President Obama: American Tory?
Published on: August 29, 2012
show comments
  • Mrs. Davis

    More the Earl of Bute than Lord North.

  • Mark Van Der Puy

    Absolutely my first read every day. Cogent, pithy, and spot on. This post is one of the best ever.

    Thanks

  • thibaud

    What the hell is Mead going on about?

    Who or what is “freezing existing guilds and professions into place”?

    This is the most confused, contradictory, vague rambling yet from Mead.

    First we had a GOP critique of Obamacare as sweeping and arrogant, that it was radically “reconstructing one-sixth of our economy”. Now Mead tells us the problem is that Obamacare is supposedly preserving that system “in amber.”

    Then there’s more of Mead’s uninformed, Gilder-esque gibberish about “technological changes”, without specifying what this has to do with the issue at hand: the insanity of the drown-the-gum’mint-in-the-bathtub wing of the GOP.

    More silliness from Mead on education, with his absurd attempt to pretend that Obama and Arne Duncan have not done far more to shake up and reform US education than any president in recent memory.

    This line is especially obtuse:

    “And in some ways the core problem is that we have to clear away the accumulated lumber of the past, not with a clear idea about what comes next, but simply to make room for something new to take shape.”

    Mead shows himself to be clueless about the workings of modern US capitalism, which does indeed, constantly, “sweep away the lumber of the past.” As any freshman student of economics knows, capitalism destroys as it creates.

    The whole point of government in a market economy is to counterbalance the destructive aspects of capitalism, to preserve a safety net for the weak, the old, the sick. It isn’t for Obama, or any US president, to go about destroying institutions.

    Especially without “a clear idea about what comes next”(!) (Was this line a typo? A cut and paste from some unrelated document or email?)

    Mead really needs to get back to international relations and stop embarrassing himself with these uniformed gasbag riffs on domestic matters.

  • David

    If Obama is a Tory he is reminiscent of a very specific type of Tory: Edward Heath. Heath took Britain into the EEC, moving the country away from its traditional Atlanticist and Commonwealth allies. Heath was an arabist as well. He tried to reach an accommodation with public sector unions (the coal miners). It all ended in disaster. The coal miners couldn’t be assuaged, Heath gave up a lot to join the EEC for almost nothing in return, and finally the three day week was instituted to conserve energy, setting the stage for a new type of Tory when Heath was defeated by Thatcher.

  • Corlyss

    “that people should support President Obama because he is really the ‘best’ kind of British Tory.”

    Why, Prof! I’m surprised at you. I thought you’d have figured out long ago that there’s noting between Sullivan’s ears except an urge to celebrity based on controversy. Regretably, Bush Derangement Syndrome completely fried his otherwise interesting mind.

  • Paul Graham

    Obama and the British Tories recognized their co-dependence a couple of years ago, and sealed their pact with respective State visits since.

    The ‘old parties’ of the right on each side of the pond have drifted irreconcilably apart since the Bush years. Perhaps the radical option in today’s partisan society is a little old fashioned one-nation conservatism.

  • Paul Graham

    WRM is possibly unique in the field of contemporary political commentary in having the breadth and depth of understanding of modern Anglo-Saxon history to pen a post like this.

    And I am very grateful for it.

  • Anthony

    WRM, can Sullivan’s American Tory description of President Obama square with United States historical socio-economic development within Hamiltonian/Jeffersonian trends and or patterns? That is, can Tory model apply rather than acknowledging Obama operates generally within Hamiltonian development tradition (and for all intents and purposes it appears to be model most conducive to inner Romney – Hamiltonian)? Further, the contrast with Romney (regarding Tory thought) may be colored by Jeffersonian anti-statist school being prominent among his most ardent party supporters, thereby giving impression of being less in touch. All in all though comprehending Sullivan’s point, Obama belongs to long American tradition of Hamiltonian progress – and yes U.S. is too expansive for Tory model.

  • WigWag

    “Stanley Baldwin, Neville Chamberlain, Lord Halifax, Harold Macmillan, Sir Anthony Douglas-Hume, Edward Heath, John Major: they were, all of them, honorable men. And under their stewardship, Britain gently but irresistibly fell into deeper irrelevance and decay.” (Walter Russell Mead)

    Isn’t there a Tory Prime Minister that Professor Mead is neglecting to mention? Hasn’t Prime Minister Cameron accelerated the process by which Britain is irresistibly falling into deeper irrelevance and decay?

