After his 1851 coup d’état, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew of the real Napoleon, pronounced himself Napoleon III. It was the rise to power of this great-man-wannabe that prompted the famous opening of Karl Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis-Bonaparte: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”
The decade of the 1960s—the first appearance in full flower of modern American liberalism—was in many respects a tragedy. It was certainly a tragedy for American liberalism, which liberated itself from its previous (at least partial) mooring in common sense and the American tradition. It was to some degree also a tragedy for America. It took conservative politicians and policies decades to undo the damage of Great Society hubris, post-Vietnam weakness, and ’60s cultural foolishness. Much wreckage still remains.
Now we have the second appearance of ’60s liberalism in the policies and personages of the Obama administration. Marx noted that in the France of his time, “only the ghost of the old revolution circulated,” producing an “adventurer” who claimed to be heir to the great Napoleon, but who was “only a caricature of the old Napoleon.” Similarly, in the America of our time, we have a ghostly version of the liberalism of the 1960s, led by a man who is only a caricature of the vigorous if often mistaken liberals who once sought to reshape the nation.
The farcical nature of today’s liberalism was on display in last week’s three-ring Washington circus. In the central ring, we saw the dramatic unveiling of Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Harry Reid’s health care legislation, replete with special deals, squirrelly accounting, not-so-well-hidden payoffs, and attempts to evade the normal practices of democratic governance. In a side ring, we were able to view the embarrassing testimony of Attorney General Eric Holder before a House subcommittee, where he made clear how little serious thought he has given to what is required to keep America safe from our enemies. In the other side ring, we were able to see the near-hysterical condemnation by American officials, from Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on down, of a simple announcement of a permit for house-building in Jewish Jerusalem by the Israeli government.
What a scene! What a farce! Republican candidates running for office in 2010 should save the news clips from last week to remind themselves of their campaign platform: They need only promise to stand up against the fatal conceit of big-government liberalism, the fatal complacency of civil-libertarian legalism, and the fatal perversity of coddling our enemies and beating up our friends.
And presiding over this three-ring circus of liberal incompetence was President Barack Obama, who stands in relation to the towering and tragic figure of Lyndon Johnson as Napoleon III did to the real Napoleon. Have we had in modern times a president who was so out of his depth?
Which points to a problem. America in 2010 isn’t France in 1852. The world could survive farcical misgovernment in Paris in the mid-19th century—though in fact Napoleon III’s weakness and foolishness invited the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, which in turn could be said to have set in course the events that led to World War I. But in the America of 2010, won’t farcical misgovernment do real damage to the country and to the world? Could the circus acts end in tragedy?
They could. But, fortunately, here in America, we have an opposition party and an engaged public. Together, for the next few months, they can help push the administration towards more responsible—or at least less damaging—public policies. The Republican party will then gain seats in November, and will be able to do more to prevent further damage—and lay the groundwork not just for a return to the pre-Obama status quo in 2013 but for a vigorous conservative reform agenda.
If the nation can survive the next three years without too much damage, we have a great opportunity. As Marx wrote at the conclusion of his polemic, “when the imperial mantle finally falls on the shoulders of Louis Bonaparte, the bronze statue of Napoleon will come crashing down from the top of the Vendôme Column.” The failed experiment of Obamaism could similarly allow us to topple the statue of contemporary liberalism from our public square, and rebuild American politics and public policy on firmer foundations.
Or, we could fail to rise to the occasion. A statue of Napoleon still stands atop the Vendôme Column.