Myron Magnet, editor at the esteemed City Journal, provides a full synopsis of the numerous wrong turns it took to arrive at a supremely unpleasant destination.
To gauge how unbridgeable the gulf is that divides the American Left from the Right, rewind to February 19, 2009, when those who eventually elected Donald Trump first made their voices heard. As Washington jury-rigged fixes for the Great Financial Crisis, the CNBC broadcaster Rick Santelli shouted across the Chicago Mercantile Exchange floor, “How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills?” The Merc traders roared their televised veto across the land.
Their cry was more visceral than a policy disagreement. The traders, self-made men, had worked hard for what they had and scorned having their taxes hiked to save homebuyers with imprudently high mortgages from foreclosure. “This is America!” Santelli urged, and what the new Obama administration was doing was un-American. Didn’t the Founding Fathers establish the federal government to guarantee one’s freedom to better one’s condition, and to protect the property one industriously earns—not to redistribute it?
That’s why Santelli added that he was planning a Chicago Tea Party, an update of Boston’s 1773 event. He and the traders felt the same outrage George Washington had felt about the Stamp Act and the tea tax: it was as lawless as Parliament picking his pocket. To the new-era Tea Partiers, taxation for redistribution, rather than for common purposes, is tyranny, not government by consent.
But, though the traders and Tea Partiers didn’t quite understand it, the federal government long ago had turned from the shield of individual liberty into a vast engine of redistribution. That transformation could occur because the Framers’ Constitution was body-snatched by the doctrine of the “living constitution,” which—as Woodrow Wilson first formulated it—saw the Supreme Court sitting as a permanent Constitutional Convention, making up laws as it went along, heedless of the 1787 scheme’s checks. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal used Wilson’s doctrine as a license to remake America’s economy and society. Once the Supreme Court buckled to fdr’s threat to pack it and started voting his way, the justices allowed an utterly foreign governmental structure to devour the Framers’ republic from within, until it broke out of the shell as something altogether different.
Not that FDR was entirely frank about his transformative enterprise. Where Wilson had dismissed the Framers as obsolete relics in a Darwinian age, Roosevelt claimed to extend their great work even as he undid it. In his second inaugural address of 1937, he hailed the 150th anniversary of the Constitutional Convention, which had “created a strong government with powers of united action sufficient then and now to solve problems utterly beyond individual or local solution”—a wildly false characterization. Chastened by America’s near-loss in the Revolution, the Framers sought to create a government strong enough to protect national and individual independence but not so strong that, given mankind’s inherent power-hunger, it could become what they called an “elective despotism.” So they limited that power to such clearly enumerated tasks as raising an army, a navy, and taxes; coining and borrowing money; and regulating foreign and interstate commerce. All other matters they emphatically left to “individual or local solution.”
They certainly didn’t mean to put the whole U.S. economy under federal regulation. But as FDR later admitted, when he took the oath to defend the Constitution just before delivering the 1937 address, he had wanted to shout, “Yes, but it’s the Constitution as I understand it.” The New Deal’s main thrust, after all, was precisely to take total control of the economy, under the ruse of federal power to regulate interstate commerce.
For one who projected such jaunty optimism, FDR had a surprisingly gloomy view of America’s future. The nation’s great days of discovery and invention, when government needed only to keep out of the way, were behind it, he thought. Now, Depression-stunned America had produced more than its purportedly underpaid workers could afford to consume, as FDR inaccurately saw it. America’s task now, he said, “is the soberer, less dramatic business of administering resources and plants already in hand,…of distributing wealth and products more equitably, of adapting existing economic organizations to the service of the people. The day of enlightened administration has come.” The bureaucrat would take over from the business titan.
As the crux of this truly magnificent piece, Magnet proposes three stages of what he calls “America’s mutation into a redistributionist welfare state,” moving next to Stage Two: the comprehensively destructive reign of one Lyndon Baines Johnson, one of the most unethical, sleazy, and generally repellent ProPols ever to besmirch American politics. This section includes a paragraph that, hard as I’m trying not to excerpt excessively here, I can’t refrain from posting:
Do you wonder why a plague of human-resources busybodies has scourged the land, or why so many institutions have become bureaucracies staffed by apparatchiks, whereas until recently doctors still ran hospitals, professors ran universities, and entrepreneurs without MBAs ran many businesses? A New Deal and a Great Society have left us, as Tocqueville predicted such centralized power would, with “a fine mesh of uniform, minute, and complex rules” that “inhibits, represses, saps, stultifies, and in the end reduces each nation to nothing but a timid and industrious flock of animals, with the government as its shepherd.” More power to the Tea Partiers, then, for recalling the spirit of ’76.
Brilliant man, that Tocqueville. The LBJ chapter closes with a grim summation:
While the Sixties’ War on Poverty failed, its Culture War succeeded. Today, the bosses of America’s institutions are cultural-revolution veterans or their acolytes, and, as their own students and children survey the arid acres of housing projects, where generations of lives have improved not one whit as LBJ’s dream turned to ashes, and the dumbed-down campuses where affirmative action kids still struggle and complain, they are reviving all the mistaken 1960s notions and launching a renewed assault on America’s culture that marks the third stage of the dismantling of the Founders’ republic. As they don’t know that the original cultural revolution wreaked much of the inner-city damage that they deplore, they can’t foresee the further harm they will inflict on black Americans and the entire nation as well. Watching the goofily optimistic worldview of long ago now ossify into a party line that resembles Mao’s cultural revolution or Nineteen Eighty-Four‘s Ministry of Truth is almost enough to make one believe that a malign god, with a vicious, Nietzschean heart, mockingly presides over history.
Hard not to, really. Myself, I always kinda liked the trouble-making Nordic Trickster God, Loki—”deity of mayhem and mischief,” as this site has it, who wasn’t really so much “malign” as he was rebellious and unpredictable. Anyhoo.
From there, it’s on to today’s preposterous, brain-dead Cultural Revolution, before coming full-circle back around to the Founders.
The Founding Fathers stressed that their republic rested not only on the Constitution’s political arrangements but also on the hearts and minds of the citizens, where the love of liberty and the truths of the Declaration of Independence are inscribed. Should Americans lose these habits of the heart, then the power-hungry men who cluster around politics like flies might impose the elective despotism the Founders feared. That’s why they cared so passionately about civic education: they had created something unique in history, and they wanted posterity to understand the high worth of that inheritance, to preserve and improve it. They believed that assent to the Founding’s culture of liberty, to its core truths of equality before the law and equality of rights, would be enough to forge a unified nation out of what was already an ethnically diverse people.
They weren’t naive about propaganda or its power. By George Washington’s presidency, America had a gutter press as partisan as The New York Times or The Washington Post. But the Founders didn’t foresee an all-out falsification of the fact of American exceptionalism such as now rages, and I think the success of the cultural subversion would have surprised them, like the octogenarian Jefferson, who had to remonstrate with the misbehaving students at his beloved University of Virginia, of which he was the founder and rector. He stepped onto the stage, opened his mouth to voice his disappointment with these unruly inheritors of republican liberty, and burst into tears.
Can anybody blame him? Although he’d have probably gotten much better results if, rather than letting his ill-mannered students get under his skin, he’d just whipped out a gat and shot the rotten bastards instead.
As I already told ya, this article is a real masterpiece, one for the ages. It’s long, deep, and superbly written and conceived. If you only read one thing I link to this whole week, it oughta be this.