L'etat C'est Nous: America Waves Goodbye to Limited Government
I've lived in D.C. long enough to have witnessed more than a few elections. Some have gone very badly for Republicans, some have gone very badly for Democrats. They never go well for libertarians concerned about the size and scope of government. But something about this week was different. Conservatives aren't glum out here. They're somber.
People always talk about how few people lined up behind Mitt Romney initially. That doesn't surprise me at all. What's noteworthy is that after so many people begged, pleaded, and prayed for a better candidate, the moment Romney locked up the nomination, they got behind him. Why? Because they knew that this election was important in a way that a choice between a Bill Clinton and Bob Dole wasn't.
If you don't understand why, you must read Jonah Goldberg's explanation of the gravity of the situation ("Becoming European: The Founders’ vision of the people as sovereign lost on Tuesday"). It also explains the different mood this year:
The words “government” and “state” are often used interchangeably, but they are really different things. According to the Founders’ vision, the people are sovereign and the government belongs to us. Under the European notion of the state, the people are creatures of the state, significant only as parts of the whole.
This European version of the state can be nice. One can live comfortably under it. Many decent and smart people sincerely believe this is the intellectually and morally superior way to organize society. And, to be fair, it’s not a binary thing. The line between the European and American models is blurry. France is not a Huxleyan dystopia, and America is not and has never been an anarchist’s utopia, nor do conservatives want it to be one.
The distinction between the two worldviews is mostly a disagreement over first assumptions about which institutions should take the lead in our lives. It is an argument about what the habits of the American heart should be. Should we live in a country where the first recourse is to appeal to the government, or should government interventions be reserved as a last resort?
The key to "marrying our interests to the state," Goldberg explains, is the decline of mediating institutions, the chief of which is the family:
One of the stark lessons of Obama’s victory is the degree to which the Republican party has become a party for the married and the religious. If only married people voted, Romney would have won in a landslide. If only married religious people voted, you’d need a word that means something much bigger than landslide. Obviously, Obama got some votes from the married and the religious (such people can marry their interests to the state, too), but as a generalization, the Obama coalition heavily depends on people who do not see family or religion as rival or superior sources of material aid or moral authority.
Goldberg notes how marriage has gone out of style among non-elites. Religion, too.
In the aftermath of massive American urbanization and industrialization, and in the teeth of a brutal economic downturn, Franklin D. Roosevelt promised to fight for the “forgotten man” — the American who felt lost amidst the social chaos of the age. Obama campaigned for “Julia” — the affluent single mom who had no family and no ostensible faith to fall back on.
In short, the American people are starting to look like Europeans, and as a result they want a European form of government.
We had a pretty good run, didn't we?