I mean, brethren, that the appointed time has grown very short; from now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the form of this world is passing away.
I Corinthians 7:29-31
As the voters flocked in unprecedented numbers to the polls to vote in the Republican primary in South Carolina yesterday, I was dutifully reading a new translation of Alexis de Tocqueville’s The Ancien Régime and the Revolution, which some time ago I had agreed to review. Re-reading this masterpiece now, in the present circumstances, for the fourth time – this time as rendered by Arthur Goldhammer – I found a slow, slow process. I worked my way through a few pages. Then I paused at length to muse and daydream. The book offers, if anything, too much to think about. And, for the most part, what I thought about when I stopped to ponder the larger significance of a passage was not the work’s subject – the pre-revolutionary situation in mid-eighteenth-century France – but the present discontents in our own United States of America.
Revolutions are moments of rupture. Very few people see them coming. Montesquieu, writing between the lines, and Rousseau, ostentatiously speaking his mind, evidenced a recognition of the moral bankruptcy of eighteenth-century France and forecast that profound changes were in store. But no one paid them any heed; and, as Tocqueville emphasizes in his great book, next to no one in 1789 expected the monarchy to collapse.
Andrei Amalrik, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan predicted the demise of the Soviet Union – and the Sovietologists rolled their eyes. It was obvious to a handful of us in the 1980s that the iron curtain dividing Europe would someday abruptly come down; I have believed for more than twenty years that, in the Middle East, secular nationalism was on its last legs and that the Islamic revivalists would eventually have their day in the sun; and I am similarly persuaded that the one-party regime in China will in due course come apart. Old orders which nearly everyone takes for granted but very few still believe in and fervently admire grow increasingly fragile with the passage of time. Along comes a puff of wind, and they are gone – much to the shock of nearly everyone.
In these circumstances, the experts are no more astute than ordinary folk. They tend to assume that tomorrow will be like yesterday and today, and most of the time they are right to do so. But every once in a while the political world undergoes a seismic shift, and the experts are often the last to see it coming. They have been trained with an eye to making sense of the continuities. Discontinuity is beyond their ken. The very training that renders them skillful in interpreting the ordinary occludes their vision and prevents them from seeing the warning signs, and when the rupture takes place they simply cannot believe their eyes.
I first began to think that we in this country were on the verge of a revolution of sorts on 19 April 2009, the 150th anniversary of Tocqueville’s death. I was in Washington, D. C. that day, trying to flog my book Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift – the publication of which took place on the anniversary. What I encountered in our nation’s capital were demonstrations mounted by the Tea-Party Movement, and when I saw them I realized that I was witnessing Americans exercising spontaneously what Tocqueville had called “the art of association” and doing so in the manner that had so impressed him on his famous visit to the fledgling American republic.
With the so-called “stimulus” bill and his proposal that the federal government administer in fine detail the healthcare industry nationwide, Barack Obama unmasked what I called on 1 July 2009 “the tyrannical ambition” underpinning the slow but steady growth of the administrative entitlements state. By August of that year, when thousands of individual citizens turned out for town meetings to give their Senators and Congressmen a piece of their minds, it was clear to me that a great political realignment was underway, and in a series of posts on Powerline I spelled out the significance of what I then called The Great Awakening.
“In earlier posts,” I wrote in that piece, “I have discussed the tyrannical ambitions of the Obama administration (here), the danger a consolidation of government poses for the people of the United States (here), the psychological disposition that makes democratic peoples vulnerable to servile temptation (here), the institutions that once in some measure shielded Americans from these propensities (here), the gradual disappearance of that shield (here), and some of the reasons why I think it now possible for us to recover the liberty that once was ours (here and here).” Then, I added,
Here I simply want to add an appreciative word regarding Barack Obama. Our President has told us that he has a gift, and he is undoubtedly right. But he misconceives the nature of his gift. He thinks that his skills in oratory will enable him to fool all of the people all of the time. In his Presidential campaign, he did wonders – hinting at radical intentions while speaking always in a moderate tone. And thanks to the blunders of George W. Bush in office and to the ineptitude of John McCain, who had made a career of betraying his own side, Obama managed to win.
