What Ails America?

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OCTOBER 28, 1967

What Ails America?

 

Contemplating the American scene today—the disarray of foreign and domestic policies, the violence from above and below, the decline of the public institutions, the disengagement of the citizens from the purposes of the government, the decomposition of those ties of trust and loyalty which link citizen to citizen and the citizens to the government—one is reminded of the other two great crises which similarly put into question the very identity of America: the crisis of the 186o’s and that of the 1930’s. However, a comparison among these three crises puts the peculiar gravity of the present one into stark relief.

The Civil War was a conflict between the two geographically defined, incompatible conceptions of the nature of American government and society, strengthened within their respective geographic areas by the very fact of conflict. That conflict, manifesting itself in military terms, could be, and was, settled by force of arms. The victory of the North restored and strengthened beyond challenge the unitary character of the American government and established in legal terms the equality and freedom of all American citizens. Yet it is the measure of the failure of Reconstruction that in actual terms the drastic inequality which it was one of the purposes of the Civil War to confine, if not eliminate, was preserved and even accentuated in its aftermath. While Lincoln proclaimed that this nation could not endure half free and half slave, that is exactly as it has endured.

The crisis of the 1930’s was similar to the present one in that it threatened to tear asunder the very fabric of American society. It was a crisis of the American purpose; it challenged the assumption of the uniqueness of America and suggested the failure of the American experiment. However, there were two escapes from the despair the crisis engendered: Marxism which drew the logical conclusion from the denial of American uniqueness and the apparent failure of the American experiment by promoting the class struggle which would transform the United States in the image of an equalitarian and libertarian Utopia, and the New Deal which affirmed the American promise through radical reform and creative reconstruction.

It is the distinctive and ominous mark of the present crisis that it has produced no remedy consonant with the ideals of America. It could not have produced one, for the inability to do so is an element of the crisis itself. The democratic state is in a blind alley, and so is American democracy. America, then, suffers from two types of ailments: those it has in common with the other major democracies, and those which are peculiarly its own.

The general crisis of democracy is the result of three factors: the shift of effective material power from the people to the government, the shift of the effective power of decision from the people to the government, and the ability of the government to destroy its citizens in the process of defending them.

Throughout history, the ultimate safeguard of the interests and rights of the people vis-a-vis the governmenthas been the ability of the people to overthrowthe government by force, that is, to make a revolution. This ability was a result of an approximately equal distribution of the means of physical violence between the government and the people. Before the beginning of the century, roughly speaking, the government met the people, barring superior organization and training, on a footing of approximate equality. Numbers, morale and leadership then decided the issue.

This approximately equal distribution of military power between government and people has in our age been transformed into the unchallengeable superiority of the government. The government has today a monopoly of the most destructive weapons of warfare, and due to their centralization, the government can acquire instantly a monopoly of the most effective means of transportation and communications as well. Against such a monopolistic concentration of superior power, the people can demonstrate, protest, and petition, but they cannot overthrow it through revolution. Thus as long as a democratic government can count upon the loyalty of the armed forces, it does not need fear the wrath of the people exploding in revolution. What it must guard against is to be voted out of office.

However, the voting process, both in the legislatures and in popular elections, has lost much of the bearing it formerly had upon the substantive decisions of the government. For the most important decisions the government must render today, in contrast to the past, are far removed both from the life experiences and the understanding of the man in the street. A century ago, the issue of slavery was susceptible to the judgment of all; today the issue of integrating the descendants of the slaves into American society presents itself as an intricate complex of technical problems, to which the man in the street may react emotionally but with which only experts in the education, housing, urban affairs, welfare, and so forth can competently deal. Thirty years ago, the American people and their elected representatives could still have a competent voice in determining the military policy of the United States; today Congress passes the $70 billion budget of the Departmentof Defense with essentially ritualistic scrutiny, givingthe experts the benefit of the doubt. The great issues of nuclear strategy, for instance, cannot even be the object of meaningful debate, whether in Congress or among the people at large, because there, can be no competent judgment without meaningful knowledge. Thus the great national decisions of life and death are rendered by technological elites, and both the Congress and the people at large retain little more than the illusion of making the decisions which the theory of democracy supposes them to make.

