When Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated, he sought to dismantle the evolving Federalist tradition of pomp and circumstance. In a ceremonial sense, royalism seemed to have been restored, or so it appeared to him. As this blogger put it, “Dressed in simple attire, Jefferson walked over to the Capitol with a phalanx of riflemen, friends, and fellow citizens from his home state of Virginia.”
In these last days of the American Empire, such austere republicanism would be considered impossibly quaint. Having long ago morphed into Jefferson’s worst nightmare, the closer we get to the end, the more glamorous our inaugurals become. The poorer we are, the more millions we’ll throw at a ceremony that is really the crowning of a monarch – and not just any old king, but an emperor bestriding the globe.
Appearances must be kept up. Like a bankrupt living on a palatial estate – one step away from foreclosure – we bask in imperial splendor even as the repo man comes knocking at the door.
At a time such as ours, the spectacle of jeweled and gowned courtiers feasting on inaugural canapés is beyond tacky. The Bourbons partied, too, right up to the eve of the French Revolution. Amid all the sounding of trumpets and the hailing of the chief, however, there is something hollow about all this unseemly extravagance.
The Obama cult has imbued our new president with superhuman powers: they expect and enjoy the spectacle. Yet the relentless lionizing of this messianic figure is ironic, because here is an American chief executive who will doubtless become aware of his own limitations rather quickly. America is a bankrupt empire engaged in two overseas wars, with troops on every continent and bases ringing the globe. It’s unsustainable, and our ruling elites know it.
The crisis [.pdf] of American state capitalism will consume Obama’s presidency until his credibility is reduced to a cinder. The only solution is for the administration to create a new social compact, one in which the government takes not only a major role but the leading role in directing the economic life of the nation. In order to do this, however, a broad coalition is necessary, one that spans – and in a sense transcends – the traditional categories of “Left” and “Right.” And this has been a source of Obama’s broad appeal: the belief that he is above it all.
This claim to be non-ideological, and therefore “practical,” is a smokescreen for what is clearly an ideology of a very definite sort: it is garden-variety statism, i.e., a belief in the radical extension of governmental power. As in the case of 9/11, when the Bushies launched an invasion of a foreign country in the name of a national “emergency,” our economic 9/11 has now become the occasion for a massive invasion of government into the private sector. The nationalization of the banks, the auto industry, and even, it’s rumored, the newspaper industry, augur ill for the cause of individual autonomy and for the social base of the Jeffersonian remnant: small business, the middle classes, broadly defined, and the shrinking proportion of the population not entirely dependent on Washington’s largess.
In the U.S., the private sector – and I mean this in an ecumenical sense, including the nonprofit and underground sectors – has always been the dominant force in society. The voluntary interactions of consenting adults – the cultural bedrock of our old Republic – have charted the course of the American river, but now the state is directing the flow.
Obama’s economic program can be summed up in one word: reflation. Massive government spending, preceded by an orgy of bailouts. Earmarks, which yesterday were anathema, are now presented as a panacea. Spending on this scale requires some degree of bipartisan complicity, but how will Obama get the Republicans to go along? You’ll notice he’s been courting them rather assiduously, and that’s given rise to a whole new brand of “conservatives,” the so-called Obamacons.
Most of these were won over on the basis of their growing Bush-hatred, but the rest will come over because of his foreign and military policy. Obama, after all, ran on a platform of increasing an obscenely bloated military budget – misnamed the “defense” budget, but in reality a sum devoted to interfering in the affairs of other nations and peoples on a scale unprecedented by any previous empire. A sum, mind you, more than equal to the military budgets of all other nations on earth combined.
This is the grand bargain that will be struck, the one that will give us guns and butter. The conservatives will be won over by what John T. Flynn described as their “devotion” to “military might.” As the economic crisis deepens, military Keynesianism will bring the two parties together, as Flynn foresaw, because “militarism is the one great glamorous public-works project upon which a variety of elements in the community can be brought into agreement.” The propaganda of fear will become an economic necessity:
“Inevitably, having surrendered to militarism as an economic device, we will do what other countries have done: we will keep alive the fears of our people of the aggressive ambitions of other countries and we will ourselves embark upon imperialistic enterprises of our own.”
Flynn was one of the most trenchant and acerbic critics of FDR, a president Obama is expected to emulate and may even surpass in the sense that the new administration seeks more power than even Roosevelt ever managed to grab. Certainly the current economic turmoil mirrors the 1930s in ways we have only just begun to experience, yet I agree with Katrina vanden Heuvel, who fears Obama may come to resemble a more recent Democratic president: Lyndon Baines Johnson. He, too, gave us guns and butter. He also escalated and prosecuted an overseas war that was increasingly unpopular with the American people – and economically and morally damaging to the United States. It’s heartening to hear the editor of the Nation, the premier old-line liberal magazine once edited by Oswald Garrison Villard, swim against the “progressive” tide by publicly worrying Obama will get bogged down in Afghanistan, charge into Pakistan, and wind up being brought down by his own hubris, a quality certainly not lacking in the new administration.
In the age of Obama, what the late, great libertarian theorist Murray Rothbard dubbed the welfare-warfare state will take on gargantuan proportions, just as it did under LBJ, both at home and abroad. This is bad news on every front. An inaugural celebration? Not for me, thank you. I’m going into inaugural mourning: all black to mourn the victims of Obama’s wars, and the death of our old republic.