Soon, however, the Democratic Party will be reminded that, in German, “Gift” is a word for poison. For one cannot fool the American people for long, and the real effect of the effort made by Obama and by figures such as Rahm Emanuel will be to unmask the Democratic Party as a conspiracy on the part of a would-be aristocracy of do-gooders hostile to very idea of self-government in the United States.
This we are witnessing now, for everything is now done in secret and behind closed doors. The so-called “stimulus bill” was passed in both the House and the Senate in a manner suggestive of tyranny. It was written in camera with the help of a legion of lobbyists, and it was presented and shoved through before anyone in Congress even had a chance to read it, much less think about it.
The fact that there was no time allowed for public discussion and debate aroused suspicion nationwide; and when it became evident that the bill was a fraud – that its real purpose was to reward favored party constituencies and that the sum spent will grossly inflate the national deficit in the short run and require massive tax increases down the road – Americans in astonishing numbers took to the streets in every corner of the land.
The passage of the cap-and-trade bill in the House – again without adequate public discussion and debate – only reinforced the wariness of the general public, and the same can be said for the efforts of the Obama administration to push through a scheme aimed at putting us on the road to socialized medicine.
Behind closed doors, in secrecy, a deal was done to reward the United Auto Workers and to defraud the bondholders of Chrysler and General Motors. And behind closed doors, without any species of accountability, Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner is reorganizing our financial system.
Now, as citizens flock to town meetings all over the country to confront their Senators and Congressmen, we can see the consequences. And the White House and the Democratic Party have responded to the spontaneous organization of opposition to their endeavors in a manner that is reminiscent of the governments in Tocqueville’s France – by insulting their fellow citizens, by charging them with conspiracy, by locking citizens out of putatively public meetings, by bringing in union toughs to intimidate the opposition, and by illegally collecting the names and contact information of those who have exercised their First Amendment rights in a manner unfriendly to the proposals advanced by the current administration – apparently with an eye to future retribution.
We should be grateful to Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Rahm Emanuel. For, in their audacity, they have done what their predecessors feared to do; and, in the process, they have made the tyrannical propensities inherent within the progressive impulse visible to anyone who cares to take notice. What Franklin Delano Roosevelt falsely charged in 1936 is visibly true today. “A small group” is intent on concentrating “into their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s property, other people’s money, other people’s labor – other people’s lives.
“The only question,” I concluded, “is whether the Republicans have the wit to take full advantage of the opportunity that Barack Obama has handed them.” Much to my delight, in the months following the posting of this piece, the Republicans rallied. Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in Massachusetts by opposing Obamacare, and in the 2010 midterm elections the Republicans won an historic victory, retaking the House of Representatives and rising at the state level to a position of strength they had not seen since 1928. But I still worried that the Republicans would fail to find a standard bearer for the 2012 Presidential race capable to following through, and, in taking Mitt Romney to the woodshed for a thrashing, the voters of South Carolina expressed similar fears on Saturday.
There are, of course, world-weary observers who still regard these as ordinary times. Kevin D. Williamson of National Review is one. He thinks that there is nothing wrong with Barack Obama apart from incompetence, and he argues that “the most acute division on the right – the one that will give Mitt Romney the most trouble – is not between moderates and hard-core right-wingers, between electability-minded pragmatists and ideologues, or between the Tea Party and the Republican establishment. “ It is, he says,
between those Republicans who disagree with Barack Obama, believing his policies to be mistaken, and those who hate Barack Obama, believing him to be wicked. Mitt Romney is the candidate of the former, but is regarded with suspicion, or worse, by the latter. The former group of Republicans would be happy merely to win the presidential election, but the latter are after something more: a national repudiation of President Obama, of his governmental overreach, and of managerial progressivism mainly as practiced by Democrats but also as practiced by Republicans.