    How long ago was it that Professor Mead wrote a post assuring us that Cameron was putting the “Great” back in Great Britain? Is Professor Mead ready to admit that when it came to Cameron he got it all wrong? If it’s the long held political inclinations of British Tories that have made it impossible for Britain to climb out of the hole that it’s in, surely Cameron belongs in the group of honorable bumblers that Professor Mead outlines. Doesn’t he Professor Mead?

    Then there’s the question of whether Professor Mead’s thesis represents anything more than muddled thinking. Yes it is true that none of the political parties in Great Britain has been able to arrest its inevitable decline; but has the possibility occurred to Professor Mead that there might be reasons for this which transcend politics? Isn’t it just possible that Britain’s decline had its genesis in the destructive effects of World War I and World War II on the British economy?

    Is Professor Mead really claiming with a straight face that if instead of the Tory philosophy which he claims dominates the Conservative Party (and “it’s slightly pinker twin” on the Labor side,) politicians with convictions more like Mitt Romney were in charge in Britain, the long slide to irrelevance would have been averted?

    Professor Mead thinks we need brash and radical change if the United States is to keep its edge and he believes that candidates like Obama who pursue incremental change are part of the problem. Fair enough; but we only have two choices; Romney and Obama. Does Professor Mead really believe that Romney offers they type of radical change that he thinks we need to preserve American greatness?

    Isn’t a more realistic assessment of what tanked the American economy not the failure of the blue model but the type of financial shenanigans that Romney regularly engages in and have made him very wealthy? Isn’t the real problem that Romney’s approach doesn’t take us to a better future but instead takes us back to a bleak past where the rich got richer, the poor got poorer, seniors were impoverished and society was more dysfunctional than ever?

    It seems to me that the problem is not that Romney and the Republicans have an approach that will maintain American power while Obama and the Democrats have an approach that will squander American power. The real problem is that Democrats and Republicans alike have been lulled into thinking that unfettered capitalism is good when over and over again unfettered capitalism has proven to be an abysmal failure.

    Professor Mead’s attempt to camouflage a shallow political rant in the guise of serious analysis is readily transparent. Stripped of all bull he is suggesting that if only Britain had politicians of the ilk of Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin and Paul Ryan instead of facing inexorable decline, Great Britain would be facing an ascendant future. Who knows, maybe he even believes that if only Mitt, Paul and Sarah had been born in London, Britain never would have lost its Empire. Maybe if Romney loses the American election, he can move to Great Britain and start putting the Empire back together again; he could invite the Indians, the Irish, the Australians and the Canadians to rejoin the British Empire and its quest for greatness in the 21st Century. With Sarah Palin and Paul Ryan at his side, is there any doubt that we would once again experience a day when the sun never sets on the British Empire?

    Professor Mead can believe it if he wants to. Only a fool would agree with him.

  • cacrucil

    An informative if incomplete article..

    You totally fail to mention the fact that northern europe is doing VERY WELL with flexicurity,(the term comes form Denmark) an option that NO ONE wants to talk about in America. Germany, Sweden, The Netherlands, Finland etc. are some of the best performing economies in the world right now; indeed they are doing MUCH better than the UK because their economies aren’t based as much on finance. Flexicurity combines capitalism, free trade and strong protections for private property with a strong safety net so ordinary people are constantly in fear. The results have been very impressive.

    For god’s sake, Finland has math scores that sometimes surpass those found in northern Asia, yet no one talks about emulating their educational system, which has been able to produce EXCELLENT results while emphasizing cooperation.

  • cacrucil

    So ordinary people are not constantly in fear, sorry for the typo.

  • thibaud

    cacrucil – the model you mention also requires stringent constraints on the financial sector, including not only bankers but also investment managers and other intermediaries. Sweden esp. thoroughly reformed its rotten banks in the mid-1990s.

    Kind of ironic that, of all the advanced capitalist democracies, the nation that touts its robust capitalist model has the sickest and most corrupt financial sector.

