To be honest, I don’t understand what ultra-conservatives in Congress want, except I know I don’t want it. They seem to want the way things used to be, without having any critical sense of how terrible some of those things were—not least for many intellectually ordinary people like them. They hate the idea of universal health care, seem silent on the issue of social security, but have firm opinions on social values like abortion, marriage equality, think they are being originalistly patriotic when they oppose taxes but need taxes to fight their wars and pay veterans and police, revere guns because they say they hate lawlessness, believe in the Constitution but are prepared to fight a revolution that might well dispense with core parts of it.
That should make me a liberal except I am not sure where progressives are going, and every leftward destination—whether it’s legalization of gay marriage, non-interventionism in global affairs, anti-business, or at least anti unbridled corporatism, or a penitent attitude towards the American past seems not to be leftward enough.
There was a time, in the days of real European socialism, when even our cousins the Brits could look at American politics as a boring desert of non-choice between political parties—“not a dime’s worth of difference” was the motto of every election between 1950 and 1968. Kennedy ran further to the right of Nixon on the issue of Communism. Both parties seemed to feel that women had the uninfringeable right to vote and that with that right all change was possible. But a large chunk of both parties would not have included in that change the right to abortion or to marry someone you love, irrespective of sex or race. We knew who our friends were, what our enemies wanted–world domination—and where we stood in the world—on top. Vietnam changed minds. Civil rights and the Women’s Movement changed the rest. As European politics became as dull as American politics used to be, thanks to the overarching dullness of the EU, as enemies morphed into new challenges–with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Opening Up policy of China after 1982, America could only turn inward. When it did, it discovered that it didn’t like what it saw. We had met the enemy, as Walt Kelly famously captioned, and He is us.
Its defining ideology had disappeared. For a century almost—the twentieth—that ideology had been a robust deregulated capitalism supported by the truths of the Christian religion and superior military strength to defend it, and a healthy sense of wealth and gun ownership (but within the bounds of common sense and civic responsibility) as normativity. Even poor people supported the idea that the United States was not, like these puling, tiny European democracies, a giveaway country teetering on the edge of extinction with its entitlement programs. In America, we work without a net and if you fall from the high wire to the ground, you are a victim of the choices you made. Just like Calvin pbuh taught us.
A part of that ancient certainty is what we now see in the lives of the gunners and the Biblers. They miss it. They want it back. They are in mourning for the self-confidence America once thought it possessed among the nations of the world—Redeemer Nation. The City on the Hill. Exceptional America. Don’t Tread on me.
When America had the money, the military and the mission—no matter how ineffective, inarticulate, or venal its leaders—the ordinary family felt safe and secure in their lives because their country stood for the same things they stood for—those superman values—Truth, Justice and the American way (subject to exegesis but not too much), the Platonic Verities on main Street. But primatial though some conservatives may be, they are hearing the right notes right when it comes to the loss of that certainty. They have the right idea about America struggling for identity. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the headline was America, the World’s Sole Superpower (subtext We Win). The Russian humiliation in Afghanistan, aided and abetted by American support for the Taliban freedom fighters (who cared if they hated women and loved unschooled children: they hated the Russians more), seemed to confirm that the United States could now pretty much buy what it wanted.
What it did not see was an emergent China, that rightly asked the question, in the wake of the Soviet collapse, how can we turn this failed experiment called Marxism into a triumph for the Chinese people. What the United States did not see is that a billion people with the strongest sense of ethnic, linguistic and family identity in the world could decide to beat America at its own game—if calculations turn out to be right—in less than fifty years.
The Chinese will out-produce, out trade- and out-consume America using a system of tightly regulated, state-serving capitalism that is jokingly referred to as “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” It is capitalism based not on the market but on the expectation that loyal Chinese will work hard, spend freely, and consume cheap and middle-range goods (especially electronics) in massive quantities. They will buy high end Korean and American phones, computers, and electronics and they will manufacture and sell their own brands alongside them. Lenovo anyone?
America can argue its case in forums like the World Trade Organization; it and its partners (if it has any left) can brings cases, file complaints against unfair practices, fret over currency manipulation and complain that China falsifies its statistics (it does); but in the long term, it is the sheer size of China that will bring the United States down to size, all puny 317,000,000 of it. Besides, why worry about the WTO and IMF when you can create a powerful Trans-Pacific Trade Alliance with yourself at the center?
The best economists and political observers know all of this; but they are less astute at connecting it to the effect it has on ordinary Americans: the ones who don’t own stock, don’t save much money; don’t travel outside the boundaries of the continental United States—and probably think that China is an old fashioned Communist country that is still struggling along under the burden of its communist system.