It is unlikely that those seeking a national act of electoral penance for having elected Barack Obama are going to get what they are after. For one thing, the number of Americans who believe President Obama to be merely incompetent is far greater than the number of Americans who believe him to be, not to put too fine a point on it, evil. For another, that larger group of voters is, for once, probably right.
Williamson acknowledges that Obama “has signed some truly awful pieces of legislation into law: the stimulus package, Cash for Clunkers, and, most notably, Obamacare. Bad as these are,” he claims, “the reaction among some conservatives has been overblown. . . . President Obama is not a revolutionary Bolshevik; he is a conventional liberal of a very familiar kind. Obamacare is precisely the same sort of program that a Pres. Al Gore or a Pres. John Kerry might have signed into law. The most remarkable thing about President Obama is that, unlike even the masterly Bill Clinton, he managed to get a big part of the Democrats’ health-care agenda enacted as law.”
As one would expect, Williamson opposes repealing Obamacare. He thinks, instead, that we should “amend it in ways that remove the worst of its statist overreach and replace it with the best available free-market alternatives,” and he argues that it would be “more effective to amend the legislation in such a way that it is effectively repealed and replaced than to have an emotionally satisfying but probably unwinnable fight over repeal per se.” This would, he contends, “be easier to accomplish with a bloodless manager such as Romney at the helm than an ideological flamethrower.”
There are others, however, who think more or less as I do, and not all of them are Republicans. As I have frequently pointed out – most recently here – one such is William Daley, who was for much of the last year Obama’s Chief of Staff. On Christmas eve in 2009, he published an op-ed in The Washington Post, warning his fellow Democrats that they were going too far too fast and that, in the process, they were alienating their fellow Americans and preparing the way for a realignment.
Even more striking is the fierce diatribe directed at Newt Gingrich in this morning’s Chicago Tribune by the inimitable John Kass. He interpreted “the fist-pumping” of those in the crowd at the Republican debates as a “clear indication of the desperation conservatives feel these days.” Then, he added:
I understand. They see what’s coming, they fear the left-listing direction of government and the dreariness of an Eastern European-style socialist state, with the people bowing like frightened peasants when those with political power approach. Those of us in Illinois have lived in such a place for years now. It is a place where public office is handed down from parent to child as if it’s the natural order of things.
I do not hate Barack Obama. Nor do most of those who most fiercely oppose him. Nor do I think that he is, in his principles and preferences, greatly at odds with John Kerry, Al Gore, or, for that matter, William Jefferson Clinton. He is different only in embracing what he calls The Audacity of Hope. He has, you might say, the courage of their convictions. And, in displaying that audacity, he has laid bare, as John Kass clearly sees, the political logic underpinning the project invented by the Progressives and made a reality to an ever-increasing degree by its architects – Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Richard Milhous Nixon, and Barack Hussein Obama. In the process, as Bill Daley recognized early on, he has endangered the entire edifice built by his predecessors.
We do not live in a country like pre-revolutionary France, the old Soviet Union, or present-day China. Our government is not a dictatorship masquerading as a democracy – like the states once existing behind the iron curtain, the Arab nationalist regimes, or, for that matter, the city of Chicago. We live in a free state in some ways similar to classical Rome and eighteenth-century Britain – each of which, as Montesquieu explained in his Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and their Decline, had within it a body
which examine[d] this government continually and continually examine[d] itself; and such [we]re this body’s errors that they never last[ed] long, and [we]re useful in giving the Nation a spirit of attentiveness.
“In a word,” Montesquieu explained, “a free Government, which is to say, a government always agitated, knows no way in which to sustain itself if it is not by its own Laws capable of self-correction.” In our case, as in the case of the English government, the ultimate guarantee of “self-correction” comes from the separation of powers, from public debate, and from free elections. We have institutionalized revolutions. Ours tend, in consequence, to be peaceful.
