Twilight of the Republic?

Peter Jones

A series of articles, just since late 2006, wonder seriously if America’s soul – its character and shared values – dropped over a tipping point. Each of these are from a different perspective, revealing an interconnected complexity of problems, even if each takes a single focus. These underlying concerns have been building since 2001:

Since 2001, what have these old white guys with bad haircuts done, in secret, to what was once the most-respected nation? What kind of government has actually emerged now to take the place of a democratic republic? What are the possibilities for citizen engagement in their own democracy, and are we up to the job of creating one?

Inside, looking out at the mess we’ve made. Andrew Basevich asks in his Commonweal essay, a section of which I’ve fair-used here, the question titling this post.

A serious attempt to pacify the Islamic world means the permanent militarization of U.S. policy. Almost inevitably, it will further concentrate authority in the hands of an imperial presidency.
This describes the program of the “faster, please” ideologues keen to enlarge the scope of U.S. military action. To paraphrase Che Guevara, it is a program that calls for “one, two, many Iraqs,” ignoring the verdict already rendered by the actually existing Iraq. The fact is that events there have definitively exposed the very real limits of American hard power, financial reserves, and will. Leviathan has shot his wad.

Seeking an escape from our predicament through further expansion points toward bankruptcy and the dismantling of what remains of the American republic. Genuine pragmatism-and the beginning of wisdom-lies in paying less attention to “the way that they live” and more attention to the way we do. Ultimately, conditions within American society determine the prospects of American liberty. As early multiculturalist Randolph Bourne observed nearly a century ago, ensuring that authentic freedom will flourish at home demands that we attend in the first instance to “cultivating our own garden.”

Will we recognize the US when Iraq is finished with us? In the past, we have ignored reflection and bypassed the opportunities to learn from mistakes. With a real war debt US $2T, we will not have the luxury of “moving on.” If you have ever been in debt, you may recall there’s interest to be paid. How much, and how long?

Outside, looking in. Jan Morris, British historian and writer, writes in the Guardian: Once the most beloved country in the world, the US is now the most hated. You have to read this just for the comments, if not the (actually hopeful) argument she makes in the editorial piece:

Perhaps, with a future new president already champing at the bit, we are about to witness its rebirth. As a foreigner I am immune to the rivalries or seductions of American party politics, but I have loved the old place for 60 years, and I simply pray for an American leader to give us back its baraka, as the Arabs say – nothing to do with religion or economics or power or even ideology, but the gift of being at once blessed and blessing.

Of course nobody can claim that the old dreams of America were ever perfectly fulfilled. They often let us down. They were betrayed by the national reputations for crime, corruption, racism and rampant materialism. … Nobody’s perfect, still less any republic.

But I think it is true that only in our time has the American Idea lost its baraka. A generation or two ago, most of us, wherever we lived, loved the generous self-satisfaction of it, if not in the general, at least in the particular. The GI was not then a sort of goggled monster in padded armour, but a cheerful fellow chatting up the girls and distributing candy not as a matter of policy, but out of plain goodwill – everyone’s friendly guy next door. … one could watch the lachrymose patriotic rituals of America – the hand on heart, the misty-eyed salute to the flag – with more affection than irony.

These are not political impressions as much as they are values impressions, which is why they’re more important. Values shifts endure long after the crises that inspired them – because my parents grew up as Depression-era kids, I learned to respect neighbors, saving, and preparing for the future.  That may be way old-school, but your personal values don’t change every month. Organizational values change slowly – a national culture’s values change very slowly.

Values are not political ideology, left or right – but most of us would not remember this, since our values have become as mediated as our political experience. Most Americans are working too hard (“staying employed”) to particpate in our own cultural and democratic renewal. By the time we’re home, what left for us to engage in our community or national issues in a meaningful way? We leave the mangle of real participation to the fanatics and the heartbroken, and then we wonder why our laws do not reflect our values.