The great decisions which democratic governments are called upon to make are always justified in terms of the common good, that is, of the benefits which, at least in the long run, will accrue to the great mass of the citizens. Yet even where that justification obviously masks special interests or serves as an ideology for a particular class identifying its interests with those of the community, the claim had in the past a certain plausibility. For even a democratic government which only served the pursuit of the happiness of some of its citizens sought to preserve the life and liberty of most of them. In the last analysis, the performance of this elementary and vital function established in the eyes of the citizens the moral legitimacy of government. The government had a claim upon the citizens’ obedience and allegiance because, at the very least, it made it possible for them to live.

It is the distinctive characteristic of the nuclear age that this moral foundation upon which the legitimacy of democratic government has rested in the past is no longer as firm as it used to be. A government armed with nuclear, biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction still intends to protect the life of its citizens against a government similarly armed. But in truth it cannot defend its citizens, it can only deter the prospective enemy from attacking them. If deterrence fails and he attacks, the citizens are doomed. Such a government, then, bears the two faces of Janus: insofar as it is able to deter, it is still its citizens’ protector; if it fails to deter, it becomes the source of their destruction.

This new quality of modern government, precariously poised at the edge of the abyss of self-destruction, is vaguely felt, rather than clearly understood, by the man in the street. He beholds with awe and without confidence that gigantic machine of mass destruction which is anachronistically called the Department of Defense, and he wonders whether it will not cause his own destruction while destroying the enemy, and he also wonders whether a government so constituted still deserves the obedience and loyalty it claims and once deserved. If it is true that ubi bene, ibi patria,where is his fatherland?

These ailments from which all major democratic governments suffer are reinforced by the ailments peculiar to America. It is not just that the latter must be added to the former, but the peculiar ailments of America provide specific instances of the general crisis; they make it relevant to specific issues facing America; and they give those issues a general poignancy. Three such issues call for our attention: racial violence, Vietnam and the Presidency.

What the citizen suspects of the government’s performance of its function as his protector against the foreign enemy, he has empirical proof of in his relations with his fellow citizens: the government is no longer able to perform its elementary function of protecting the lives of its citizens. It is unable to protect the Negro and his white sympathizer against the violence to which they are subjected by white racists and arbitrary law enforcement, and it is unable to protect the citizens from the violence which has erupted in the black ghettos and which is likely to erupt again and spread. And it is unable to put into practice the imposing body of legislation enacted by Congress for the purpose of integrating the Negro into American society and the poor into the productive economy. A government possessed of unprecedented power appears to be impotent in the face of the threat of social disintegration and the promise of social justice.

I shall not here repeat the arguments I have advanced for more than six years against our involvement in Vietnam by first warning against it and then pointing to its political aimlessness, military uselessness and risks, and moral liabilities. I only want to reemphasize, and enlarge upon, two points.

The war is not only politically aimless and militarily and enlarge upon, two points. The war is not only politically aimless and militarily unwinnable in terms of the Administration’s professed aims, but it also violates the very principles upon which this nation was founded and for which it has stood both in the eyes of its own citizens and of the world. It is an antirevolutionary war fought by a revolutionary nation. It is Metternich’s war fought by the nation of Jefferson and Lincoln. As the President and the Secretary of the General Synod of the Netherlands Reformed Church put it on July 24, 1967, in a letter addressed to the National Council of Churches of the United States: “Hostilities in Vietnam have reached such proportions that the United States government’s professed aim, viz. to stop the advance of communist influencein South East Asia and to establish a democratic regimein Vietnam, seems remoter than ever before. This is all the more alarming since the nation in whose behalf the war is supposedly being fought is being slowly but surely brought to ruin by the subtlety of the chemical and conventional weapons used and by the complete social, cultural, and spiritual dissolution with which it is threatened. A nation’s ‘liberation’ is sealing its doom. If the United States really has the well-being of the people of Vietnam at heart, we are prompted to ask whether there is any point at all in continuing this war. . . .