But they can also be dramatic. In his Spirit of Laws, with an eye on the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when James II lost the English throne and William of Orange replaced him, Montesquieu observed that if the terrors fanned by the party opposed to the English executive were ever “to appear on the occasion of an overturning of the fundamental laws, they would be muted, lethal, excruciating and produce catastrophes: Before long, one would see a frightful calm, during which the whole would unite itself against the power violating the laws.” Moreover, he added, if such “disputes” were to take “shape on the occasion of a violation of the fundamental laws, and if a foreign power appeared,” as happened with the arrival of the Dutch Stadtholder William of Orange in 1688, “there would be a revolution, which would change neither the form of the government nor its constitution: for the revolutions to which liberty gives shape are nothing but a confirmation of liberty.”
We are not in the latter circumstance. No foreign power is about to appear, but we are witnessing an attempt to overturn “the fundamental laws.” We have a President who promised his supporters on the eve of his election that he would “fundamentally transform” America. We have had a series of Presidents who signaled the radicalism of their administrations and their intention to break with the past by calling them The New Freedom, The New Deal, The New Frontier, and The Great Society, and the current incumbent has let the cat fully out of the bag by naming his administration The New Foundation. As John Kass clearly recognizes and Kevin Williamson evidently does not, there is an enormous amount at stake in this election.
The good people of South Carolina recognize as much. They understand the crisis we face. They know that the administrative entitlements state was bankrupt before Barack Obama became President. They recognize that Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are already unsustainable in their present form, and they sense that Obamacare will only add to our woes. In consequence, they are not looking for a temporizer. They want a standard-bearer who can reverse the course that we are now on.
There were two debates in South Carolina last week. In the first, Newt Gingrich worked a transformation in his prospects when, in response to a question from Juan Williams, he vigorously and eloquently reasserted the work ethic that forms the foundation of the modern commercial republic and when he once again attacked as the Foodstamp President the man intent on making the entitlements ethic the foundation of a new political regime in this country. In the second debate, when challenged on a personal matter that endangered his candidacy, he displayed similar fire and managed to fend off the threat. In the same two debates, Mitt Romney came off as a milquetoast moderate not apt to change anything much and not likely to get elected.
It would be a mistake to dismiss out of hand the judgment of the South Carolinians. Milquetoast moderate Republicans do not have a very good track record. Thomas E. Dewey, the original “New Deal Republican,” lost twice. Gerald Ford lost. So did George H. W. Bush the second time around. So did Bob Dole and John McCain. Why, the voters asked, should we vote for New Deal-lite.
I am not arguing that Newt Gingrich would do better in November, 2012. He has baggage. And, in a piece entitled The Wild Card, I argued that he was unprincipled, erratic, and vulnerable. I stand by that judgment. I would only argue here that it is by no means obvious that Mitt Romney would do better. There was a reason why Romney lost in South Carolina. In answer to the question – “How did it happen?” — Byron York explained in The Washington Examiner,
For one thing, all the talk about Romney having a hugely superior ground organization turned out not to be true. “They did not do the retail politics that a Santorum and a Gingrich have done over time,” said Kevin Thomas, chairman of the Fairfield County Republican Party. (Thomas was neutral in the race.) “I think Newt’s people, they had more on-the-ground staff, and they worked.” There were a lot of them, too; after Gingrich’s strong showing in the debates, said Susan Meyers, Gingrich’s media coordinator for the Southeast, “We have so many volunteers, our phones are melting right now.”
Gingrich’s campaign was also faster and more nimble than the Romney battleship. “There is a very strong contrast between the two campaign organizations,” said Gingrich adviser (and former George W. Bush administration official) Kevin Kellems. “In military terms, it’s speed versus mass. Newt Gingrich’s operation, and Newt Gingrich as a man, has a great deal of speed — intellectual speed, decisiveness. The Romney campaign is much more about money and size, having hired half of Washington D.C. And sometimes, speed beats mass.”
It certainly did this time. In the next few days, there will be plenty of analysis attributing Gingrich’s victory to other factors: his commanding performances in debate, his next-door advantage in South Carolina, and Romney’s now-traditional difficulties in the state. But after all the talk of ground game and debate war, there’s a simpler reason Gingrich won: On the stump, in town hall after town hall, across South Carolina, Gingrich has been a markedly better campaigner than Romney.
