Summary: As we begin a new year, let’s look at the New America rising on the ruins of the old. Why is this happening? What’s the key step to stopping this, and beginning the real reform of America? Voices from the past can guide us.
An unfortunate side-effect of historical analysis — in which one leaps across centuries by turning a page — is that we can forget how quickly regime change occurs. The pressure builds for generations, the cracks slowly spreading and deepening almost invisibly … but the final steps can occur with astonishing speed.
“Mutato nomine de te fabula narratur” (Change the name and the story is about you.)
— From Horace’s Satires, Book I, Satire I.
Recent history provides vivid examples of rapid transformations by highly developed States, leaving successors quite alien to their ancestors. Two accounts of this, both well-written and engrossing, are
The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig (1943) and Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s by Otto Freidrich (1972). They describe how in two generations Germany and Austria-Hungary changed beyond recognition, and in doing so change Europe and the West.
Now it is America’s turn, as described in so many posts on the FM website. The daily news shows the powerful and social processes that activists of the Left and Right have unleashed.
The secret of establishing a new state is to maintain the forms of the old.
— Paraphrase of Tacitus’ descriptions of how Augustus created the Roman Empire while retaining the forms of the Republic.
We do not recognize the magnitude of these changes because the old forms remain. People still go through marriage ceremonies, although the institution is in the midst of changing into something quiet different. We still hold elections, although our political regime is becoming a plutocracy. We still call ourselves citizens — reading the daily news to become informed. But each year we become more like subjects, passive and apathetic peons to be manipulated by our betters.
“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”
— Said by Don Fabrizio in The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1958). It is set in 1860’s Sicily during the Risorgimento (unification of Italy).
The changes underway cannot be stopped. If we want to have an America anything like that of the post-WWII era — vibrant politics, capable of profound social reform, a growing middle class, social mobility — then deep reforms are necessary to overcome the senescence that has gripped our political system. For details about this see After 230 years, the Constitution needs fixing. Fixing this will not be easy.
“Tis not in mortals to command success, but we’ll do more …we’ll deserve it.”
— Joseph Addison’s play “Cato: A Tragedy“. It was George Washington’s favorite play.
Where we’re going.
Constitutions are just paper bullets of the mind. What happens when a people abandon their Constitution? When it no longer lives in their hearts? That’s the story of America today. With each generation, its people know less about the Constitutional.
“The history of the world’s democratic constitutions had, up to this time, been largely a story of people searching for a rational political document under which they could live. … The constitution drafted at Weimar began and would end as a document in search of a people.”
— From Richard Watts’ The Kings Depart: The Tragedy of Germany – Versailles and the German Revolution (1969). America is the opposite story, a people who have abandoned their Constitution.
We measure America’s strength by fleeting, superficial, and trivial things: our money, our military power, and our global reputation. This ignores the deep sources of our strength: our wisdom, our ability to act together, our resilience, our faith in our ideals, and our willingness to suffer hardship for the benefit of our descendants. These have made America what it is.
“The health of a people comes only from its inner life — from the life of its soul and its spirit.”
— Words on a granite memorial stone in Berlin marking where Walther Rathenau “fell on this spot by the hand of a murderer.”
Bush Jr. used 911 to reshape America (see We live in the America Bush Jr created, a break with our past). It was all done in the open. Voices were raised warning us, but we ignored them. So far we seem to be enjoying our New America (making no efforts to change it).
“The only trouble with this cure was that the patient still seemed to prefer his sickness, and so the Keynes report was ignored by Germans and Allies alike.”
— Description of German Chancellor Josef Wirth’s reaction to the 1922 report by John Maynard Keynes, which warned of hyperinflation and economic trauma — all of which came to pass in 1923-24. From Otto Freidrich’s Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s.
A deeper look a why this is happening.
Every election allows us to determine what we shall be. Our politicians are rewarded for their ability to sense this and give us what we most desire.
“We are simple because the people are simple. We think in primitive terms because the people think in primitive terms. We are aggressive because the people are radical. …
“The receptivity of the masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous. In consequence of these facts, all effective propaganda must be limited to a few essential points. These slogans must be repeated until every last member of the public understands what you want him to understand.”