  • Tom Gates

    cacrucil: Your theory does not work in “melting pot” countries such as the US where there is always power and rent to be gotten from identity politics. The two country’s you highlight are as about as diverse as salt.

  • I second what Mark van der Puy said. About as good as it gets on the net in terms of syntheses encompassing the origins of American republicanism and conservatism, and US politics in general. Very insightful.

  • stephen b

    Our government is not our society/culture. Government is not what gives meaning and purpose to our lives. I do not want any branches of government, except perhaps in extreme cases, the judiciary, involved in any aspect of my life. Much of it should be drowned in the bath tub.
    Our financial sector is corrupt because its paid for politicians are corrupt.
    From P.J. O’Rourke: “When buying and selling are controlled by legislation, the first things to be bought and sold are legislators.”

  • Mick The Reactionary

    “Finland has math scores that sometimes surpass those found in northern Asia, yet no one talks about emulating their educational system, which has been able to produce EXCELLENT results ”

    A very easy way to emulate Finland’s edu performance is to have a country that is ethnically 99% Finnish.

    If your country is not 99% Finnish, your mileage might, and likely will, differ greatly.

  • thibaud

    Tom Gates – you’re misinformed. The countries in question have non-European ethnic minority populations of 20% or more.

    The totals are calculated differently than ours, since they do not allow groups to perpetually self-identify in the census data, regardless of how many generations their ancestors have been in the country – the Europeans typically cut this off at the third generation, which means the actual percentage of nonwhite Europeans is higher than 20% in most of the countries mentioned.

    Also, Canada has many of the same characteristics – GDP growing faster than ours, a robust safety net, low deficits and low unemployment, a strong currency – as the nordic success stories. Canada is even more diverse than the US in many respects, given that it has an officially recognized, very large linguistic and cultural minority that has produced violent separatist movements in recent memory.

    Given the above, why is it, really, that we can’t achieve what our north Atlantic cousins have achieved?

    Do you think we’re dumber than the Dutch, Swedes, Canadians and Germans?

  • “The whole point of government in a market economy is to counterbalance the destructive aspects of capitalism, to preserve a safety net for the weak, the old, the sick.”

    Uh, no, it’s not. Thanks for proving Professor Mead’s point in spite of the puerile arguments against his post.

  • Tom Holsinger

    Lord North was not any kind of Tory save that he and they both supported the Crown. As did American Tories, to their sorrow.

    The Revolutionaries won by being way, way, meaner and nastier than American Tories, and were aided, abetted and supported in that by America’s best spymaster ever, General George Washington. American Tories didn’t lose because they were outnumbered. They lost because they weren’t ruthless and nasty enough.

    Lord North didn’t so much make the American policy of His Majesty’s Government at the time as negotiate it between the various major factions of his day, and with George III. Then North tried to carry out the consensus policy. Leadership in that kind of policy-making wasn’t his job, and may well have been outside his frame of reference. A Pitt he wasn’t.

  • Cromwell

    Couldnt have out it better myself.

  • cacrucil

    Well, for whatever reasons it is clear that Americans will embrace the Scandinavian system. I just mentioned Scandavia to refute the WRM’s contention that a larger role for the state, in terms of ensuring there is no poverty, does not, automatically lead to stagnation and decline. If flexicurity, and other hybrid captialist/socialist systems can succeed – and Scandanavia and Denmark, Germany, etc are succeeding brilliantly – at the very least, people should acknowledge that a social welfare systems does not inexorably lead to Greek system stagnation and collapse.

  • cacrucil

    Red vs. Blue. California now adding more jobs than Texas? Obviously, this is not the whole story. California still has big problems, but this article is still worth reading.

    “California Is Suddenly Adding Jobs Faster Than Texas—Why?”

    http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/08/hey-everybody-californias-the-countrys-1-jobs-creator/261729/

  • Luke Lea

    A weak tory.

  • BobJustBob

    So the man who promised to fundamentally transform America is a small “c” conservative? “…status quo”? Push them along incrementally?

    I don’t think these words mean what you think they mean. This man is probably the most radical, left wing and un-american president we have ever had.

  • Dood, up your meds.

    This is some flat out deranged thinking. Obama isn’t about preserving anything, he’s about burning the country to the ground.