“We Dutchmen and Dutch Christians and Churches owe our liberation from the yoke of cruel, anti- Christian oppression partly to your nation’s willingness to sacrifice lives and property. Since the war, too, the Dutch and other nations cherished great hopes of the United States’ contribution to the organization of a new community of nations. In view of this it is all the more regrettable that we are compelled to point out to you that your nation is losing the confidence placed in it, since it is [casting doubt on] the sincerity of its pleas for freedom and justice. . . . For that reason alone the United States should stop the war in Vietnam without delay by taking new initiatives.”

Yet the United States is incapable of liquidating the war because of its faulty perception of reality and its unattainable goals. It acts upon the assumption that it is defending South Vietnam against aggression. If only North Vietnam left its neighbor alone, to quote Mr. Rusk’s celebrated phrase, there would be no trouble in South Vietnam. For this reason, we are bombing North Vietnam, we plan to construct a barrier which is supposed to seal the South off from the North, we are willing only to negotiate with the government in Hanoi, and we might even invade the North. However, fruitful negotiations with the government in Hanoi are impossible not because we refuse to cease unconditionally the bombing of the North (this is really a side issue which both the supporters and opponents of the war have unfortunately made the crucial one), but because we seek to gain at the conference table what we have been unable to achieve on the battlefield: the destruction of the Viet Cong as an organized political force. Even if the government of North Vietnam were willing to hand us that victory, it would be unable to do so without the cooperation of the Viet Cong. The test of our willingness to liquidate the war will not be the cessation of bombing, but the establishment of a civilian government in Saigon which will inevitably negotiate a settlement of the war with the Viet Cong.

The waging of a war which runs counter to the national ethos and the inability of the most powerful nation on earth either to win or liquidate it has had a deleterious effect upon the prestige of the government and of the political system through which we are governed. If we had a parliamentary system, this Administration would not govern us today and its place would have been taken by an Administration not compelled by its psychological needs to proceed futilely from escalation to escalation in order to prove itself through military victory. As it is, the opponents of the war, within and outside Congress, can only raise their voices in warning and protest, they can collect signatures and table and even pass resolutions; but they know that they have no power to change the course of events. The only resort left to them is to work for a change in administration through the next elections, and they must hope, but can by no means be confident, that another administration will pursue a wiser course.

Thus they cannot help but ask themselves what kind of a democracy it is in which the will of the people and of their elected representatives counts for so little and in which a President and a few advisers, having acquired a vested psychological interest in the perpetuation of error, are allowed to persist in involving the nation in a disastrous war. We thought that this was the way absolute monarchies were run in times past. ‘ Thus Talleyrand could say in 1808 to Czar Alexander I: “The Rhine, the Alps, and the Pyrenees are the conquests of France; the rest, of the Emperor; they mean nothing to France.” We could say with equal right today: The integrity of the American territory and institutions, the Monroe Doctrine, the balance of power in Europe and Asia, those are the interests of America; the war in Vietnam is the President’s; it means nothing to America.

However, the Administration must make it appear that our involvement in Vietnam is not the result of the errors in which the President and his advisers have persisted, but that it serves the vital interests of the nation. The obvious implausibility of these appearances has opened up what has come to be known as the “credibility gap.” The people refuse to believe what the government tells them it is doing and plans to do. As they once credited Washington with not being able to tell a lie, so they almost take it for granted that President Johnson will not tell the truth. This lack of trust is not limited to official statements on Vietnam; it extends to all matters of public concern. For deception is being practiced not occasionally as a painful necessity dictated by the reason of state, but consistently as a kind of lighthearted sport through which the deceiver enjoys his power.

