Peter Thiel gave an interesting speech endorsing Donald Trump. Many people are very unhappy about the endorsement. I am ambivalent about this aspect, because it is beyond my poor powers of calculation to determine which of the worst pair of major party presidential candidates in American history would do the most long-term damage to the republic. But I disagree strongly with the theme of his speech—that what American needs is to become a “normal country.”
What Thiel seems to mean is that America should resemble most other nations, which are less interventionist in foreign affairs and whose citizens see themselves as acting out of interests rather than some set of unique principles. Becoming a normal nation in this respect would not only represent a change from America’s historic role in the world but be against our long-term interests.
The United States is a very unusual, indeed extraordinary nation, because it is founded on principles rather than ethnicity or conquest. And its principles were mostly fine classical liberal ones. That has made it look and behave very differently from other nations. For instance, it has not had as large a welfare state as other industrial nations or even a socialist party. One of my greatest fears is that this election is making it more “normal” in this respect.
The Republican standard-bearer is not trying to trim our burgeoning entitlements; the Democratic candidate, now influenced by the socialist Left of her party, wants substantially to increase them. Insofar as citizens see themselves as part of a “normal nation” rather than one dedicated to principles of liberty, the United States will decline, as the ever-larger entitlement state creates economic stagnation and a war of all against all.
David Brooks is in an angry and spiteful mood. Perhaps he’s even getting to be a bit unhinged, as history is putting his vision of American conservatism onto its rubbish heap.
When I read the preface, I thought: What a great story awaits the reader. The authors of The Constitution: An Introduction, Michael Stokes Paulsen and Luke Paulsen, father and son, spent nine summer vacations together discussing the original Constitution and the Amendments. I wish I could have been privy to the conversations. Did the father ever say to the son, “you changed my mind on this point?” Did the son ever say to the father, “you changed my mind on that point?” After all, I think, the key to introducing America is by way of a dynamic conversation within and between the generations. Their aim is both lofty and restrained: to write an introductory book that is “rigorous, accurate, and scholarly” yet at the same time “brief and readable.” But they fall short.
Robert Nisbet was certainly a conservative theorist of some prominence, as Mike Rappaport indicates. Mike was picking up on Steve Hayward’s post, which called to task today’s “quantum conservatism” for its uncertainty principle. For good reason, Mike holds Nisbet as an exemplar of the differences between conservatives and libertarians. But like Tocqueville, whose insights his best work elaborated on, sociologist Nisbet overlooks the core of American politics, which is the Declaration of Independence. Unless conservatives are selective about what it is they are conserving, they are no better, theoretically, than the radicals they claim to be combating. And libertarians cannot claim to defend…
In politics, our myths are more important than our history. The stories that tell us who we are as a nation are the most powerful political tools in times of economic, military or cultural stress. Good or useful myths marshal populist anxieties, giving to people who are fearful of dispossession or political dislocation a story that simultaneously affirms their central role in this nation and explains the causes of their present turmoil. In 2008 the nation needed a useable myth that could tap into American populism and turn this potent political force into a conserving power. Obama’s myth has not created a sustainable narrative of America, but it might have weakened the very capacity of the nation to believe in and live as part of a better story of ourselves.
The closing of the XXX Olympic Games, in both French and English, reminds me of Charles Dickens who in the nineteenth century wrote famously about the Tale of Two Cities—Paris and London–separated by a channel of water. Paris was experiencing in 1789 the fervor of what Karl Marx was to later call “revolution in permanence,” and London was, following Edmund Burke, muddling through with reforms here and there. But the 2012 Olympics confirm that London, and not Paris, is the city of Europe. There are no longer two competing European tales.
But it would be wrong to conclude that the more sober tale of London has triumphed over the more intoxicating tale of Paris. It would be more accurate to say that the victory of London is the result of the ascendency of Parisian intoxication over the sobriety of the Londoner. What we witnessed at the closing of these games was not the display of good old-fashioned pomp and circumstance, or simply good old-fashioned British fun in the performance of Eric Idle’s famous Look on the Bright Side of Life skit. This was revolution in permanence. Or more delicately stated, Paris and London are now two cities with One Tale: democratic perfectionism.