In May 2008, I wrote a piece in the Jerusalem Post entitled "Why Obama Won't be President," arguing that Barack Obama was too out of touch with America's most cherished values to be elected president. Needless to say, that piece subsequently provoked a good deal of merriment.
It would now appear that I was not so much wrong about Obama's alienation from core American values, as premature in noticing it. Not that my reputation as a political prognosticator has thereby been restored. All stock market predictions are eventually right – at some point the market will go up and at some point down. The trick is knowing when.
In the earlier piece I noted that Obama had consorted for decades with a long list of radicals – e.g., William Ayers, Rev. Jeremiah Wright -- who displayed a visceral hatred of America. From his early refusal to wear an American flag pin to his wife's characterization of America as "downright mean," a country in which she had never taken pride prior to her husband's ascent, it was clear that Obama did not share the view held by what Professor Angelo Codevilla calls the "country class," that "America's ways are superior to the rest of the world, " and that "most of mankind are less free, less prosperous, and less virtuous." (Codevilla's "America's Ruling Class – And the Perils of Revolution," in the July-August American Spectator is perhaps the most eloquent statement of the grievances of the Tea Party movement and its sympathizers.)
That perception has only been reinforced by the seemingly endless stream of presidential apologies to the world for the "sins" of America -- dropping the bomb on Japan, not adequately taxing carbon emissions, the Arizona law permitting police to inquire about the immigration status of those arrested. And most notably, the recent State Department self-critique sent to the UN Human Rights Council – an organization dominated by the world's leading human rights violators – of America's alleged human rights failings.
THE CURRENT DEMOCRATIC PARTY narrative is that the party's bleak electoral prospects are primarily a reflection of the equally bleak state of the economy. No doubt if the $787 billion stimulus had prevented, as advertised, unemployment from reaching 8%, instead of the current 9.6%, with millions more who have ceased looking for work, the Democrats' prospects would be much brighter.
On the other hand, the argument cuts two ways. Until the great financial meltdown of 2008, John McCain was leading slightly in most polls. The Democrats misinterpreted their victory – or took advantage of the crisis, in Rahm Emmanuel's formulation – as sanction for a whole slew of policies that did not command majority support: a radical overhall of the entire health system, cap and trade, partial nationalization of the auto industry.
At one level, the furor of the Tea Party movement continues to focus on economic issues, and the fear that future generations of Americans are being saddled with unsustainable levels of debt that will eventually spell the end of American greatness. Over the last two years, the total national debt accumulated over 220 years has increased by a third.
But at root the argument between the Tea Party, on the one hand, and Codevilla's "ruling class" – politicians of both major parties, heads of large corporations, those tied to the "non-profit" and "philanthropic" sectors – is over the proper scope of government. The essential divide in America today is between those who orient their lives towards government, who see in an expanded government the solution to most problems, and those who still subscribe to the Jeffersonian ideal of the best government as that which governs least.
The former are the modern inheritors of the Progressives and FDR, who sought to frame most issues as technocratic in nature, and therefore subject to solution by "brain trusts," of the best and brightest. In his 1937 State of the Union address, FDR sought "unimagined power" to enforce "proper subordination of private interest." He succeeded only in plunging the country into the biggest plunge in industrial output in its history, from which only World War II rescued it.
Suspicion of both government and experts with grand solutions to all the problems runs old and deep in America. Government is traditionally viewed as legitimate only to the extent that it arises from the people and serves them. Perhaps this has something to do with the absence of a feudal past, in which the peasants were dependent on their local lord for protection. American federalism is inherently decentralized and reflects a bias against single grand solutions, in favor of testing many possible solutions tied to local conditions. In Justice Brandeis's famous formulation, each state is a separate social laboratory.
Quite apart from the current economic doldrums, many Americans are up in arms today over what they see as the arrogance of the ruling class, starting with the President's professorial tones and evident petulance directed at all those who question his superior wisdom. In particular, citizens who elected the first black president by a comfortable majority are sick of being accused of racism when they now express their strenuous opposition to the President's policies.
In the same vein, they resent being accused of religious bigotry, specifically Islamophobia, for opposing the Ground Zero mosque, in light of the fact that there have been almost no attacks against Muslims in the United States since 9/11, despite a numerous foiled plots to kill civilians hatched by Islamic extremists and the Fort Hood massacre. And they are incredulous that defenders of the mosque show not the slightest interest in how it is being funded and are unwilling to consider how the building of such a mosque in close proximity to Ground Zero will play with radical Moslems around the globe.
Professor Codevilla, speaking for the "country class," accuses the "ruling class" of viewing the rest of Americans as "racist, greedy, and above all stupid." From the ruling class perspective, their fellow Americans are nothing but irritable children throwing temper tantrums, whose arguments against Obamacare, runaway deficits, or the stimulus bill are not worthy of consideration. Obama's campaign comment to wealthy San Francisco donors about those in towns which time has passed by bitterly holding onto their "guns and religion" captures the contempt of the ruling class for those who are incurably "retrograde , racist, and dysfunctional unless properly constrained" (to quote Codevilla again.)