Not much public education has been done to familiarize Americans with the new China. Consequently Americans are not aware of how China can beat them at their own economic game. But its an easy win. Wealthy Americans (outside Hollywood anyway) make money through savings and investment. That is why the stock market is hitting all time highs. Ordinary Americans have no money left over and have been engineered to think that during slow economic times they need to be careful with their money. Shopping stalls. Businesses suffer. Small manufacturing firms collapse.
In China on the other hand, with its tightly regulated economy, only a small minority are making money from the stock and investment game. But the average former Maoist now believes that it is his patriotic duty to spend money in fair weather and foul, to buy and buy. So buy he does—in stores, online, in the street, in malls and in alleyways. The purchasing power of the Chinese population is so awesome that a Financial Times article a few months ago suggested that using PPP as an index puts China in front of the USA already as the world’s largest economy. Note—not the richest country, or the world’s most stable economy—but China is banking on the fact that purchasing power will eventually buy wealth, stability and a competitive edge that the United States will not be able to challenge. This is the China that many Americans do not see or worry about, a China in which doing one’s duty has moved from having a bicycle to buying a car and where private wealth has been converted from being a social taboo to a social benefit to the state.
China is still a great mystery. Her desires and purposes are not clear. But if I had to guess, I would say that it is a dangerous purpose. Her recent propaganda drive has been to appear a warm and cuddly bear, wanting a cuddle after a two century nap. But there are three things that china will not change, whatever system it finds useful in winning the current competition. It is anti-freedom. It is anti democratic and it is anti-individualistic. China has not escaped the collectivist mentality that comes not from one=party rule but one –family rule, with over 90% of the whole 1.3 billion person population being cut from the same Han genome.
It amuses people that in their attempt to make Barack Obama a dictator, his enemies (opponents is too weak a word for their dislike) sometimes depict him as Hitler and sometimes as Mao. It may be merely academic to point out that national socialism and communism were diametrically opposed systems, since in the long run they each produced their own version of dictatorship and totalitarian rule of the state. It is academic because the effects of any political ideology are first to sustain power, and it can only do that by reducing the rights of the people to a right of general consent: the press will be restricted, free speech and dissent will be limited, education will be transformed, the good and image of the state will govern all foreign relations, and in the long run any challenge to these sustaining norms will be met with the violence normally reserved for an aggressor: people will be reprimanded, humiliated, arrested, executed.
The tyranny of the right, represented by such savants as Senator Ted Cruz, see any attempt to curb gun ownership as an infringement on a constitutional right to own and carry a gun. The tyranny of the left proclaims that the government is not entitled to any secrets—not even in the case of national security, which they see as a mask for intrusions into the private lives and transactions of ordinary citizens. Both of these worshiping groups have their tabernacles and Meccas; the First and the Second Amendment. Neither cares very muvh about the others god.
And neither pays very much attention to the fact that they are able to carry on their vituperation under the shield of guarantees of personal liberty and free and open discussion that are almost unthinkable outside the West, and even unusual within the West. America has a failed tradition of propaganda, a lively tradition of self-mockery and self-flagellation; it came with us from Europe, but not coincidentally because most of the founding immigrants and colonists were critics of the regimes of the homeland: the monarchy, the established churches, the social policies, the poor laws, the taxes on inheritance. We were formed as a country of critics and malcontents—a very good thing if you want to cultivate independence and self-reliance, but not so good if you need popular assent to get things done that can benefit the whole society.
Our enemy is a country with a very limited==virtually non-existent– tradition of dissent, political or cultural. The hardwiring of the Chinese psyche goes back to Confucius’s idea that the state is the extension of the natural family and to disrespect it is to disrespect the ancestors and to hate your father and mother. Even in periods when Confucius’ iideas were considered retardant to progress, as during the Cultural Revolution, his endemic effect has never waned. Patriotism and filial piety are part of the same construct. In America and Europe, as filial piety has waned over the last two hundred years and was never truly Asian in heft to begin with, the state has become that provisional construct which can do no right except by accident, from time to time, to everyone’s surprise.
Americans can bleat on about America’s once-greatness; Europeans, with their more pronounced cynicism, can rant about their uncertain future as a stewing pot of unmelded national identities and conflicting interests. While the tyranny of the right tugs one way and the tyranny of the left at the other sleeve, things will stumble on.
But mission, money and minds are under attack from a nation that is not immersed in self-doubt, regales in its “5000 Year Civilization” but is determined by using stratagems and learning from the mistakes of its anguished opposites in the West what mistakes not to make in pursuing Honorable Glorious Ends..