— From a text about government by one of the founders of modern politics: Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler.
As we see in the following warning by one of the greatest analysts of American society, Alexis De Tocqueville. He saw with extraordinary clarity what is happening to us.
“Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate.
“That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing.
“For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?
“Thus it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. The principle of equality has prepared men for these things;it has predisposed men to endure them and often to look on them as benefits.
“After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.
“I have always thought that servitude of the regular, quiet, and gentle kind which I have just described might be combined more easily than is commonly believed with some of the outward forms of freedom, and that it might even establish itself under the wing of the sovereignty of the people.
“Our contemporaries are constantly excited by two conflicting passions: they want to be led, and they wish to remain free. As they cannot destroy either the one or the other of these contrary propensities, they strive to satisfy them both at once. They devise a sole, tutelary, and all-powerful form of government, but elected by the people. They combine the principle of centralization and that of popular sovereignty; this gives them a respite: they console themselves for being in tutelage by the reflection that they have chosen their own guardians. Every man allows himself to be put in leading-strings, because he sees that it is not a person or a class of persons, but the people at large who hold the end of his chain.
“By this system the people shake off their state of dependence just long enough to select their master and then relapse into it again. A great many persons at the present day are quite contented with this sort of compromise between administrative despotism and the sovereignty of the people; and they think they have done enough for the protection of individual freedom when they have surrendered it to the power of the nation at large.”
— From Alexis De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, chapter VI; What sort of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear.
The bottom line
“Every country has the government it deserves.”
— Joseph-Marie, Comte de Maistre. From Lettres et Opuscules (1811).
The problems we face are less than those we have successfully surmounted in the past. The political machinery built by the Founders remains decisive, idle but needing only our energy to set it in motion. When we decide to act, then America will have taken the first step on the rod to real reform.
“There was a dream that was America. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish, it was so fragile.”
— Marcus Aurelius, in the film “Gladiator” (2000).
For More Information
If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about the Constitution, about the New America, about Reforming America: steps to new politics, and especially these…
- Important: the Constitution is dying.
- What comes after the Constitution? Can we see the outline of a “Mark 3” version of the United States?
- Thomas Jefferson saw our present peril. We should heed his warning.
- Rome speaks to us. Their example can inspire us to avoid their fate.
- We’re drifting towards tyranny, again. Jefferson describes our first brush with tyranny.
- America isn’t falling like the Roman Empire. It’s falling like Rome’s Republic.
- Alert! Our institutions are hollow because we don’t love them.
A great book reminding us about the secret power source of the Constitution.
A Machine That Would Go of Itself: The Constitution in American Culture by Michael Kammen (the late professor of history at Cornell).
“The Constitution occupies an anomalous role in American cultural history. For almost two centuries it has been swathed in pride yet obscured by indifference: a fulsome rhetoric of reverence more than offset by the reality of ignorance.”
From the publisher…
“Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Michael Kammen explores the U.S. Constitution’s place in the public consciousness and its role as a symbol in American life, from ratification in 1788 to our own time. As he examines what the Constitution has meant to the American people (perceptions and misperceptions, uses and abuses, knowledge and ignorance), Kammen shows that although there are recurrent declarations of reverence most of us neither know nor fully understand our Constitution.
“How did this gap between ideal and reality come about? To explain it, Kammen examines the complex and contradictory feelings about the Constitution that emerged during its preparation and that have been with us ever since.
“He begins with our confusion as to the kind of Union we created, especially with regard to how much sovereignty the states actually surrendered to the central government. This confusion is the source of the constitutional crisis that led to the Civil War and its aftermath. Kammen also describes and analyzes changing perceptions of the differences and similarities between the British and American constitutions; turn-of-the-century debates about states’ rights versus national authority; and disagreements about how easy or difficult it ought to be to amend the Constitution.
“Moving into the twentieth century, he notes the development of a ‘cult of the Constitution’ following World War I, and the conflict over policy issues that persisted despite a shared commitment to the Constitution.”