The Republican Pledge to America plays on the widespread feeling of being dissed by those who see themselves as the best and the brightest, with its references to "an arrogant and out-of-touch government of self-appointed elites," who have "ignored, even mocked" the concerns of the average American.
WHEN TEA PARTY DEMONSTRATORS carry signs proclaiming President Obama to be a socialist, they are signaling that the debate is not about technical economic solutions to the current economic stagnation, but also about the proper economic organization of society. Thomas Straubhaar, a German writer, contrasts relatively homogeneous European societies, in which the state has always played a large role in the economy, to America, where government intervention has always been slightly suspect. The unifying role of ethnic homogeneity in European societies is played in America by a libertarian creed that "the state should not interfere in people's lives, aside from securing freedom, peace and security."
The progressive model of a bureaucratic state flies in the face of that ethos, and in so doing, Straubhaar argues, risks "destroying the bonds which interlink America's heterogeneous society" – the belief that an individual can advance by dint of his own hard work.
The ruling class seeks to maintain power, in this analysis, by creating a relationship of dependency on the government for as many people as possible. The opposition to ever new government entitlements by the "country class" is not just that those entitlements are unaffordable in the long run, but that they destroy the vigor of society by creating people who are the very antithesis of the Jeffersonian noble yeoman.
To preserve its power, the ruling class creates a nation of peasants, in Victor Davis Hanson's words, jealous of anyone who has more than they do. Instead of encouraging individuals to use the examples of others successes as a spur to their own efforts to better their situation, the ruling class plays to jealousies by offering to redistribute the wealth through ever higher taxes on society's most productive members. Even as the top 1% of wage earners cover 40% of the tax burden, President Obama continues to call for higher taxes on those who, in his judgment, have more than their fair share.
The bureaucratic state drains the Keynes's "animal spirits" from American capitalism. It discourages the entrepreneur and small businessman eager to get ahead by virtue of his determination, guts, and hard work. Ever multiplying regulatory schemes strangle such people, and the job creation that follows from their efforts.
Instead, in Codevilla's analysis, economic success becomes more determined by the relation to the government than by one's own efforts. Large corporations are quintessential parts of the "ruling class," and devote ever larger efforts in lobbying regulatory agencies. "By endowing some in society with the power to force others to sell cheaper than they would, and forcing others to buy at higher prices – even to buy in the first place – modern government makes valuable some things that are not, and devalues others that are," charges Codevilla.
The proliferation of regulations is necessary precisely so that government can specify how people will be treated unequally. For example, the financial regulation bill rather than setting univocal rules in a few words, spends thousands of pages tilting the field towards some and away from others, according to Codevilla. Those who pass such laws cheerfully admit that they do not read them, for they are no more than grants of huge, and largely unreviewable, discretion to various bureaucrats.
DOES THE OBAMA administration's dramatic departure and even impatience with the traditional American ideal of governmental legitimacy emerging from the will of the people and move towards a European model of top-down governance by bureaucratic "experts" mean that President Obama will not be re-elected in 2010? Once burned, I'm hesitant to return to political prognostication. But my answer would be a bold "not necessarily." Ironically, Obama's best hope lies in a dramatic Republican victory this November.
His ideological orientation towards Europe makes it unlikely that he'll be able to reprise Bill Clinton's dramatic policy shift after the Republican landslide of 1994. But a Republican Congress will prevent him from doing much over the next two years, and thereby lower some of the seething anger directed at what he and large Democratic majorities in Congress have wrought over the past two years. Unless Americans sense a real opportunity to roll-back Obamacare, domestic issues are likely to play a much smaller role two years from now (though, admittedly, that's a pretty long way for crystal-ball gazing.)
Though the Obama adminisration cannot yet claim a single foreign policy success to date, the Tea Party movement has thus far been less exercised by foreign policy issues. In part, that is because its small government ideology does not translate clearly into any particular foreign policy direction.
But an intense patriotism and respect for those who answer the nation's call through military service do characterize those most riled by President Obama today. If they sense weakness in the face of enemies, particularly radical Islam, lack of jealousness of American sovereignty (already a keystone of Obama's foreign policy orientation towards the U.N.), or that American troops are being left to die in Afghanistan for political reasons, but without any strategy to pursue victory or any clearly enunciated goals (see Bob Woodward's new book on the making of our current strategy in Afghanistan), they may turn their attention to foreign policy. The anti-Obama forces also tend to be more stalwart in support of Israel's ability to defend itself than the Democrats in general, and that too could be a major issue in 2012.