  • Snorri Godhi

    This might be the “best” post that I read on this blog, if “best” is quantified as a combination of truth, relevance, and opposition to conventional wisdom.

    The most important omission is a mention of the most important xix century essay that I have read: Herbert Spencer’s The New Toryism.

    To see why it is relevant, consider he first sentence:
    Most of those who now pass as Liberals, are Tories of a new type.

    I also have objections to the way Obama, Churchill, and Thatcher are portrayed, but I won’t dwell on them so that you can start reading Spencer right away.

  • Snorri Godhi

    cacrucil:
    “You totally fail to mention the fact that northern europe is doing VERY WELL with flexicurity,(the term comes form Denmark) an option that NO ONE wants to talk about in America. Germany, Sweden, The Netherlands, Finland […]”

    What do you mean, nobody wants to talk about it? everybody seems to talk about those countries in America, either to bash them or praise them. OTOH almost no native English speaker seems even remotely capable of understanding why their system is proving robust, so there is not a chance in a supernova (to quote Douglas Adams) that their systems, as opposed to what Americans THINK is their system, will be adopted in the USA.

    BTW as a former resident of Denmark and of the Netherlands, I can assure you that, in terms of providing a comfortable life, job satisfaction, and confidence that the ruling class cares about your survival, those countries are far from optimal. But it does look like their systems are more robust than those of, say, Greece, Argentina, the UK, and most US blue states. Those who actually live in Northern Europe and like it, can take comfort from that.

  • Tom

    @Thibaud #17:

    From the CIA world factbook:
    Finland: 93.4% Finnish
    Iceland: 94% mixed Norse/Celtic
    Norway: 94.4% Norwegian

    From statistics Denmark: 89.6% Danish

  • B Dubya

    Obama as a Tory has more than a little irony in it. He has a deep, abiding hatred of anything British, inherited from his Mau Mau father and his lifelong hatred of the British in Kenya.

  • Richard S

    In this context, it might be worth noting that when John Adams, America’s first minister to the Court of St. James, and a man sometimes called the first American conservative, toured England in the mid-1780s and found himself at Worcester, he gave a harrangue in praise of the heroes who had fought there during the English Civil War.

    American conservatism is very different from European conservatism. What is called conservatism in America has a timelessneess about it, an eternal focus on the timeless truths of the Declaration (which Adams defended in Congress) and of the unchanging elements of the human condition that many hope can be overcome.

  • Atanu Maulik

    The Britons had the luxury of opting for a gentle decline by passing over the baton to America. But if America chooses to go the same way who will cushion America’s fall ?

  • Jason Ryberg

    Here in America, we have at least three very big problems that make governing and “bringing the country together” very difficult; 1) the near universal worship of the rich (and wealth and celebrity) and loathing of the poor, 2) the delusion that, apparently 2 out of 10 of us have, that we will one day be a member of super-rich/power elite class, and 3) a bad, bad addiction to a form of religion that has changed little since the bronze age. Despite many attempts by the Republicans over the years to make us less so, we are still somewhat of a participatory/representational democracy, but less than half of our voting populace wants to participate, so we very often get what we deserve.

  • kaganovitch

    Thibaud wrote “What the hell is Mead going on about?

    Who or what is “freezing existing guilds and professions into place”? ”

    In the event you really don’t understand,WRM is refering to government employee unions which he (rightly)believes president obama and the democratic establishment strongly support.

  • Richard S

    “Despite many attempts by the Republicans over the years to make us less so, we are still somewhat of a participatory/representational democracy.”

    What do you mean by that?
    It seems to me that the greatest threat to participatory. representational democracy nowadays is the increasing amount of law-making that is done by unelected people in the executive/ administrative branch who have lifetime tenure. Worse, the administrative branch often has the authority to make laws, enforce them, and judge whether parties have transgressed them. That’s the least democratic element in our regime today.
    When credentialed people with lifetime tenure write most of your legal code, that is tending toward aristocracy. Tory is a good word for it.

  • thibaud

    Tom – the relevant countries here, as I wrote above, are the larger, heavily industrialized leaders such as Canada, Sweden, Holland and Germany. Not teeny-tiny Iceland or Finland or Denmark.