This withering away of the public’s trust in the government might matter little to a totalitarian regime which can afford to govern through terror and the manipulation of the mass media of communications. Yet a democratic government cannot rule effectively, and in the long run it cannot rule at all, if it is not sustained by at least a modicum of the freely given support of the people and their elected representatives. In the American system of government, in particular, the President, by constitutional arrangement and political tradition, is the molder of the national will, the educator of the people, the guardian of its interests, and the protagonist of its ideals. The President is the incarnation of the nation-in-action; when the nation wants to know what it is about, it looks, to the President to find out.

In that noble and vital mission. President Johnson has completely failed. For a time, he triumphed in that sphere of action in which he is a past master: the manipulation of Congress in support of legislation. Yet even these legislative triumphs have in large measure remained ineffectual; for the President, seeking an unattainable consensus and bent upon avoiding inevitable’ conflict, has been unable to marshal the popular energies necessary to implement the legislative enactments. And his failure as a national leader and the decline of his personal prestige have made him ineffective even in his dealings with Congress.

This personal failure is not just an issue between this particular President and the American people. It affects the vitality of the democratic process itself. If this Administration can be neither influenced nor trusted, why should one hope to influence and trust another one? If this is what the democratic process leads to, how good is democracy?

The combined impact these two sets of critical issues—the general ones common to all major democratic nations and the peculiarly American ones—have had upon American society has resulted in the present crisis of American politics. In order to assess the nature of that crisis, it is first necessary to consider the uniqueness of the American body politic.

America is unique in that it owes its creation and continuing existence as a nation not to geographic proximity, ethnic identity, monarchical legitimacy, or a long historic tradition, but to an act of will repeated over and over again by successive waves of immigrants. It was not natural or historic necessity that created America or Americans, but a conscious choice. This voluntary element in the American nationality accounts for a peculiar looseness in the social fabric of America, whose texture is subject to continuous change. In consequence, American society is singularly adaptable to changing circumstances. But it is also singularly vulnerable to disruption and disintegration.

Since America owes its existence to a series of successive choices, those who have chosen America are free to choose otherwise. That availability of choice is strikingly revealed in the emphasis of the Declaration of Independence upon the right to revolution as a universal principle, and, more concretely and personally, in what Abraham Lincoln wrote to Joshua Speed on August 24,1855: “When it comes to this [the Know-Nothings getting control], I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.” No other Western nation, with the exception of Spain, has since the French revolution had to reaffirm its very existence as a nation through a bloody civil war.

It is, then, not surprising that the combined impact the critical issues discussed above have had upon American society has been both disruptive and disintegrative. The refusal of large groups of politically conscious Negroes to participate in the life of white Americans amounts to the disruption of American society into two separate and hostile societies. The alienation of many intellectuals and the retreat of the more sensitive and morally committed youth from political life are indices of disintegration.

What these different movements have in common is a negative attitude toward American society and the American purpose which that society is supposed to serve. They do not work within American society in order to improve or transform it, or even to revolt against it. They offer no viable alternatives to the status quo, but only different ways of escaping from it. They have given up on American society and opted out of it. Theirs is a politics of despair, that is, no politics at all for America. “Black power” is a self-defeating futility born of such despair. Advocacy of an Afro- American society within an indigenous social, economic and paramilitary framework substitutes for the American purpose of equality in freedom for all citizens that very segregation, albeit with a positive content, which that purpose has been trying to overcome. The “New Left,” the refusal to bear arms or pay taxes, the hippie movement, are protests against the political and social order, reassertions of individual choice outside the political order, or anarchism and return to nature a la Thoreau, albeit without any positive moral orientation.

Nobody will underestimate the seriousness of the disruption of American society through Negro separatism and hostility. But there is a strong tendency, officially inspired, to dismiss as inconsequential the apolitical and antipolitical attempts at escaping from American society and politics altogether. Most of the individuals who thus try to escape are not predestined for that role; they are not, as it were, the congenital nonconformists and eccentrics. Quite to the contrary, they would have been, if they had been given a chance, the pillars of society, the experts, the reformers, the politicians and statesmen, that is, the elite—small in numbers but irreplaceable in quality—from which a society receives its ability to grow, renew itself, live up to its purpose. That some of her best children have turned their back upon America, that the powers-that-be have reacted to that desertion either with equanimity or derision and vilification for a measure of the gravity of the American crisis.

