David P. Goldman applies the lash:
More disturbing, I think, is the extent to which America has suffered not a failure of the elites, but a failure of the people. Do we measure up to the founders of this country? The fact that Americans fought a revolution against Britain in the first place continues to astonish me. When in all of history have prosperous men with property — farms and businesses — risked their lives and fortunes to establish a better political order? Only a spiritual grandeur of a depth we barely can imagine today can explain it. When in all of history has a country gone to war and sacrificed 5% of its total population to suppress slavery? The evangelical zeal that sent the North to war, singing of the grapes of wrath in the apocalyptic vision of Isaiah 63, surpasses our understanding today.
Yes, that's right -- because there isn't anything to be done today that rises to the awesome level of political-theological authority reached by the imperative to destroy slavery. (Leave aside the brute fact that the Civil War was not, for many on both sides, a holy war about servitude.)
But this is to rephrase Goldman's question in even franker terms. If we define failure as the collapse of the foundations of political liberty, are we confronting a failure of the American people as a whole -- elite malfunction or no?
Add to that an even more embarrassing question. Will or won't the Republican party stand for the proposition that only government can save the people from such a failure, by organizing and leading them in pursuit of 'national greatness' restored?
It's unnerving that Goldman belabors Lincoln so much in this regard:
the greatest of all of our leaders, Abraham Lincoln, told the American people that the terrible Civil War was their fault — for owning slaves, and tolerating the ownership of slaves — and that the suffering must continue until every drop of blood drawn by the lash was requited by one drawn by the sword. We have chiseled these words on his monument, but we do not read them, because we do not like the implication that we might suffer because of our mistakes.
Goldman's frustration is understandable, given the dominance of irrational optimism in Republican rhetoric. But one need not be a neo-Confederate to wonder if the sort of government-led suffering he invokes is the best touchstone for today's troubles. Rather than enlisting us in a sacred, bloody mission to unify the people, Washington needs to take our marching orders -- to unwind its concentrated powers and permit American greatness to once again emerge organically, from the ground up, where and when it is able to do so.
But there is this stubborn fear to contend with among our elites that the American people are not to be trusted with their own destiny. Obama tells us that we'll slip into torpor if government doesn't mobilize and inspire us to Do Great Things. Republicans, meanwhile, fantasize that the undoing of traditional morality in the middle and working classes can be halted, ameliorated, and perhaps reversed with a cocktail of tax credits and wage subsidies. And of course all national rhetoric continues to revolve dizzyingly around war metaphors, the principle being: if government does not lead us into a national struggle for prosperity, the threats to our prosperity will defeat us.
So much for the elites. Among the American people, however, who really believes this? Anyone? Even our many citizens who will vote under any circumstance for the Democrat in a federal election characteristically believe that the key thing is 'delivering the goods' -- guaranteeing the entitlements and rights adequate to some minimum level of justice. I suspect this is largely true even of those who would agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates that the Civil War "wasn't tragic" and should leave us feeling "positively [expletive] giddy."
We all like to feel giddy when our nominees stir up our passions and hopes. Inevitably, they do this with the great American themes (equality! freedom! progress! prosperity!). It's a dire problem when that kind of rhetoric becomes so reflexive and aggressively enforced that anyone who belabors the disconnect between it and our sorry state is turned into some kind of suspect. But -- and this is an epic but -- our habitual air of patriotic self-congratulation is not a problem because it lacks a profound and comprehensive national goal to justify it. Our fretful national greatness enthusiasts are right that Americans don't really have a very powerful source of unity without such grand (and, usually, military or quasi-martial) projects.
But in a healthy free society, that's a feature, not a bug. Hobbes would say the mania for grand American projects belies the secret desire of all human beings, laid bare in democratic times, to submit to the one awesome sovereign alone capable of mollifying our envy and our pride. But however unlike a people, in the Old World sense, we are, we do have this going for our shared identity: our origins were mercifully free of the Old World social conditions that made Hobbes' Leviathan not only thinkable but inescapably alluring. If the American people really are failing, Hobbes is in danger of having the last laugh. The best way to give it to him, however, is to install our own Leviathan in advance of the cataclysmic collapse that, for us, may well never come.