    Also, your source is out of date and not accurate. The EU’s statistics agency shows the following percentage of foreign-born citizens for each nation – note that “foreign-born” significantly *understates* the degree of diversity, which is probably up to 2x higher due to these nations’ statistical methodology that stops short of including, as the US does, 2nd, 3rd, or later generations.

    Germany: 11.6% foreign-born citizens

    Sweden: 13.8% foreign-born citizens

    Netherlands: 10.9% foreign-born citizens

    To do an apples-to-apples comparison, these percentages need to be at least doubled to account for the fact that the statistical tallies EXCLUDE previous generations of non-white, non-German or -Swedish or – Dutch citizens of those countries.

    Contrast this to America’s approach, which would define a sixth-generation “hispanic” resident of southern Colorado as an ethnic minority, whereas Sweden or Germany’s minority tally does NOT include even second-generation, let alone third gen, Turks or Kurds.

    So, again, all of these medium to large nations’ populations, contrary to the ignorant fantasies of Americans who’ve never lived there, are nearly or as diverse as America’s.

    As is, of course, that bilingual bicultural neighbor of ours to the north.

    So nice try, but no cigar.

    Again, do you think we’re just dumber than Canadians, Dutchmen, Swedes and Germans?

  • Bilwick

    As a libertarian (one of those weirdoes who believe their lives belong to themselves and not “the Hive”) I’ve been saying for years that “liberals” (i.e., tax-happy, State-fellating coercion junkies) are the New Tories. Their attitude to the Tea Party is just an example of that; “Oh, dear, those dreadful peasants–don’t they know their place?” Good to get confirmation.

  • R.A. Curtis

    Actually, I tend to compare Obama with Charles I, for several reasons. And Charlie the First cost my family money (that weaselly “Ship Money” wheeze of his…)

  • RebeccaH

    Barack Obama is a Tory? So … in other words, European.

  • don

    Interesting. Were not the Tories (Whigs) able to rule India and India’s caste system with a handful of men making up the East Indian Company and make a profit of it? Maybe it’s that old time British colonialism that Obama and Sullivan has in mind as the model for today’s Iraq and Afghanistan and for going back to the moon and on to mars? Apparently deep down in his dark heart, Obama is really a New Age imperialist?

  • Matthew Hall

    By guilds he means law, academia and medicine and their attemtps to protect their professions and institutions from change.

  • davelnaf

    Instead of the moderate and leftist ink stained scribes working up tendentious theories to explain why Obama is in the Oval Office it might be better for them to look at what he has said and done and the record isn’t pretty. If ever a case could be made for the discontinuation of a presidency Obama’s record in office has achieved the dubious distinction of being one of the best ever.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Richard:
    @33: right on about the travesty that democracy has become, though I’d use the word “oligarchy” rather than “aristocracy”. At least other Western “democracies” require a photo ID to vote, though.

    @30: presumably John Adams was praising the Roundheads, not the Tories/Cavaliers.

  • Tom

    @Thibaud:

    “To do an apples-to-apples comparison, these percentages need to be at least doubled to account for the fact that the statistical tallies EXCLUDE previous generations of non-white, non-German or -Swedish or – Dutch citizens of those countries.”

    Yes–all two generations thereof. And their social consensus may be fragmenting already.

    And in answer to your question, the American people, depending on your political opinions, elected George W. Bush/Barack Obama.

  • Ned

    If you like Obama so much, you are welcome to him. We’ll even pay the shipping charges. However, YOU will have to keep him. All sales final, no exchanges or returns.