A society threatened with disruption or disintegration can maintain itself in two ways: through a creative effort at reconstruction or through violent repression. The former is the democratic way, of which America and modern England provide examples. The other is the fascist way through which Germany, Italy and Spain maintained themselves as integrated societies. Yet these examples show that the two choices are available only in the initial stages of the crisis, that is, when the powers-that-be are tempted to close their eyes to the potential seriousness of the crisis. Once the destructive results of disruption and disintegration have become obvious, it is likely to be too late for democratic remedies. There is, then, an element of tragedy in such a crisis of democratic society: when it could still be saved by democratic measures of reconstruction, there appears to be no need for them, and when the need has become obvious it is too late for them.

It would be rash indeed to try to predict the outcome of the present crisis of American society. Yet whatever the outcome, the present trend toward violence rather than creative reconstruction is unmistakable. The white man in the street appears to believe that too much has already been done for the Negro, and he is afraid and in an ugly mold. The politicians translate that mood into calls for war against “crime in the streets” and for the defense of “law and order,” that is, violence in defense of the status quo. On a higher level of sophistication, we are lectured on the merits of “The Politics of Stability” for an existentially unstable society, and liberals are asked to make “much more effective alliances with political conservatives”—an echo of the “union sacrée” through which the societies of WesternEurope tried to save themselves in the interwar period.

On the highest level of authority and power, the trend toward violent repression rather than creative reconstruction coincides with the President’s consensus philosophy. That philosophy, untenable both on theoretical and practical grounds (see my article in The New Republic of January 22, 1966), is readily availableas ideological justification and rationalization for theformation of a phalanx of all law-abiding citizens protecting the established order from troublemakers of all sorts. Among them, the powers-that-be do not count only the Negro rioters but also the opponents of our involvement in Vietnam. The President and his supporters have time and again accused the dissenters of giving aid and comfort to the enemy, thereby strengthening from above, and giving an official sanction of sorts to, the trend toward disintegration operating on the individual level. If the powers-that-be have the courage of their convictions, they must sooner or later do openly what at times they have tried to do surreptitiously and what an organization ironically misnamed Freedom House has openly advocated: stifle the dissent which they equate with disloyalty or treason.

Finally, there exists indeed an organic relationship between the trend toward violence at home and our policies in Vietnam. For in Vietnam, too, we have had a choice between accepting as inevitable a national and social peasant revolution and destroying the revolutionaries through violent repression, and we have chosen to pound, thus far without decisive effect, an intractable problem into oblivion. In intellectual, moral and practical terms, nothing is indeed easier and less ambiguous than to deal with a social problem by oppressing and getting rid of the human beings who pose it. It is not accidental that many congressional advocates of violent repression in Vietnam represent states whose societies could not exist without the violent oppression of large masses, sometimes the majority, of their populations. Nor is it by accident that a retired Air Force General was, according to the Anaheim Bulletinof August 12, loudly applauded when he told hisaudience of American Legionnaires: “Military takeover is a dirty word in this country, but if the professional politicians cannot keep law and order it is time we do so, by devious or direct means.” The problems we are facing at home are infinitely more complex and resistant to creative manipulation than those we are facing in Vietnam. Thus a fortiori the powers-that-be must betempted to deal with our domestic problems as theyare dealing with the problem of Vietnam: through the violence of impotence.

This is an ominous prospect. It can be avoided only if it is faced in time. We cannot afford the policies of consensus and stability which are the result not the condition of sound substantive policies and can be imposed upon an unstable and warring society only through violence. We need a supreme effort at radical reform creating unity and stability out of that dissension and unrest which are inseparable from radical reform. While I know that this is what we need, I have no idea how to bring it about. Could it be that we have exhausted our creativeness at solving social problems, or must we wait for history to afford us an opportunity at showing again what we can do?

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