In his American Enterprise Institute lecture last week, Charles Murray began by saying
the advent of the Obama administration brings this question before the nation: Do we want the United States to be like Europe?… the question has suddenly become urgently relevant because President Obama and his leading intellectual heroes are the American equivalent of Europe’s social democrats. There’s nothing sinister about that. They share an intellectually respectable view that Europe’s regulatory and social welfare systems are more progressive than America’s and advocate reforms that would make the American system more like the European system…. There is every reason to believe that when Americans embrace the European model, they begin to behave like Europeans.
Murray ends his address with his thoughts on American exceptionalism, saying
it isn’t something in the water that has made us that way. It comes from the cultural capital generated by the system that the Founders laid down, a system that says people must be free to live life as they see fit and to be responsible for the consequences of their actions; that it is not the government’s job to protect people from themselves; that it is not the government’s job to stage-manage how people interact with each other. Discard the system that created the cultural capital, and the qualities we love about Americans can go away. In some circles, they are going away… What it comes down to is that America’s elites must once again fall in love with what makes America different. I am not being theoretical. Not everybody in this room shares the beliefs I have been expressing, but a lot of us do. To those of you who do, I say soberly and without hyperbole, that this is the hour. The possibility that irreversible damage will be done to the American project over the next few years is real. And so it is our job to make the case for that reawakening. It won’t happen by appealing to people on the basis of lower marginal tax rates or keeping a health care system that lets them choose their own doctor. The drift toward the European model can be slowed by piecemeal victories on specific items of legislation, but only slowed. It is going to be stopped only when we are all talking again about why America is exceptional, and why it is so important that America remain exceptional.
David Brooks of the New York Times has a somewhat different take in his most recent column:
the United States will never be Europe. It was born as a commercial republic. It’s addicted to the pace of commercial enterprise. After periodic pauses, the country inevitably returns to its elemental nature. The U.S. is in one of those pauses today…. Washington is temporarily at the center of the nation’s economic gravity and a noncommercial administration holds sway. This is an administration that has many lawyers and academics but almost no businesspeople in it, let alone self-made entrepreneurs. The president speaks passionately about education and health care reform, but he is strangely aloof from the banking crisis and displays no passion when speaking about commercial drive and success. But if there is one thing we can be sure of, this pause will not last. The cultural DNA of the past 400 years will not be erased. The pendulum will swing hard. The gospel of success will recapture the imagination.
So there you have it: the real possibility of irreversible damage being done to the American project over the next few years (Murray) v. America ‘s cultural DNA ensuring that we will never be Europe and we will remain a commercial republic (Brooks). The debate, really, is over how much of our cultural capital has been depleted; how close we are to adapting a European cast of mind and its social and entrepreneurial habits; and whether we are on a path to a destination (European social democracy) or simply in the midst of a pause before America’s essential nature reasserts itself. The answer to these question will determine, in part, how crucial you consider this period in our history to be.
Murray seems to believe we are at a key historical moment, and perhaps a hinge point; Brooks less so. Charles believes government policies can profoundly damage what has made America rare, and even unique, throughout the centuries; David believes the habits we have acquired will snap back, as they have in the past. Both are extremely knowledgeable and well-informed men and clear, gifted writers. My hope is that Brooks is right; my fear is that Murray is; and my hunch is the reality is somewhere between the two. I’m not as sanguine as Brooks — a society’s DNA can and has been altered over time — but it’s worth bearing in mind that when many people (including me) thought American culture was on the verge of ruin some years ago, with every social indicator having gotten dramatically worse over the decades, we saw things turn around in a fairly sudden fashion, for a whole host of reasons, from changes in policy to cultural re-norming.
America is a large, resilient, extraordinary nation — entitled to “a place among the very greatest of human societies,” in the words of Norman Podhoretz — with tremendous recuperative powers. But even America is not indestructible. And we shouldn’t treat her as if she is.