Paradigms Lost: The U.S.
How utopian fantasies destroy.
Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
In Decline and Fall: Europe’s Slow-Motion Suicide, a 2007 book about the dysfunctions of the EU, I often emphasized the problems of Europe by contrasting it to the US. Our economy was more open and dynamic, with GDP growth higher, regulatory regime less onerous, unemployment lower, and ease of doing business greater. We had problems with entitlement spending and high taxes, but nothing like the EU drunken-sailor governments, or the regressive VAT tax that helps subsidize social welfare transfers. We had problems with immigration, but nothing like those caused by the dangerous mix of unassimilated Muslims with jihadist proselytizing. We still had a vigorous presence of faith in the public square. And despite the costs, mistakes, and setbacks in the Middle Eastern wars, our military and its prowess were feared, and respected; the US was the dominant and indispensible power in the region and beyond.
Yes, there were ominous signs––expanding entitlements, excessive deficit spending, internal opposition to vigorously waging the war against militant Islam; a culture, media, and schools dominated by an ideology of national self-loathing and guilt; and the incessant assault on public faith. But despite all that, in the 2004 election, at the height of the bloody insurgency in Iraq, George W. Bush defeated John Kerry–– a “European at heart,” as French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy called the French-speaking Senator––who like his party looked longingly at the EU model of distrust for national identity and penchant for technocratic rule. America clearly was not interested in following the EU paradigm.
And then came Barack Obama.
Like most progressives, Obama endorsed all the received wisdom of the already creaking and tottering EU paradigm and its underlying ideology, the notion that progress in human nature and knowledge could eliminate the tragic constants of life and lead to a world of peace and prosperity, equality and justice. Long before Obama’s sudden rise, the blue-state Democrat left were eager to emulate the EU model, and in many ways already had in coastal states and cities. Historian Timothy Garton Ash correctly observed, “Blue America often turns out to be a European shade of pink. On several of the key social issues, Democrats seem to be closer to Europeans than they are to Republicans.” A checklist of social and political ideals typical of blue enclaves––sexual freedom, big government, secularism, strict gun control, opposition to capital punishment, dislike of the military, distrust of patriotism, balkanizing multiculturalism, and encouragement of easy and unlimited immigration ––confirms Ash’s judgment.
So in 2008 the perfect storm of a blank-slate candidate, the fall of Lehman Brothers six weeks before the election, an uninspiring Republican candidate, delusional dreams of racial reconciliation, and gaseous rhetoric signifying nothing put into the White House a president who immediately started to “fundamentally transform the United States,” a goal that in part meant duplicating the political-economic-social EU paradigm. And at the heart of this paradigm was the centralized, coercive power of intrusive regulatory interference in the economy, business, civil society, religion, and private life.
Obamacare was the most obvious political manifestation of the Europhilic goal long cherished by the left. Nationalized health care for years represented the most popular example of Europe’s civilizational and moral superiority to selfish, greedy Americans. Thus Obama and the Democrats, through legislative legerdemain and bribery, without a single Republican vote in Congress imposed a costly regulatory Rube Goldberg machine on one-sixth of the American economy. But that was just the beginning. There quickly followed a near-trillion dollar “stimulus” program that expressed the progressive superstition that centralized technocrats doling out other people’s money could allocate resources and manage the economy better than the free market and free people––the dirigiste “you didn’t build that” socialism lite upon which the EU economies were founded.
Likewise emulating Europe, the Obama administration went on to increase deficit spending to unprecedented levels, doubling our national debt to nearly $20 trillion, not to mention $3.5 trillion in “quantitative easing,” i.e. creating money out of nothing. Entitlements from Social Security Disability Insurance to food stamps expanded and relaxed eligibility requirements; student debt exploded to $1.3 trillion, of which much will be forgiven on the taxpayers’ dime; Medicare and Medicaid continued their metastatic growth towards bankruptcy; and federal agencies ran wild with regulations. And the Obama Administration so far has added nearly 200 major new regulatory rules at a cost of $80 billion a year, tightening even further the network of intrusion into our lives and businesses, one now approaching the insanity of the EU, where the size of bananas and the distance of a tree from a wall are dictated by faceless bureaucrats in Brussels.
The predicable result over the past 7 years is sluggish economic growth averaging 2%, half the historical average of post-recession growth. Real unemployment––not the 5.5% Potemkin statistic that disappears those no longer looking for jobs––is 10%. Workforce participation is at 62.4%, the worst since 1977. The best we can say of our economy is it’s not as bad as the EU’s. And that advantage results from our still vibrant culture of innovation and entrepreneurship, the still functioning (but loosening) Constitutional limits on federal overreach, and our luck in being the currency of the global economy, allowing us to borrow cheaply––at least for now. This is what happens when the centralized, top-down, hyper-regulated rule by “experts” that characterizes the EU is inflicted on the American economy.
