COLUMN: PRESIDENTIAL RHETORIC SHOWS THE ANTIDEMOCRATIC STRAIN IN PROGRESSIVISM
BY: Matthew Continetti
One of President Obama’s most annoying habits is his tendency to mistake the 300 million people of the United States for soldiers in an army charged with national reconstruction. He, of course, is the general.
The tic is often barely perceptible, revealed subtly in those moments when Obama decries partisan politics for interfering with his plans; when he speaks of coming together for the common purpose of redistributing private income to—sorry, “investing” taxpayer dollars in—Democratic client groups; and during the rare occasions when he feels it necessary to address the nation on matters of national security and war.
Here is the president in August 2010, announcing the end of combat operations in Iraq: “And so at this moment, as we wind down the war in Iraq, we must tackle those challenges at home with as much energy, and grit, and sense of common purpose as our men and women in uniform who have served abroad.”
The way to “honor” American heroes who serve overseas, Obama said, is “by coming together, all of us, and working to secure the dream that so many generations have fought for—the dream that a better life awaits anyone who is willing to work for it and reach for it.”
What does “coming together” mean? Why, silly, it means passing Obama’s domestic agenda: more money for education and job training and to “jumpstart industries that create jobs, and end our dependence on foreign oil,” and just happen to be owned by donors to the president’s campaigns. Missing from the 2010 speech was a line saying the path to heroism is through support for the Buffett Rule, probably because David Axelrod hadn’t yet come up with that particular gimmick.
The nation-as-army metaphor reemerged, dramatically, as the 2012 campaign began. Jonah Goldberg was justifiably disgusted at the message of this year’s State of the Union Address, in which the president suggested that Americans as a whole might take their cues from uniformed soldiers who are “not consumed with personal ambition,” “don’t obsess over their differences,” “focus on the mission at hand,” and “work together.”
Obama finds inspiration in the most hierarchical and selfless elements of military life. “Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example,” he said. We imagine all of us would have to buy health insurance. Taxes and spending would be high. A new Volt would sit in every driveway.
The commander-in-chief issued additional orders in recent days. When he unveiled his latest campaign slogan Monday, he told his supporters, and presumably the rest of the country, that it is time to march “Forward,” lemming-like, off a cliff.
And on Tuesday, in the televised address at the close of his targeted Afghan night raid, Obama challenged his audience to “summon that same sense of common purpose” one finds in “our soldiers, our sailors, our airmen, Marines, Coast Guardsmen, and civilians in Afghanistan,” and “redouble our efforts to build a nation worthy of their sacrifice.”
Obama’s social militarism inverts civil-military relations in a democratic republic. Traditionally—and one suspects that this is still the case for practically all servicemen—men and women join the Armed Forces because they believe America is worthy of their duty and protection. But Obama seems to suggest that, sorry, we are not quite there yet. The America that actually is “worthy of their sacrifice” has not come into existence. It exists “forward,” somewhere in the future. We must bring it into being by emulating the self-sacrificing troops, by suppressing our ambition and disagreement and differences, by “focusing on the mission” of building our country on a New Foundation.
The problems with this mindset are obvious. Obama has it totally backwards. The greatness of our troops derives from the fact that they sacrifice so the American people can enjoy their constitutionally protected liberty to pursue happiness in manifold ways. What the soldiers are protecting—and what the president swears to uphold and defend—does not exist in the future but was ratified more than 200 years in the past: The Constitution of the United States, whose separation of powers, federalism, and checks and balances protect the liberties defined as self-evident in the Declaration of Independence. These documents may be old and sometimes “confusing,” but they have served our country admirably and are the reason America is exceptional in a way that England and Greece are not.
Nor is a continent-spanning economy something that you command like an army, especially if it is a more-free-market-than-not economy with established property rights and the rule of law. Free economies fuel prosperity by relying on the inspiration, innovation, investment, consumption, labor, and trial and error of hundreds of millions of individuals making independent decisions, not all of which conform with what liberals in the press and politics currently view as “rational.”
A nation, a free nation, is not an army. The citizens of a free nation do not always share consumer preferences or a sense of common purpose. Like a good jobs czar, GE’s Jeff Immelt may want all American to “root” for his company and do what they can to help it succeed, but Americans still have every right to take their business elsewhere. There is something undemocratic in thinking that one should stop squabbling, strap on their boots, and get to work for Obama. One would do that only if the questions surrounding public life and public policy are settled. But they are not settled—not at all. Obama acknowledges as much when he laments he is not president of China or when he says that bypassing Congress and changing the laws “on my own is very tempting.”
In his likening of the nation to an army, Obama once again reduces the conflict between conservatism and liberalism to its core. The goal of modern liberalism, wrote Leo Strauss, “may be said to be the universal and classless society or, to use the correction proposed by Kojève, the universal and homogenous state of which every adult human being is a full member.” That sounds very much like membership in a battalion.
Against this, modern conservatives propose the goal of a constitutional federal republic, where the equal protection of natural rights necessarily will result in inequalities of property or achievement simply because men have different skills and talents. “Conservatives look with greater sympathy than liberals on the particular or particularist and the heterogeneous,” Strauss wrote. We are more likely to wish to preserve our differences, in the knowledge that the liberal project of uniformity is undesirable and unfeasible. We are the conscientious objectors to Obama’s forward march. And we are not alone.