Elites Gone Bad
What America needs is a better class of left-winger.
Jun 13, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 37 • By DAVID GELERNTER
Although it’s gauche to ask, one can’t help wondering: Do the Obamacrats love America? If so, how come? Would they please be specific?
If the answer is no, the scandal is not quite their lack of patriotism; nations have been governed decently, in ordinary times, by the lights of pure reason. If the answer is no, the scandal is mere cynical insincerity. Obama and his followers should level with the nation and themselves.
There’s nothing wrong with loving your country just because it’s yours. Perhaps Obamacrats are patriotic in this sense. But patriotic Americans on the left and right used to be proud of particulars: the principles on which the nation was founded, the heroes who created and protected it, its world-shaping achievements and relentless struggle to master its worst urges and put its best into practice. And these patriots embraced America’s traditional mission: to be the American Zion, the promised land, the leader of free nations; the city upon a hill, watched by all the world—as John Winthrop wrote, quoting the Bible, as his ship hauled towards Boston in 1630.
But today’s left finds little to admire in American history. The new Philadelphia museum built around George Washington’s partially reconstructed home is typical in its view of Washington as, first and foremost, a slave owner. Neither of the two extraordinary accomplishments of modern America, victory in the Cold War and the all-but-eradication of race prejudice in a single generation, inspires modern Obamacrats. They rarely mention the Cold War, and they evidently regard the country as still in the grip of prejudice. In fact Rahm Emanuel, former Obama chief of staff and mayor-elect of Chicago, has endorsed the idea of compensation payments to the descendants of former slaves. Thus, America the Inexcusable—unless Emanuel’s idea of fairness is that nonperpetrators must compensate nonvictims for crimes they never suffered but would have if they had been born 200 years ago. (Probably.) No clearer evidence exists that the left, and Rahm Emanuel, are out of ideas.
Most disturbing of all, there are signs that the Obamacrats’ respect for at least one element of the American creed of liberty, equality, and democracy is slipping. The Obama administration, the Democrats in Congress, and left-leaning local players have all shown their growing dislike of democracy. And if you reject history and democracy, you leave yourself precious little to admire (much less love) in the U.S.A.
The passage of Obamacare, in the teeth of repeated public attempts (in statewide elections) to say “stop,” was a classic study in contempt for the public will. It was made complete by Speaker Pelosi’s now-famous dictum that there would be plenty of time to read the bill after it had been passed (and you had nothing else to do as you whiled away the hours waiting endlessly for the services of federalized doctors).
The EPA’s plans to override Congress’s refusal to regulate carbon emissions, the investing of HHS Pontifex Maximus Sebelius with the power to set America’s health care course under Obamacare, the Justice Department’s plan to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in federal court—grudgingly abandoned after more than a year of sullen official stonewalling—the president’s breezy encouragement of Brazil to drill for oil offshore while stifling America’s own deep water drilling and dismissing hard-pressed American drivers with “let them eat cake, or drive hybrids”—these all show the characteristic contempt of a would-be intellectual elite for the public. Commentators explain that the president is only playing to his left-wing base, as if that cleared him of responsibility; as if he hadn’t chosen them every bit as much as they chose him.
Sometimes Obamacrats argue that the labor costs of complying with the lava-flow of new regulations disgorged by his volcanically statist administration are merely an economic benefit in deep disguise—because they will offer American workers new jobs (as ballast to sink the economy). When they make that argument they emphasize their view of the public as not just irrelevant but stupid.
Mayor Bloomberg’s government by fiat in New York City shows the same contempt for the public will. Who but convinced supporters of boss rule could have supported the in-famous card check bill that Obama-crats pushed during the early months of the administration? (It would have abolished an employer’s right to demand a secret-ballot vote of employees being forced to recognize a union.) In Wisconsin, minority senate Democrats literally walked out on democracy. Their gesture (and that of their Indiana House members) resonates with the patronizing smugness of Obama and Reid and Holder and Pelosi and Bloomberg and NPR and Obamacrat reporters and regulators everywhere.
Democracy-fatigue on the left works beautifully with the Obama-crat philosophy of government by professional elite. We know all about the lack of business experience among the president’s cabinet members and close advisers; we know that Obama himself has exactly (and only) the right training and experience to be a philosopher king. The post-patriotic Obamacrat professional ruler substitutes, naturally, adult analysis and sheer intelligence for the mere duty and devotion of political hacks and drooling amateurs whose exhibitions of unglobal, particularist patriotism inspire Ph.D.s everywhere with disgust.
And isn’t it natural for the growing cadre of government workers to include themselves in the ruling class, peers of the American realm, alongside the Ivy League law-school alums?
To understand where the Obama-crats are headed, we need to look at Europe. Given their admiration for Europe, it’s not surprising that so many Obamacrats got over patriotism and are tired of democracy. Europe has shrunk patriotism to the size of a soccer ball; and Europe has only a shallow and fragile tradition of democracy.
Britain comes closest. But despite the reform act of 1832 (almost half a century after the U.S. Constitution), “democracy” remained a dirty word (as bad as “republicanism”) in Conservative and Liberal circles through much of the 19th century. As late as 1889, Henry James wrote in The Tragic Muse about an aspirant to parliament who is sure of winning: “It’s her place,” says the candidate, referring to the widow of the great local landowner, who owns most of the town; “she’ll put me in.” And she does. Time out of mind English politics had worked like that. Only in the early 20th century was the House of Lords (for that matter) effectively excluded from the political process.
