darwinism, and pragmatism, and it has significantly undermined Americans’ faith in the eternal truths as well as the limited Constitution of our founding. Some of the book is redundant with the Wilson book, but the approach is much different, as Watson focuses more on the evolution of our jurisprudence.
In addition to these works on American thought, I enjoyed a new book by Jean Bethke Elshtain, Sovereignty: God, State, and Self, which was the central theme and grew out of her Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh. In it she examines the origins and meanings of sovereignty as they have evolved over the centuries and as they relate to the ways in which we attempt to explain our world: God, state, self. She intertwines theology, philosophy, and psychology in a unique approach to understanding a concept that is absolutely essential in defining who we are, and she invites us to reflect on the toll that a narrow secularism is taking on human values and dignity. Not a light read but worth the effort.