Magazine article The American Prospect

The War on America

Magazine article The American Prospect

The War on America

Article excerpt

In 1885, the year Johannes Brahms finished his Fourth Symphony, the German lands were the heart of European civilization. German was spoken in a thousand-mile belt extending from Konigsberg (now Russia) to Strasbourg (now France). Germany, displaying the finest in music, science, and engineering, was overtaking Britain as the leading industrial power.

Modern and cultivated, 19th-century Germans remained alarmingly backward in one fatal respect. In contrast to most of the West, republican constitutionalism in the German principalities was feeble and stunted. Liberalism had only a brief, shallow vogue. In political economist Albert Hirschman's formulation, passions rather than interests were the currency of public and private discourse. German civic institutions were far too weak to broker irreconcilable passions into national consensus. As we know, this hole in the German version of the Enlightenment would have catastrophic global consequences.

The United States, meanwhile, had constructed a constitution that carefully balanced constraints on tyranny with a state strong enough to govern. Winning majorities did not treat losing minorities as traitors; the loyal opposition would play a constructive role and govern another day. Religion, the object of brutal state promotion and suppression in Europe, was kept in a private realm, with the result that Americans were the most religious of peoples. Civic republicanism--the active engagement of the citizenry in the business of self-government--flourished.

America and its Constitution, of course, were works in progress. Still to be engaged after 1789 were the blight of slavery, the casualties of the Industrial Revolution, the periodic financial panics and depressions. Although the Constitution's bias against action was a particular challenge in emergencies, government nonetheless took on expanded responsibilities beginning in the Franklin Roosevelt era, with the broad consent--even acclaim--of the governed.

TODAY, AMERICA feels more like 19th-century Germany. Contending interests cannot be brokered. Passions trump reason. Faith overrules science. An ordinary policy difference is a Kulturkampf, casually but vehemently branded as treason. One of our two major parties has turned nihilist, giddily toying with default on the nation's debt, reveling in the dark pleasures of a fiscal Walpurgisnacht. Government itself is the devil.

Though the tea-stained Republican Party and its allies on the Roberts Court claim fealty to the Constitution of Madison and Hamilton, their own weak- government constitution is whatever they deem convenient. …

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