  • An intriguing conceit – Obama the Tory. And a worthwhile romp through the history of Anglo-American politics. But I think the kind of European politician that Obama most resembles is a Social Democrat – and that is not intended as a criticism. I think the left of the Democratic party has long seen itself as pursuing an ‘on-ramp to Social Democracy’, unlike the Clinton/FDR wing of the party. I think the two recent controversial statements by Obama – ‘you didn’t build that’ and the idea that the public sector was fine AND that the public sector should be creating more jobs showed that Obama really does privilege government over the private sector. That way of thinking is a defining characteristic of Social Democracy. Among the many gradations of regulated capitalism that have succeeded in the 20th century, Social Democracy has been at the left limit of the balance between the public and private sectors. Previous commenters have correctly, in my view, pointed to the well run Social Democracies of northern Europe as alternative models. However, the The US has has always been different in that it has always given greater emphasis to the private sector and therefore defined the right edge of the successful continuum of regulated capitalism. In my view Obama has had the misfortune of being elected at a time when the public sector needs to be gingerly scaled back, not expanded. That’s why the extension of entitlements caused the country to say STOP in 2010. Losing the lower house in a parliamentary democracy like many in Northern Europe or here in Australia would have put Obama out of office two years ago. In today’s atmosphere, I find it difficult to see the Republicans losing control of the House so long as Obama is in office. Therefore the question swing voters are facing is whether or not they they think Romney might be able to do better.

  • Should I try? Aw, why not . . .

    It may be very comforting (or at least simplifying?) to presume that, of all the various ways a nation might go to insure against decline and debility, there is one sure way NOT to go. That there is at least one all-but-foolproof NEGATIVE model for any modern industrial nation striving to avoid decadence, torpor and stagnation: namely, interwar Britain. And in particular the genteel One Nation Toryism that allegedly defined and dominated the whole national ethos of the period. From which, in turn, one might ALMOST conclude: the farther your country departs, in its notions of human dignity and freedom, civility and mutual obligation, from Stanley Baldwin’s “Christian gentleman’s” Britain, why, the more assured you are of success – perhaps even dominance? – in a rough-and-tumble, no-holds-barred world.

    Never mind, of course, that the price of such success, or “competitiveness,” might well have been a Britain not only far more collaborative with, say, a Hitlerist Germany, or a Tojoist Japan (or even a Stalinist Russia?), but far more imitative of at least certain of the more dynamic, anti-traditional and socially disruptive features of those regimes. Never mind, too, that any number of British fascist sympathizers and fellow-travelers, both Right and Left, not only loathed the quaint, “charming” Britain of Waugh’s despair as the very pit of decadence; they also regarded British resistance to German domination of Europe as crowning proof of the decay’s extent. Indeed, considering what massive departures were made from any standard of Baldwinian decency by just about every fascist government of the period, you might ALMOST – hewing a bit too closely to Prof Mead’s narrative – be inclined to think it was the “dynamic” Axis Powers that won the war.

    OR ELSE, conversely, you might think it was the ultramodern Germany of the period – the one that pioneered the Bauhaus tradition celebrating the “inhuman” dynamism of modern, mass-produced industrial design – that stood firm against the seductions of militarism, dictatorship, and aggressive, “Darwinian” foreign policy. And that it was a Britain hopelessly infatuated with garden cities and rural handicrafts that, far from resisting fascism, not only succumbed to appeasement, but produced within itself – as did many or most Axis-allied countries – a parallel totalitarian social and political order glorifying change, modernization, elitism and contempt for democracy and “the masses.” Yet please note: By and large, this same nostalgic, rural beauty-worshiping Britain not only greeted fascist dictatorship with real horror from the start, but somehow managed to summon both the will and the strength to fight it. And in defense, of all things, of democracy.

