The election and reelection of Barack Obama have seemingly realized the progressive dream of transforming America from its traditional Constitutional order to one more similar to Europe’s––an activist rather than a limited federal government, one whose power and reach extend into the market economy, trump state sovereignty, and subject individuals to the ideological preferences and aims of the federal Leviathan and its managers. What is at stake today is the continuing dominance of these statist ideas.
Over the past six years Obama and progressives partially achieved some of these progressive goals. Through legislation, executive orders, like-minded judges, and the interpretations of law by anonymous, unelected federal functionaries, Obama’s government has intervened in the automobile, finance, health care, and housing industries; hampered the explosive growth of the energy industry by reducing development on federal lands and waging a war on carbon; encroached on the states’ sovereignty through the regulatory powers of the Environmental Protection Agency and the renegade Department Of Justice; and intruded into civil society and individual rights on issues such as contraception, traditional marriage, freedom of speech, and religious freedom.
Worse yet, the old progressive goal of redistributing property has accelerated over the last 6 years. Entitlement spending has exploded, increasing along the way the wider regulatory scope and intrusiveness of the federal agencies created to manage this transfer of wealth. Social welfare spending now approaches a trillion dollars a year, people claiming Social Security Disability insurance have increased from 3 million in 1980 to 11 million today, and the number of people getting food stamps has doubled to 46 million just over the last decade. These trillions in transfer payments represent a massive redistribution of property. According to the Tax Foundation, America’s highly progressive tax system in 2012 resulted in about $2 trillion being redistributed from the top 40% of taxpayers to the bottom 60%.
The increase in entitlement spending, however, has also required much higher budget deficits and an unprecedented peacetime increase in the national debt, which now stands at $17 trillion dollars, up from $10 trillion in 2008. From 2009-2012, Obama’s budgets averaged deficits of $1.25 trillion. This year’s deficit is projected to be around half a trillion dollars, but according to the CBO, deficits will return to the trillion-dollar mark from 2022-2024. And don’t forget, the costs of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and interest on the debt are projected to devour all tax revenues by 2030. This means that either taxes will have to be raised to ruinous levels, or even more money borrowed to finance the unfunded liabilities of those programs, which have been estimated at anywhere between $123 and $200 trillion. Ancient tyrants redistributed the property of just the living; the modern welfare state has managed to redistribute the property of the unborn citizens who will inherit this debt.
Both parties bear some responsibility for this mess, testimony to just how engrained the entitlement mentality and the acceptance of redistributing property are in today’s America. Yet the last 6 years have seen unprecedented expansions of this process, and demonization of those like Paul Ryan who propose even modest steps towards defusing this ticking fiscal bomb.
In foreign policy as well, Obama and the Democrats have shaped their actions according to the quasi-pacifist, “postmodern” ideology that distrusts using American power to protect Americans’ security and promote their interests. Instead, an America guilty of historical crimes, oppression, and exploitation must subordinate its power to transnational institutions like the U.N., and rely on diplomacy and multilateral coalitions that advance international interests, including those of our enemies and rivals, at the expense of America’s.
Thus Obama started his presidency with an apology tour, led from behind in Libya, and oversaw dangerous reductions in the military budget. He has abandoned Iraq, and left its fragile political order, purchased with the blood and money of Americans, stranded between the Iranian rock and the ISIS hard place. His feckless overthrow of Libya’s Gaddafi has left that country a petri dish of jihadist bacilli, leading to the murder of an American diplomat and 3 brave warriors, and flooding the Middle East with weapons plundered from Gaddafi’s arsenals. He has compromised and betrayed America’s allies like Egypt and Israel, and groveled before her enemies like Iran. His empty bluster on Syria and Ukraine has emboldened bloody tyrants like Assad and geopolitical rivals like Russia. All the while he and his foreign policy team have talked and talked and talked, a spectacle of gutless, futile diplomacy redolent of England’s in the 20’s and 30’s.
Yet all these actions and policies both domestic and foreign reflect a worn-out philosophy repeatedly repudiated by history. The progressive worldview of the Democrats is founded on the idea that increasing knowledge of the natural world, human nature and behavior, and social and political reality can drive human progress and improvement. Nature, people, and society thus can be directed towards the creation of an idealized world in which the tragic constants of human life––physical want, suffering, oppression, violence, brutality, inequality, and injustice––are eliminated. Just give power to the “technicians of the soul,” as Stalin called them, the “technocrats” who possess this knowledge, and they will rearrange society in a way that achieves utopia––once, of course, religion, custom, and traditional wisdom are swept away lest their irrational prejudices and superstitions like “sin” and “good and evil” block humanity’s march to the brave new world. All that is needed is to increase the coercive power of the state in order to institute reforms and remove any obstacles to the efforts of technical elites to achieve these utopian boons.
The progressives’ hostility to free-market capitalism and fondness for dirigiste economic polices, for example, illustrate these philosophical assumptions. To progressives, “income inequality” and economic winners and losers are intolerable injustices reflecting not the variations of talent, virtue, hard work, and luck among individuals, but capitalism’s rigged rules and privileging of profit over people. Use the power of the state to amend those rules and to intervene in the market through regulations, tax policy, and the redistribution of property, and you can eliminate those injustices. Thus Obama’s “You didn’t build that” and “When you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody” rhetoric, recently endorsed by Hillary Clinton’s similar claim, “Don’t let anybody tell you that it’s corporations and businesses that create jobs.” Thus the relentless public demonization of the wealthy and corporations, and the attempt to use regulatory and taxing power to siphon off their capital and put it to achieving the progressive vision of “social justice.”
What is at stake this election day is whether or not Americans will reject this ideology and the policies it creates. It is about starting to restore to our politics prudence, humility, respect for traditional wisdom, and common sense. It is about recognizing that an irreducibly complex and quirky human nature and behavior are not infinitely plastic and so cannot be shaped according to the abstract visions of technical elites armed with an intrusive power that compromises our freedom. It is about accepting the tragic truth that the freedom to choose how to shape one’s life means that bad choices will create bad consequences, and so individual freedom cannot exist without individual responsibility for those bad choices. It is about accepting that suffering and failure are not unjust anomalies to be engineered from human existence, but non-negotiable givens of human life, and thus will never be eliminated, but only mitigated. And it is about remembering that every attempt to create heaven on earth has had to diminish the people’s freedom, and sometimes has demanded their lives.
In short, what is at stake is the return to the ideas about human nature and existence upon which the Founders built the American order and its guarantee of the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.