An apocryphal tale tells of an American who claimed to own George Washington’s axe. “Three times,” he exclaims, the axe has “had its handle replaced, and twice had its head replaced!”
This is a joke that has been rendered in more serious form by philosophers throughout the ages — perhaps most famously in Plutarch’s Life of Theseus — and it may be time now to consider it in relation to the United States. People and countries change, as they must. But, as with Washington’s axe, to change too much is to invite the possibility not merely of alteration, but of replacement. Predicated, as it is, on an established set of principles — rather than merely on geographical or racial fact — America could presumably reach a point at which it could no longer usefully be called America. How close to that point are we?
I was born in England in 1984, two days before Ronald Reagan was elected to a second term. As a small child, I watched the Space Shuttle take off from Cape Canaveral in Florida. I had an Apollo 11 lunchbox. With varying levels of awareness, I saw the United States defeat Communism, come to Kuwait’s aid in 1991, and rise to hyperpower status. During the 1990s, I watched in awe as Silicon Valley revolutionized the world. Once, my father told me that the difference between the average Briton and the average American was that a Briton looks at a man driving a Ferrari and thinks, “What a b*****d,” while an American thinks, “I’ll be him one day.” This my father considered a great virtue — as do I. By the time that I was ten years old, I didn’t just think that America was the world’s great hope, I knew it.
On frequent visits across the pond, I saw little to disabuse me of these notions. America was just different: There was no crushing class system, and it had a genuine and unique scope for immigrants to integrate fully, and the virtue of living under the protection of the greatest constitution in the history of the world. There was opportunity, too. Christopher Hitchens, by no means short of talent, once wrote that he had been compelled to move to America because “life in Britain had seemed like one long antechamber to a room that had too many barriers to entry.” Britain treated me well in a great many ways, but I understand what Hitchens meant: America is mercifully lacking in gatekeepers.
Inevitably, this translates into politics. British elections are mean-spirited and meretricious affairs that reveal what the country has become in its post-imperial form. In them, the focus flits between mercenary discussion of what the government is going to give the people and petty bickering over inconsequential details such as which schools the candidates went to and how much money they have. Few principles are at stake because classical liberalism is largely dead, so debates ultimately boil down to the question of who is going to run the welfare system more efficiently. The candidates’ arguments are full of nebulous, slippery words, such as “fairness” and “investment” — and the never-ending substitution of the word “community” for “government.” You would never hear Kennedy’s famous “Ask not what your country can do for you” line in a British political context because nobody would understand what he was talking about. Only in America. Anyone can make it there!
But, consider this: A president of the United States just ran a reelection campaign based on the promise of government largess, exploitation of class division, the demonization of success, the glorification of identity politics, and the presumption that women are a helpless interest group; and he did so while steadfastly refusing to acknowledge the looming — potentially fatal — crisis that the country faces. And it worked.
Worse, as David Harsanyi has observed, “the president’s central case rests on the idea that individuals should view government as society’s moral center, the engine of prosperity and the arbiter of fairness.” This stunted and tawdry vision of American life was best summed up in his campaign’s contemptible Life of Julia cartoon, which portrayed the American Dream as being impossible without heavy cradle-to-grave government, and in which the civic society that Tocqueville correctly saw as the hallmark of the republic was wholly ignored — if not disdained outright. “Government is the only thing we all belong to,” declared a video at the opening of the Democratic National Convention. In another age, this contention would have been met with incredulity and confusion; in ours, it was cheered.
So, too, were the two central achievements of Obama’s first term: the spending of an unprecedented amount of borrowed money on the president’s political allies, and the turning of the health-care system over to the bureaucracyin a “reform” that, inter alia, stipulates that to be alive is to owe something to Washington. The latter move involves a claim on the people that no free government should ever make, and that no American government has ever made before. For these grave missteps, the president suffered an epic loss in Congress in 2010. The revolt looked promising, but then — for whatever reasons — he was reelected. Now, Obama has the chance to remake the Supreme Court and remake America’s Constitution, too. Who doubts he will take it?