    Nor is it fair to assume most British appeasers were One Nation conciliators and compromisers, with either a sentimental weakness for aristocracy, tradition and rural nostalgia, or a “noblesse oblige” heart for the poor and oppressed. Best known, of course, are what I like to call the “soft” appeasers, motivated chiefly by FEAR of what Germany-with-Hitler was capable of (partic. in terms of aerial warfare) – Halifax, Baldwin, Chamberlain, etc. But there also“hard” appeasers, driven principally by FAITH in what Germany was capable of, with or without Hitler (whom, even if they detested him, they considered scarcely able to obstruct progress for very long: after all, what was Germany – at least so long as she was free of external interference or constraint – if not the very apotheosis of progress?). A number of these latter were not only confirmed Germanophiles but positively liked many aspects of the Nazi regime. That arch-appeaser until at least 1939, Lord Rothermere of the “Daily Mail,” was hardly the sort of media baron to prefer Baldwinian quiet decency over competitive dynamism, in Britain or any other part of Europe. And what about that impassioned admirer and biographer of Lenin, and good-natured despiser of empire, monarchy and social deference, James Maxton of the Independent Labour Party – lover of “peace at any price” right on through the end of the war? What about Guy Aldred, anarcho-pacifist, fearless anti-government publisher, inveterate hater of all things royal and established, and, while no lover of Nazis, on the whole pretty solidly pro-German and anti-Soviet? Finally, what about Lloyd George, whose faith in Germany without Hitler was second to none throughout the interwar period? And whose faith in Germany WITH Hitler, following several meetings with him in the ’30s, was at times even stronger? (The mercurial Welshman had a brief “eye-opening” in the wake of Munich, only to revert to an even stranger mix of Germanophile faith and fear during the Blitz.) If ever a man had a vision of a more ungentlemanly, boisterous, dynamic Britain, it was David Lloyd George. Indeed that is a problem, I think, with many lovers of “highway truckstop” levels of dynamism and instability: They tend instinctively to appreciate a firm hand (Cromwell, anyone?), both within companies and without. And so are often about as likely to admire, make terms or even collaborate with dictators, autocrats and other great sifters and shifters of mankind – one man’s bully is another man’s innovator – as they are to confront or constrain them. In any case, which would you have preferred to be governing Britain right on up to the Churchill breakthrough – conciliatory “One Nation” soft appeasers, or “dynamic,” confrontational, “Thatcher”-like hard ones?

    Speaking of Churchill, I have no doubt that Mrs Thatcher being an MP at the time would have approved of and supported him. But would she as likely have approved two of the earliest and staunchest anti-appeasers (both in the game well before Churchill even knew it was afoot; he was too busy raising hell over India)? I’m thinking of Josiah Wedgwood, Liberal-cum-Labour aristocrat; and Morgan Philips Price, former radical Labourite and early Soviet visitor, then moderate Labour MP (read his speeches and comments in Hansard’s, 1935-1950: amazing stuff). Neither of which gentlemen, however left-leaning, could ever have been mistaken for being either anti-empire or anti-monarchy. As for the Right end of the spectrum, could Mrs Thatcher even have stomached Churchillian colleague Lord George Lloyd of Dolobran, diehard Tory, arch-imperialist, and fierce anti-Nazi at least as early as Churchill himself? I don’t think so. (Lloyd’s 1938 pamphlet “Leadership in Democracy” is a masterful expounding of one-nation Tory principles in the best Disraelian tradition; needless to say, while he admires entrepreneurs he doesn’t make them little gods, or worse, giant aristocrats.)

    It is true that the “country-garden” Britain of the 1st half of the 20th century needed a lot of help from the right sort of allies. In the final count, that is, it would have gone under without the rescuing support of “highway truckstop” America. But now I want you to imagine, if you can, a very different America being faced with a much earlier eruption on the European continent. Suppose that Bismarck had died in, say, the mid-1880s. And that he was followed by a far more globally ambitious, yet canny successor. One fully determined – and very wisely, too – not only to preserve the Iron Chancellor’s close network of alliances with Austria, Russia and Italy (perhaps taking especial care to draw Turkey into the web), but also to make a Napoleonic bid for domination of Western European. And that as the springboard for a final challenge to Britain’s empire and mastery of the seas. But now let’s contrast the, shall we say, far more authentically “truckstop” America of 1865-1900 with the, BY COMPARISON, rather more “country-garden” America of the first three quarters of the 20th century (and yes, I know I’m stretching an already broad-stroked – yet in its way brilliant and compelling – metaphor to its furthest limits). What sort of aid, if any, might the United States of Cleveland and Harrison have promised to Britain? Might it have been equally likely to have remained neutral? And what if it had chosen – at the opportune moment, of course (old Mother England being on her utterly final last legs) – to side with Germany?