France, Germany, and Italy acquired stable democracies after World War II. (France is, of course, on her Fifth Republic, which dates from 1958, following the collapse of the Fourth over war in Algeria.) Eastern Europe, aside from the former Czechoslovakia, has no real democratic traditions older than the dissolution of the Soviet empire.
And the European Union is an insulating blanket designed to smother any escaping democratic sparks. EU laws—like America’s Electoral College and the choice of senators by state legislatures under the Constitution—interpose a protective layer between the public and its rulers. We moved to popular election of senators and a rubber-stamp Electoral College long ago; Europe is moving the other way.
In November 2009, the first president and foreign minister of the full-blown European Union were selected—not by the people of Europe but by the 27 EU heads of state or government through negotiation and discussion. The EU bureaucracy is famously remote from mere public opinion. The EU itself was created by the Lisbon Treaty of 2007—which was ratified not by the people but by their national legislatures; the EU was born in a sort of bloodless coup.
In the ostensibly pro-democracy United Kingdom, the Labour Parliament refused to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty; the Conservatives promised one, then changed their minds. (Today pro-referendum agitation is boiling up yet again in Britain.) Only Ireland did hold a referendum on Lisbon and embarrassed itself by voting no. But responsible Irishmen understood that this was only a mistake on the electorate’s part, so the referendum was thrown out and a second one was held, and this time the Irish behaved as they were supposed to—like dutiful children of a better tomorrow. So now the Finns are making trouble. Children are like that.
But the EU is European Obama-care: Eurocrats and Obamacrats both speciously insist on “moving forward” and not rearguing (or in the Obama-crats’ grating term, “relitigating”) old disputes. Naturally they don’t want those disputes reargued; they have already lost the argument once, and if they lose again, things might turn unpleasant.
Where are Europe and the EU headed? Unless democratic forces do better than history gives us any right to expect, both are headed towards consensual autocracy.
One set of EU rulers will choose the next (and be rewarded in turn with many honors and comfortable retirements), the EU bureaucracy will grow in wealth and power; but the rights of individuals will be respected (so long as they attract no undue attention from their Muslim betters), and the whole thing will look and feel and taste like—in a sense will even be—democracy, because nearly all Europeans will agree on nearly everything anyway. They have already made a promising start by achieving continent-wide agreement (more or less) on such topics as global warming, Israel-hating, and spending a bare minimum on their armies while permitting the clownish Americans to take care of the messy and expensive military details.
America to Europe: Excuse us for saving your life, repeatedly. Can you ever forgive us?
Europe to America: Alas, that kind of sin never can be forgiven.
Can consensual autocracy happen here? Today’s Obamacrats seem to want it and believe in it. But let’s hope it’s a passing fad on the left; in any case, if the public pays attention, it won’t ever happen in America. Obamacrats can push us far towards Eurodementia, but not that far.
We have a much more robust conservative movement than Europe does, thanks (on the intellectual side) to William F. Buckley, Irving Kristol, and Norman Podhoretz and (on the political side) to Barry Goldwater and especially Ronald Reagan. But even had none of these heroes ever lived, Americans would still believe in democracy in a way that only a Judeo-Christian, biblical republic ever can.
Back in the U.S.A., a political culture in which patriotism has been superseded by globalism—love of country replaced by love of nothing (no one even claims to love the “global community”)—is a cauldron for the politics of contempt that has been simmering for years on the left; that boils over in so many presidential statements; that helps explain the “climate of hate” (to coin a phrase) that typifies the modern American left.
Of course Obamacrats see themselves as reasonable, sympathetic, responsible, adult. In their reading, the “climate of hate” is a malady of the right. How often do we fail to know ourselves, fail to recognize our most obvious characteristic—which in the Obamacrats’ case is hatred of the right. That’s how people are.
The Obamacrats’ hatred is too well known to need cataloguing. We know that NPR’s top people see Tea Party supporters as “seriously racist, racist people.” We know the views of such old reliables as former DNC chairman Howard Dean (“I hate the Republicans and everything they stand for”) and Nina Totenberg of NPR (who once said that Jesse Helms “ought to be worried about what’s going on in the Good Lord’s mind, because if there is retributive justice, he’ll get AIDS from a transfusion, or one of his grandchildren will get it”). We know former congressman Alan Grayson’s ideas about his Republican colleagues: “If you get sick in America, the Republican health care plan is this: Die quickly.” We know the disgusting things that have been said about Sarah Palin going back to the first days of her vice presidential candidacy. Most important, we remember the indescribably low and dirty attacks made repeatedly on President Bush and Vice President Cheney.
(Not long ago a thoughtful Obama-crat was attacking Cheney, and I asked him whether Cheney and Obama weren’t, in personal terms, much alike. He thought it over and said yes; they were both highly intelligent, low-key, thoughtful, well-read, unemotional but strongly committed to their own worldviews. Then why did the left find Cheney personally so objectionable? And wasn’t it striking that the right never talks about Obama the way the left did about Cheney? To his credit, he had no answer.)
Obviously America needs a left and a right; any spectrum has two ends, and anyway there will always be people whose political instincts are dominated by outrage and a drive to make civilization better and others whose ideas are dominated by duty and devotion. The two fundamental parties have equal moral standing and equal importance to national life: We need the Prophets and the Psalms. The duty and devotion of conservatives can turn bad and become complacency; nowadays conservatives are not complacent—but they should never become complacent about complacency. The outrage of the left can turn into nihilism, meanness, hatred; and has. We know all about what Obamacrats don’t like. It’s time for them to ask themselves (and then say concretely) what they do like; what they are for; what, if anything, they love.
David Gelernter is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard. His most recent book is Judaism: A Way of Being (2009).
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