Romney stages perfect events. For example, on the eve of the primary, Romney’s rally in North Charleston was perfect from a production point of view: stage just right, big flags, big Romney signs, smooth introductions from South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, all topped off by a showy entrance by Romney, who arrived in his big campaign bus that drove right into the room.
It was perfect in every sense but engaging with the voters. Romney’s stump speech was a clipped — some would say dumbed down — list of generalities, concluding with this: “I love this land, I love its Constitution, I revere its founders, I will restore those principles, I will get America back to work, and I’ll make sure that we remain the shining city on the hill.” Romney offered his supporters very little to chew on. In this primary race, voters are hungry for substance, and Romney didn’t give them much.
Gingrich’s last event before the voting, a couple of hours later, was a rally on the hangar deck of the USS Yorktown, a World War II aircraft carrier that is now a floating museum across the bay from Charleston. It was a most un-perfect affair. To begin with, it just so happened that dozens of Cub Scouts were having an overnight on the Yorktown at the same time as Gingrich and the press showed up for the rally. Their presence contributed to an air of happy chaos on board, and Gingrich was delighted to invite a few scouts on stage with him at the beginning of his speech. When Gingrich got to the substance of his remarks, he was wandering, expansive, and detailed, where Romney had been brief and canned. But Gingrich kept the crowd with him the whole way, and in the end had engaged his audience more than Romney could have hoped for. Gingrich respected them enough to discuss issues with them seriously.
Howie Carr of The Boston Herald made the same point more succinctly: “This is Mitt’s problem: He comes across in these debates as a wimp. Dudley Do-Right didn’t play in South Carolina. He’s afraid of his own shadow. He’s overtrained.”
In digesting all of this, you should keep in mind that Mitt Romney’s track record in electoral politics is poor. He lost in his race against Ted Kennedy at a time when, because of a scandal, Kennedy was extremely vulnerable. He served for four years as Governor of Massachusetts, then bowed out and did not seek re-election because he knew that he would lose. Rick Santorum, who lost his Senate seat when he ran for re-election the second time, has a much better record, and so, for all of his faults, does Newt Gingrich. Both men were in the past much better at retail politics than Romney, and they still are.
South Carolina was not just a bump in the road. Thanks to his own ineptitude, Mitt Romney is now, as Sean Trende points out, seriously in danger of losing the nomination. To reverse the trend, he will have to show fire and put himself at the head of the forces intent on gradually dismantling the administrative entitlements state. Because I harbor grave misgivings about Newt Gingrich, I hope that Romney does so. But is he nimble enough? Or will he simply fall back on the game plan worked out with his advisors months ago? In quasi-revolutionary situations, ideological flamethrowers often do better than bloodless managers.
Were I running Romney’s campaign (or, for that matter, the campaign of Newt Gingrich), I would get my man up to Washington, DC tonight, and I would have him join tomorrow’s March for Life. And when asked why he was there, I would have him reply, “I want the American people to know that I do not just talk the talk. I walk the walk.”
I doubt, however, whether anyone connected with the Romney campaign has the requisite imagination. With every passing day, he is looking more like Hillary Clinton in 2008 – overburdened with money, advisors, timidity, and a sense of entitlement.
We are in for a wild ride.
UPDATE: Kevin D. Williamson of National Review has written to say, “It is entirely untrue that I oppose the repeal of PPACA. But I do not expect that congressional Republicans will have the votes to repeal it in 2013. If it were repealed in toto, Republicans still would need to revisit the question of health-care reform, inasmuch as the status quo ante was far from ideal. I would appreciate your correcting this.” If you wonder why I was left with a contrary impression, take a look at the third page of his post.
Join Ricochet to be part of the smartest and most civil conversation on the web.
- Engage in great conversations on just about any topic on our exclusive Member Feed.
- Write your own posts and let the world know what you think.
- Interact with our contributors as well as fellow members.
- Have your voice heard by opinion-makers and political insiders.
- Attend our legendary Ricochet member meet-ups that take place all across the country and around the world.