    Obviously we can’t know whether a new series of Napoleonic wars would have issued, this time around, in a victory for the continental side – with the upshot now being not only British but American vulnerability to the inroads of a continental empire. I’m just very glad that, when it did come time to confront the mid-20th century’s Napoleon, we had a very different America in 1940 from that which prevailed c. 1880. Personally I’m more than grateful that both Britain’s and America’s leaders – whatever may have been their excesses of civility, gentlemanliness or commitment to fair play and good governance – grasped one point clearly: The very worst way to combat fascism was to fight totalitarian fire with fire. (“Oh, yeah right,” I can imagine a detractor arguing, “make everything a ‘reductio ad Hitlerum.’ Did it ever occur to you that if that dastardly Wilson hadn’t sided with Britain in WWI there would have BEEN no Hitler?” To which I can only reply: Indeed there wouldn’t. Instead of Hitler we’d very likely have had the vastly saner, more knowledgeable and more professional [besides being deeply anti-Semitic ] Ludendorff. Plus that master geopolitician Hans von Seeckt. Plus that great Bolshevik-expediter – and brilliant diplomatist – Brockdorff-Rantzau. Surveying that period, I can think of any number of prospective German overlords of Europe who’d have done a far more effective job of leveling and terrorizing the continent than the lunatic Nazis. And I’m sure you can too.)

    Professor Mead sometimes gives me the impression of speaking of the challenges we face, in this strange new century, ALMOST as if they were exclusively institutional, procedural, technological, and not also moral, religious and human. Or that, even if they’re both, most of our adaptations need to be on the former side, regardless of what may be the often unpleasant moral side-effects of those same adjustments. And if he did, who could blame him? Who could possibly have foreseen that values designed to make us more “fit” or vigorous or competitive can also – occasionally – issue in behaviors and attitudes that are self-absorbed, callously dismissive of human obligation and need, derisive of past wisdom or “antiquated” common sense, manipulative of ignorance, exploitative of weakness, ravenous for power or just plain mean? It would be much simpler, of course, if all our busy sociopaths were secular-minded. But some of them are not only fiercely religious, but fiercely determined to politicize – not to mention militarize – their religiosity. The fact is, we have certain folks in countries round the world today – and by no means all of them former Soviet-allied nations or countries otherwise corrupted by socialism – who profess to care deeply for the moral and religious nature of man. And yet for some reason their way of expressing that care has been known to involve the legal hounding and tormenting of half-witted young girls, and the burning alive of demented old men, for crimes of alleged sacrilege and blasphemy. On top of which, the very social elements that have both made possible and accelerated this climate of insanity, however “retrograde” they may otherwise be, so far don’t seem to have a Luddite bone in their bodies. If anything they seem not only fully determined to embrace, but fully capable of being enhanced by, all the uses and benefits of modern technology. And very entrepreneurially, in some cases.

    In short, we are challenged today by much more than the raging winds of technology. We’re confronted by the raging fires of indeed not one, but 3 distinct – though I fear by no means incompatible – nihilisms: religious; organizational (corporate, etc); and environmental. What they all have in common is the urge to subordinate (or even smother, if need be) individual human nature, human need, human creativity, human flourishing, to the supposed imperatives of something else. Something that can’t be kept waiting, and that under no circumstances will tolerate feebleness or failure. Something lauded as being superhuman, or transhuman, or posthuman – and so, by implication, worth much more than any of us mere individuals could ever be, however “holy,”“productive,” or “green.” The country-garden-variety US and British statesmen of the mid-20th century may have been very poorly attuned, by our current standards, to the demands of human dynamism, ambition, restlessness. But they were certainly well-alive, in the final count, to the requirements of human life, security and decency. Over the past decade we’ve seen the blustery, flailing attempts of one rather narrow type of America, busy moving at “warp-speed” (as Professor Mead has so aptly phrased it) into a Bold New World, to defend itself against an enemy unimaginable just 30 years ago. An enemy that seems to gain strength pace for pace with all our efforts at acceleration. (Honestly, what do we think we’re going to do, outrun them?) Nor is there any reason to suppose the latter two camps of nihilists – the organizational and environmental – will prove any less capable of “religious” levels of intensity and violence down the road. Indeed from what I hear tell they may already have started. And so my final question: Is it an even MORE bare-knuckled, brawling, “truckstop” America – or one that has more than a touch of the “country-garden” ethos about it – that will best enable us to defend our country and its PEOPLE? And not just in our usual flailing way, but wisely, sensibly, intelligently?

    Anyhow, thanks again for what is in many respects, in my opinion, a highly poetic, thought-provoking, even brilliant essay.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2017 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service
We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.