Does liberalism embody the military virtues? Is martial virtue the highest stage of progressivism?
President Obama wants us to think so. In his State of the Union Address, his case for his conventionally liberal, big government, welfare state agenda was sandwiched between tributes to perhaps the least liberal major public institution in America—the American military. But President Obama isn’t struck by the contrast between the character of the military and that of today’s liberalism—as many honest liberals have been over the years.
No, the character of our military is invoked as a justification for his liberal agenda: “At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, they exceed all expectations. They’re not consumed with personal ambition. They don’t obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together. Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example. Think about the America within our reach....”
Well, let’s think about an America that looked more like the military. That America would have a culture that’s at times tough and even harsh. It would have a mode of organization that’s strictly hierarchical and at times unforgiving. It would feature a regimen that weeds out those not up to the task and subordinate individual comfort to the achievement of a difficult mission. But that isn’t the America Obama wants to bring within reach. That isn’t the kind of America Obama’s policies seek to produce. Obama’s America is soft, understanding, forgiving, and entitled. But that America doesn’t work so well, or sell so well, anymore. So now Obama pretends his America is the troops’ America.
Near the end of his speech, the president claimed that “Those of us who’ve been sent here to serve can learn from the service of our troops.” What can we learn? That ”when you put on that uniform, it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white; Asian or Latino; conservative or liberal; rich or poor; gay or straight. When you’re marching into battle, you look out for the person next to you, or the mission fails.” What Obama doesn’t say is this: It’s not just that you look out for the person next to you, or the mission fails. It’s also that you endure tough and demanding training, or the mission fails. You subordinate your own wishes, or the mission fails. You wash out many of those who wish to serve, or the mission fails. You insist on fitness and discipline and good character, or the mission fails. You do away with any sense of entitlement, or the mission fails. But Obama isn’t interested in the truth about why a mission succeeds or fails. He’s interested in using the prestige of the military to justify the nanny state.
Our liberal president claims to want to help us all “get each other’s backs,” just as military missions only succeed if “you know that there’s someone behind you, watching your back.” But welfare state liberalism is all about scratching each other’s backs; nanny state liberalism is all about rubbing each other’s backs; and entitlement state liberalism is all about stroking each other’s backs. None is about protecting each other’s backs—let alone driving away our enemies and turning around to bravely face the future. The fact is that if the military is in some respects an example for us, it’s not an example that speaks in favor of contemporary liberalism.