Even more harmful to the security and interests of the US has been Obama’s embrace of the EU foreign policy ideals. In the halcyon 1990s after the Soviet Union collapsed, the EU foreign policy nabobs were full of rhetoric about “multipolar world” and “postmodern foreign policy.” This vision comprised a turn from force, military preparedness, and realism in foreign policy to “supranational constraints on unilateral policies and the progressive development of community norms,” as Kalypso Nicolaides of Oxford University put it, in order to create a community of nations “committed to relating to each other through the rule of law” and that resolves conflict through “civilian forms of influence and action,” and thus move “beyond the relationship of dominance and exploitation,” and embrace “integration, prevention, mediation, and persuasion” rather than military violence.
This utopian description fits perfectly the Obama foreign policy as set out in his 2007 Foreign Affairs article, his 2009 Cairo speech, his “extended hand” to the Iranians and “reset” with the Russians, and every foreign policy statement he has made right down to the present crisis in Syria, from his claims that the conflict has only a “political solution,” to his sneers that Putin’s vigorous military involvement in the region is a sign of “weakness” and an outdated strategy doomed to descend into a “quagmire.” Like the EU, Obama thinks we have progressed beyond force, and must rely on “outreach,” “multilateralism,” “diplomatic engagement,” and other non-lethal means of stopping brutal regimes with big ambitions from pursuing power and territory with force.
If you want a monument to this foreign policy disaster, just look around the globe. Islamic jihadism is expanding, citizens in Europe and the US are being murdered by jihadists, the Iranians are relentlessly marching towards nuclear weapons, and the oil-rich Middle East looks more and more like the Balkans in the spring of 1914. The prestige and power of the US is in tatters, our words treated with contempt by enemies and allies alike.
What is most astonishing about this failure is that history had already demonstrated its inevitability. In the 1990s the violence in the Balkans, replete with ethnic cleansing, torture, and civilian massacres, was supposed to be Europe’s chance to show it was an “essential,” as France’s Jacques Chirac put it, “pole” in the “multipolar” world, its “postmodern” foreign policy philosophy able to defuse the horrors on its eastern doorstep. In the event, those horrors in Bosnia and Kosovo continued as the EU and UN talked and talked, and only American bombs and cruise missiles, under NATO camouflage, brought the aggressors to the negotiating table. The old wisdom of Thomas Hobbes was proved correct: “Covenants without the sword are but words, and of no strength to secure a man at all.”
But the EU indulged its utopian fantasies while standing behind the military might of the US. Obama is reprising the same delusions with America standing as the last power with the military means and liberal-democratic accountability. Obama’s retreat from global responsibility has left behind in the Middle East a “war of all against all,” a war that is likely to further spread beyond the region and duplicate more frequently the murders in San Bernardino last week. For whatever the current administration believes, Islamic jihadism is at war with us, and is showing an ability to extend the battlefield into our shops, offices, and cities.
As these failures become more manifest both at home and abroad, and as candidates like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz gain traction with hawkish rhetoric and attacks on the overweening Leviathan state, are we seeing the stirrings of a paradigm shift away from the progressive, EU model that has loosed mere anarchy on the world? And if there is a shift coming, to what will it shift?
Here we must revise the Kuhnian formulation about scientific progress, which always moves forward. We are not going to abandon chemistry and return to alchemy, or forget our astronomy and endorse astrology. But we are talking about human individuals and societies and cultures, complex and unpredictable, endowed with the freedom for spontaneous action whether for good or evil. More important, our ideals today are not necessarily superior to those of the past, because human nature is constant, its capacity for evil no more less today than it was in the days of Socrates. So we don’t necessarily have to look to the future for a new paradigm, or to wait for new insights into human nature discovered by “scientists.”
Instead, we have to reject the failed paradigm of Brussels and restore the still vibrant paradigm of Philadelphia. Battered by a century of progressive assaults, the Constitution still gives us the means for turning back the erosion of is commitment to ordered liberty and citizen autonomy. The Bill of Rights, a federalism comprising sovereign state governments, a structure of divided and balanced government, and most important the regular federal elections in which we the people have the opportunity to hold our leaders and party accountable––all provide the mechanisms for changing course and initiate a revolution in the original sense of the word, a “rolling back” to the most consequential “paradigm shift” in political history––the Constitution.