Wednesday, June 9, 2010

We are Engaged in a Great Civil War

The depth of our political divide in America constitutes a civil war, the one side preserving the regime and the other side working to overthrow it. But thankfully it's a cold war, not a shooting war. All that we need for preserving the republic against it's progressivist overthrowers is to re-school the American public in their heritage of liberty.

I have been writing recently about the movement of American government in dangerous directions toward a subtle, seductive, but very real form of despotism. Most recently I published "The Temptation to Dictatorship" at, a further reflection on what I wrote here in "The Dictatorship of Hope and Change." We hear Tom Friedman and Andrea Mitchell musing openly on Meet The Press about the public benefits that would result from allowing Barack Obama and his soul-mates in Congress to suspend the Constitution for a day and really put things right. This was not a careless thought. Friedman was just following up on what he stated in one his recent books. But only Paul Gigot expressed shock and incredulity. When he did, the political cognoscenti around him just blinked and went on.

This dangerous indifference to the institutions of liberty is not limited to a few reckless talking heads on a Sunday news show. It pervades the liberal establishment. And if it were only indifference, we would be in better shape than we are. George Will has drawn national attention to the principled hostility toward our very form of government that has characterized the Democratic Party for almost a hundred years, and which Barack Obama has raised to the level of mortal struggle.

Today, as it has been for a century, American politics is an argument between two Princetonians -- James Madison, Class of 1771, and Woodrow Wilson, Class of 1879. Madison was the most profound thinker among the Founders. Wilson, avatar of "progressivism," was the first president critical of the nation's founding. Barack Obama's Wilsonian agenda reflects its namesake's rejection of limited government.

In my column today, "Our Present Civil Cold War," I continue Will's train of thought to what I think is its implied but unstated conclusion. (Michael Lind at responds to Will's thesis here.)


What Wilson began, the Great Depression interrupted, but Franklin Roosevelt took it up again with great energy in the New Deal. Lyndon Johnson carried it forward with the Great Society, and now Barack Obama has raised this war against limited, constitutional government to the level of mortal struggle.

Now we are engaged in a great civil cold war. It is a political war between the advocates of limited and unlimited government, between those who support the Founding and the Constitution as amended and the self-described progressives who, by definition, reject what the Founding Fathers bequeathed to us in favor of what Chief Justice Earl Warren called “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.”

Will takes his prompt from a new book by William Voegeli, Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State. In the progressive view of politics, there is no limiting principle for government. Writes Voegeli, “Lacking a limiting principle, progressivism cannot say how big the welfare state should be but must always say that it should be bigger than it currently is.” We can see this in President Roosevelt’s 1944 “Economic Bill of Rights” speech, in which he declared the commitment of his government to, among other things,

...the right of every family to a decent home; the right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health; the right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment; the right to a good education.

Thus rights become government entitlements that don’t limit government, but instead empower and expand it.

For progressives, the purpose of government is not to protect certain natural rights that in turn limit the government itself. This is the political theory of the Founding and the Constitution. Rather, government’s job is to discover new rights that come to light as we morally evolve, i.e., as we progress.

Our choice is between two very different forms of government. Limited government stands opposite progressive government of unlimited reach. Individual liberty stands opposite federally guaranteed personal security. Our system of checks and balances stands opposite the popularly unaccountable and trans-political bureaucracy. In the Great Civil War, we fought—as Lincoln put it—for “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” This new struggle is a domestic cold war for that same understanding of freedom. We need to be clear that there is a fundamental difference between these politically divergent ways of life, and that the choice is now clearly before us. Otherwise we will simply slip peacefully into what Alexis de Tocqueville called “soft despotism,” the way a freezing man welcomes the embrace of death like a comforting lover.


Reading List:

Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, James Madison, The Federalist Papers.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy In America.

Walter McDougall, Freedom Just Around the Corner: A New American History (HarperCollins, 2004).

R.J. Pestritto. Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005).

Amity Shlaes, The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression (HarperCollins, 2007).

Matthew Spalding, We Still Hold These Truths: Rediscovering Our Principles, Reclaiming Our Future (ISI, 2009).

William Voegeli, Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State (Encounter, 2010).

James Caeser, Nature and History in American Political Development (Harvard UP, 2008).

Also, anything by Martin Diamond, Charles Kesler, Forrest McDonald, or Herbert Storing.

You should also explore through these websites and catalogues the considerable labors that thoughtful patriots have undertaken over that past two generations or so in the re-schooling of America in its education for liberty.

Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs
The Constitution Society
The Federalist Society
The Founders' Constitution
The Heritage Foundation
The Intercollegiate Studies Institute
The Jack Miller Center
Lehrman American Studies Center
Liberty Fund

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