There’s a sweet spot in every American crisis when prophets of America’s collapse weigh in.
Her detractors were freer to express their disdain before America became a great power. James M. McPherson’s July review in the New York Review of Books provides a timely reminder that in Europe’s exclusive parlours America’s political union has always been seen as an insolent experiment. Referring to influential opinion in Great Britain during the darkest days of the American Civil War, he writes:
“On the whole, those most likely to express pro-Confederate or anti-American sentiments tended to be conservatives and members of the aristocracy or gentry. The Earl of Shrewsbury looked upon “the trial of Democracy and its failure” in America with pleasure. “I believe that the dissolution of the Union is inevitable, and that men before me will live to see an aristocracy established in America.”1 The voice of the British establishment, The Times, considered the downfall of “the American colossus” a good “riddance of a nightmare…. Excepting a few gentlemen of republican tendencies, we all expect, we nearly all wish, success to the Confederate cause.”2
America, today, is seen by a new generation of European intellectuals as the world’s indispensible incompetent.
America’s most wealthy friends, whether evolving constitutional monarchies like Canada and Great Britain or serial republics like France and Germany, can’t imagine life without her. Yet, with little hope of making matters better, they level the sweeping, seemingly clinical diagnosis that America’s political system is “dysfunctional.”
Canada’s leading liberal daily The Toronto Star asks whether US politicians are “really prepared to burn down the house in a bitter ideological tussle over the role, size and cost of government?”
Political suicide in freedom-loving America is conceivable. And, of course, before every crisis is resolved there is a moment when both happier times and catastrophe can be anticipated. However, the question itself is cheap.
US democracy has been engaged in an ideological “tussle” over the role and size of its federal government since 1776. Running alongside that ongoing argument, Americans have done politics well enough to create the most successful transcontinental federation in the world and build a federal government strong enough to finance the West’s side in two world wars and the Cold War, and drive the emergence of the modern global economy that is now changing America as well as every other privileged economy in the world.
David Gordon Smith sums up German editorial opinion on the debt-ceiling crisis with the plaintive headline “The US Is Holding the Whole World Hostage.” Center-left Suddeutsche Zeitung tells Congress to “think carefully about what it’s doing.” The conservative Die Welt is less restrained: “Democrats and Republicans are so hopelessly embroiled in a religious war that compromise and pragmatism are just dreams from a far-off era of reason. . . .” The mass-circulation Bild tries to be condescending complaining that America is exhibiting the “worst kind of absurd theatrics.”
Running through the piece is the assumption that Americans can’t talk about ideas without becoming extreme, that religiosity and the Tea Party drive American politics.
It’s tempting simply to say to Germany: If you’re finally sure enough of your democracy to deprecate America’s, then why not finally take on your own defence and carry your weight in the NATO alliance? Besides, would you rather have a German skinhead over an American Tea Partier as a neighbor?
Unfortunately, a constructive reply—including, steady economic growth—probably won’t dampen anti-American sentiment for long. The politics of the debt-ceiling crisis circles around the desperate desire of both of America’s great national parties to re-capture the confidence of pragmatic, mainstream opinion. Of course, that center of America is the very philistine, short-sighted, complacent America that her detractors love to hate.