Napoleon supposedly said that from the sublime to the ridiculous there is but one step. This truth applies to great nations as well as great men like Napoleon. The decay of a nation often manifests itself in the trivial and inane, as well as the tragic and existential.
Our current political, cultural, and social dysfunctions have clearly taken that step over the last few decades, and now is putting at risk our country’s successful 247 years of achieving political freedom and equality for all.
Clearly, we Americans are living through attacks on that success no one could have predicted even 20 years ago. And this civilizational failure of nerve and moral exhaustion is leaving us vulnerable to our global enemies. If and when we go, the long great political experiment––freedom and equality and self-rule for all regardless of birth, wealth, or education–– will finally end in failure and despotism.
The bad omens abound. Faith is moribund, banished to the realm of subjective preferences. Love of country and one’s fellow countrymen has been displaced by a specious, “citizen-of-the-world” globalism devoted to power and money. Government, always vulnerable to corruption, is now completely debauched, and justice is sacrificed to political expediency. We are so selfish and short-sighted that we continue to ignore the looming bankruptcy brought on by feckless debt, deficits, and profligate entitlement spending that is morally, as well as fiscally, bankrupting us. And our political factions, especially the “woke,” are conducting our most important policy debates with temper tantrums, violence, censorship, and socio-political “cancellation,” our modern equivalent of Orwell’s “memory hole.”
Indeed, we’ve become so juvenile and surreally silly that even the most obvious facts of science like biological sex are reduced to subjective options, when not promoted as mandatory. More immediately dangerous for many citizens, a “war on cops” as well as “catch and release” prosecutors have turned our largest urban landscapes into dystopian nightmares of violence and squalor.
Most fundamentally, purpose and meaning in our lives come not from faith, country, and family, but from preposterous cults like “transgenderism,” “systemic racism,” and apocalyptic “climate change,” which are preached with myopic hysteria and intolerant fervor.
Central for understanding this current disorder and discontents is the great experiment that began 2500 years ago, and which was most successfully realized in the creation of the United States and its Constitution. The first, earlier step was the development of constitutional government, the politeia of ancient Greece. That is, rule not by a king or tyrant or oligarchy, but by fixed laws that transcend any individual or generation. Even more transformational was the next development: opening participation in government to the citizen “masses,” the non-elites, whatever their birth, education, or wealth.
This political equality was the foundation of liberal-democracy, and the bulwark against tyranny by the one or the privileged few defined by wealth, ancestry, or superior wisdom––what the poet of aristocratic athletic achievement Pindar called the “splendor running in the blood,” an innate capacity for virtue, leadership, and wisdom that made nobles the natural rulers: “the wise man knows many things in his blood,” Pindar claimed, “the vulgar are taught.”
The creation of democracy, then, raised the eternal political question about whether or not the common people had enough experience, practical wisdom, and common sense to be trusted with self-rule. This question dominated the Constitutional debates, and was central to the foundation of the two major political parties, the Federalists and the Republicans, soon called Democratic-Republicans and then simply Democrats, the ancestor of today’s party.
In 1792, James Madison defined the two “divisions” of the citizens based on this question. One, “more partial to the opulent than to the other classes of society,” having “debauched themselves into a persuasion that mankind are incapable of governing themselves, it follows with them, of course, that the government can be carried on only by the pageantry of rank, the influence of money and emoluments, and the terror of military force.”
Our modern equivalent of this political faction can be found among the “woke” progressive technocrats, the managerial, social, and cognitive elite who believe that government agencies staffed by “experts” can manage the state and our lives better than the people. We see this belief in the efforts of public schools, backed by the power of state regulatory agencies, to replace parents as the controllers of their children’s education, and the decision-makers of children’s sexual and “gender” identities, because they are “experts” guided by “science” and facts instead of ignorance, conspiracy theories, or the superstitions of faith. And compliance is enforced by armed police and prosecutors using their powers to compel obedience to partisan political diktats.
Of course, we no longer have a hereditary elite, a threat that worried the Founders. But we do have an elite class whose wealth, education, and especially professional credentials bind them together and define them by zip codes, cultural literacy, policy preference, and most importantly, social mores about sexual identity, feminism, homosexuality, secularism, the economy, foreign policy, and the role of government in managing and improving all aspects of collective life. They have a strong tendency to marry within their class, thus transferring their privilege and identity to the next generation.
Madison then describes the “other division,” which “consists of those who believing in the doctrine that mankind are capable of governing themselves, and hating hereditary power as an insult to the reason and an outrage to the rights of man, are naturally offended at every public measure that does not appeal to the understanding and to the general interest of the community, or that is not strictly conformable to the principles, and conducive to the preservation of republican government.”
Today, this cohort comprises what Barack Obama patronized as “bitter clingers,” the economic losers on an increasingly globalized economy which rewards high education and elite connections: “And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
So too Hillary Clinton, who denigrated Donald Trump’s constituency in similarly arrogant and insulting terms: “You know, to just be grossly generalistic [sic], you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? . . . . The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic [sic]—you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up.”
These condescending insults of 63 million Americans who voted for Trump illustrate the technocratic, managerial elite’s deep-seated dislike, if not hatred, of ordinary American people and their Christian faith, family values, patriotism, and commitment to freedom, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights––all of which stand in the way of the progressive technocracy of centralized, concentrated powers that are the infrastructure of tyranny.
Today the political experiment that the U.S. turned into a history-making historic success is at its greatest risk since the Civil War. On every front, the foundations of our exceptionalism, power, and freedom are being eroded. Politicized schools and universities, metastasizing unaccountable government agencies, the corruption of our legal system and its promise of equality under law, our corporate hegemons’ submission to a destructive “woke” ideology, the assaults on our unalienable rights like freedom of speech and religion, a military committed not to being prepared to defend the nation, but to fulfilling the “woke” ideological ambitions to “fundamentally transform America”––these are signs and portents of dissolution and looming tyranny.
Whether this degeneration of our freedom continues depends on we the people. If a critical mass of citizens choose their leaders based on their commitment to freedom and the Constitution, we can begin the restoration of our civic vigor and confidence. But if we are swayed by a juvenile, therapeutic dudgeon brought on by issues of decorum and style rather than policy substance and achievement, then we will face a future of growing threats abroad, and economic stagnation, if not disaster, at home.
If that happens, the great experiment of self-rule will end in failure and tyranny.
Image: “The Course of Empire: Destruction” by Thomas Cole