One of my favorite topics around here is the domination of the Roundhead wing of the American ruling elite. In fact, the old Yankees are the ruling elite. It’s not just politics and finance, it is the general culture, but it is most obvious in politics. Southerners, for example, don’t have a prominent role in either party. Appalachia has no role and the southwest may as well not exist as far as Washington is concerned.
This Pat Buchanan column is a good example, I think. Buchanan is no one’s idea of a liberal, but he causally accepts a very Progressive idea that a nation must have a purpose, a spiritual purpose, that gives meaning to each and every citizen.
“If the Cold War is over, what’s the point of being an American?” said Rabbit Angstrom, the protagonist of the John Updike novels.
A haunting remark, since, for 40 years, America was largely united on the proposition that our survival depended upon our victory over communism in the Cold War.
We had a cause then. By and large, we stood together through the crises in the first decades of that Cold War–the Berlin blockade, Stalin’s atom bomb and the fall of China to Mao, the Korean War, the Hungarian revolution, the Cuban missile crisis, and on into Vietnam.
We accepted the conscription of our young men. We accepted wars in Asia, and, if need be, in Europe, to check the Soviet Empire.
Vietnam sundered that unity.
By 1967, the Gene McCarthy-Robert Kennedy wing of the Democratic Party had broken with the Cold War consensus. “We have gotten over our inordinate fear of communism,” said Jimmy Carter.
The Reagan Republicans and George H. W. Bush would pick up the torch and lead the nation to victory in the last decade of that Cold War that had been a defining cause of the American nation.
But when it was over in 1990, America was suddenly at a loss for a new cause to live for, fight for and, if need be, see its sons die for.
This national purpose stuff is playing with fire and something a good conservative, I think, would discourage. A whole lot of mischief has come from men on a mission. But, the assertion that America is a propositional nation held together by a shared national purpose is the dominant belief. Reagan talked about the city on the hill and Obama talked about transforming the world. Bush talked about spreading democracy to the savages.
This is an idea straight out of Puritan America. The religious fanatics that settled New England really thought they were building a new human society in God’s image, a light to lead the fallen world into the grace of God. The South never had these ideas, as the southern colonies were mostly business ventures that grew into colonies. Middle America was settled by continental refugees who just wanted to be left alone.
Of course, the assertion that America is a propositional nation sounds good until you think about it. After all, if anyone can be an America as long as they commit to the proposition, it means any American who does not accept the proposition can be tossed out. In other words, countries are just temporary arrangements that have no connection to biology, history or culture. Any group of fanatics with a goal can be a country!
Putting that aside, the whole idea of a national purpose strikes me as an idea conservatives would be wise to reject. The purpose of the state in a sensible society is to protect the interests of the citizens. It does that through the uniform enforcement of the law, the enforcement of contracts and the protection of private property. If the people need meaning in their life they can take up a hobby or join a church.
That does not mean conservatives should be isolationist or xenophobes. It’s just that the health and welfare of the rest of the world is the business of the rest of the world. No on likes a busy body and that’s what inevitably comes from this national purpose stuff. Americans become the world scolds, running around telling people how to live. That serves no one but the people in charge, who get grace on the cheap because someone else is paying the bill.