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In what may well become history’s greatest example of missing the forest for the trees, we Americans have been so busy arguing about current political events and issues — the Supreme Court’s decisions on Obamacare and same-sex marriage, the ongoing negotiations about global trade and Iran’s nuclear program, immigration, taxes, gun ownership, and the Confederate flag — we haven’t noticed that our country has just had a revolution.
If you’re reading this essay, it’s very likely that your side lost.
The key to understanding what’s happened to us lies in grasping that a revolution occurs when a country changes not merely its laws or its leaders, but its operating system.
Since we usually think of computers when we hear the phrase “operating system,” let me stick with this analogy to illuminate my point. Every computer has an operating system, and if you want to do something with your computer — send an email, for instance, or visit a website — you must go about it the way your computer’s operating system is designed to work. No operating system is perfect, which is why companies like Microsoft and Apple send updates to their customers from time to time. Every so often they launch new versions of their operating system that incorporate a lot of modifications at once.
Dual Operating Systems
Now, just as computers have operating systems, so do countries. In fact, countries have dual operating systems, one political and the other economic. Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of each: politically, you can be either a democracy or a dictatorship; economically you can have either a free market or a command economy. Each country develops its own versions of these operating systems, which is why no two are precisely the same. Our country’s political system is somewhat different from Canada’s, which isn’t quite the same as France’s, which is different than Japan’s. But the similarities among free-market economies are more striking than the differences. And while no two dictatorships are precisely the same — nor any two command economies — the differences among them are all less important than the similarities.
When you stand back from all these details and look at a country’s operating system, you see the relationship that country has established between the citizen and the State. When our country’s constitution went into effect in 1789, the US established a relationship that was unique in history: the citizen was in charge, the State would serve the citizen, and there would be an arm’s-length distance between the two. It was this unique operating system — not our continental size, nor our natural resources — that propelled the US into becoming the strongest, richest, freest, and most opportunity-oriented country the world has ever known.
Every time since 1789 that Congress has passed a new law — or whenever the Supreme Court has issued an opinion — that’s been the equivalent of an update to our operating system. (And, just as when Apple or Microsoft send out an update, sometimes you like the update and other times you wish they’d left well enough alone.) Every so often, these changes are so profound they amount to a new version of the operating system itself. Think of FDR’s New Deal as America Version 2.0, and LBJ’s Great Society as America Version 2.5.
Politics is the endless effort by candidates and parties to win support for whatever changes they believe would improve our operating system. And when the winners get Congress to pass new legislation, and the president signs that bill into law — that’s the political equivalent of “download and install.”
But when the objective isn’t to improve the operating system, but to replace it, that’s revolution.
Obama Meant What He Said
From the moment Barack Obama strode onto the national stage, he’s made clear that his objective is to fundamentally change the United States. He meant it, and he’s done it.
New laws such as the Affordable Care Act have made each of us more dependent than ever on our government, in this case for our healthcare. But it’s more than legislation: it’s an attitude of arrogance and sheer contempt from official Washington toward ordinary Americans the likes of which we’ve never seen before. The IRS targets conservative political groups in blatant violation of the law, and gets away with it. We cannot get to the bottom of whatever happened on September 11, 2012 in Benghazi; after three years we still don’t know what the US ambassador was doing in this city on such a dangerous night, or even where our president was during the attack on our consulate.
And it isn’t just the president and officials of his administration whose attitude toward we citizens that’s changed. In the Supreme Court’s recent Obamacare decision, the Chief Justice tells us that words in a piece of legislation don’t mean what they so obviously mean; they mean whatever he wants them to mean. The court’s same-sex marriage decision is another example of this ghastly new attitude toward citizens: whatever you and I think about this issue doesn’t matter; the court will decide it for us.
Simply put, the relationship between the citizen and the state today isn’t what it was when Obama was sworn into office in 2009. Instead of the citizen being in charge with an arm’s-length relationship to the state, we now have a state that treats its citizens like peasants at the end of the Roman Empire: We have no interest in your opinions. Your only purpose in life is to send more revenue. Any effort to rebel will be crushed mercilessly. And do not for one moment forget how lucky you are to be ruled by us.
Which Operating System Will We Get?
This brings us to the 2016 presidential campaigns. If a Democrat wins the election — Hillary or someone else — she or he will keep our country on its present course and lock in forever this new relationship between the citizen and the state. But if a Republican wins the 2016 election… well, we just don’t know what will happen. It’s early days, and not all the likely GOP candidates for president have yet officially announced. At least so far, the ones who have jumped into the race are talking about specific issues, such as Obamacare, taxes, and the federal budget. None of them has quite gone to the core of what really is the overriding issue of the 2016 presidential campaign: namely, what should be the relationship between the citizen and the State? What do the majority of Americans want it to be? And if the majority of us prefer the old relationship to the new one, will the man or woman we send to the White House be content to make the Obama operating system less repugnant to us? Or will he or she reach for greatness by doing what most of us have found to be impossible: getting rid of the new operating system that’s been installed and going back to the older one we liked better.
As I write these words, it is nearly the Fourth of July, Independence Day. In towns and cities across our country, Americans will celebrate the revolution of 1776 without even noticing that another revolution has just taken place. If we don’t wake up, fast, the Fourth of July will become just another day on the calendar. Or, worse, we’ll have a new national holiday called Dependence Day.