Commentary Magazine

The Character of Nations by Angelo M. Codevilla

The Character of Nations: How Politics Makes and Breaks Prosperity, Family, and Civility
by Angelo M. Codevilla
Basic Books. 340 pp. $27.00

Angelo M. Codevilla is known for his bold essays on American defense and foreign policy, quite a few of which have appeared in these pages; here, he departs somewhat from his usual concerns to ask how, domestically, particular nations come to have the ways they do. The result is a sweeping work of theory, one that demonstrates, despite its flaws, just how much we in our own troubled times stand to learn from an understanding of politics that stretches back to the ancients.

In The Character of Nations, Codevilla, who teaches international relations at Boston University, sets out to show that different forms of government differently shape the lives of those who live under them, giving rise to distinctive habits in every realm from the economic, civic, and military to the familial and spiritual. This may sound uncontroversial, but as an approach to political reality it flies in the face of contemporary academic convention, according to which a nation’s political system is usually seen as little more than a reflection of its “culture” or “life-style.” For Codevilla (as for classic philosophers from Aristotle to Machiavelli), just the opposite is the case.

Deploying a mixture of historical anecdotes, news reports, and a considerable knowledge of foreign cultures, Codevilla gives us vivid examples of the link between political arrangements and national character in the contemporary world. He shows, for instance, how the now-defunct Soviet system, characterized by lying, corruption, and the hoarding of personal power, lives on in the mores of today’s Russian mafia. He recounts how the Swedish government, through measures designed to ensure equality between the sexes, altered the familial structure so radically that by 1980 nearly two-thirds of the residents of Stockholm were living alone. Whether he is describing the role of cash bribes in Mexico, the rising divorce rate in Taiwan, or the fondness of the Swiss for guns, Codevilla has illuminating things to say about the behavioral patterns that political systems foster.

As one might expect, though, the heart of this book is a critical examination of the United States. Codevilla begins, properly enough, with Alexis de Tocqueville’s observations in Democracy in America. Touring the United States in 1831, Tocqueville found a country remarkable for its religiosity, economic freedom, and commitment to equality. More remarkable still (to European eyes), these qualities flourished without the aid of powerful national institutions. They were fostered instead by local government and a strong ethos of responsibility and participation: Americans were filled with community spirit, Tocqueville argued, because the same people who made the laws enforced them.



This era, Codevilla maintains, was the golden age of American civic virtue, a time when the vision of the founders was most fully realized. How, then, did the spirit that forged it evanesce, especially over the last several generations?

The chief culprits, in Codevilla’s account, are those policy-makers who, from the era of the Great Society in the 1960’s to the present, have worked assiduously to expand the reach of government and thereby to undermine popular habits of self-reliance. In areas from agricultural policy to religious liberty, regulatory agencies and the courts have run roughshod over the institutions of limited, representative government. The result, Codevilla writes, is that were Tocqueville to pay a return visit today,

he would find [that] the inhabitants of American towns were taking their concerns to the state or national capitals. . . . [He] would notice the scarcity of prominent citizens in public places. He would find they had retreated into buildings, suburbs, and gated communities governed for practical purposes as if the public laws did not exist. He would be struck by how much citizens concerned about crime talked about the police and the courts and how little they considered their own responsibility for public safety.

But the problem, in Codevilla’s view, does not stop with the depredations of bureaucrats, judges, and politicians. No less a part of the new American “regime” are those centers of opinion, ranging from Time and Newsweek to the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States, that combine a faith in the entitlement-granting power of government with an essentially free-market approach to manners and morals. It is thanks to the views promulgated through these varied media that so many Americans now “order their souls” according to their rights, their pleasures, or both, seamlessly joining “the teachings of the Supreme Court and Hugh Hefner’s Playboy philosophy.”



As this brief summary suggests, The Character of Nations is a relentlessly pessimistic book. Almost no aspect of the country’s public or private life wins Codevilla’s approval, and he seemingly forecloses any possibility of national renewal or of an awakening from our moral and cultural drift.

This fatalism arises, I believe, from a fault that Codevilla shares with the liberals he chastises: a tendency to focus overmuch on government and to discount the good sense and abiding vigor of the American people. Like his foes, Codevilla forgets that in America—even in its corrupted state—influence does not flow exclusively in one direction.

In fact, popular discontent with the handiwork of Codevilla’s “establishment” has already spawned a great number of promising grassroots efforts at reform, from pro-family religious groups like the Promise Keepers (noted only in passing by Codevilla), to charter schools and voucher programs aimed at rescuing our dismal educational system, to local initiatives by police and residents to make the streets safe and reduce the incidence of violent crime. Even at the level of policy, where the new elites have long dominated, there are signs of progress, as pillars of the liberal agenda like affirmative action and welfare, judicial activism and economic regulation, have come under assault or are on the way out.

Needless to say, we are still far from recovering our social and political health. As Codevilla rightly suggests, thoroughgoing change will come about only if and when our noxious elite culture passes from the scene. But the grip of that culture on the lives of Americans is already not quite so tight as Codevilla would have us believe. Just as the American people themselves cannot be wholly absolved of complicity in some of the developments he deplores, especially on the moral and cultural front, so the “regime” is susceptible of correction by movements he would applaud. When it comes to America, at least, not even the most persuasive theory about “the character of nations” is ever quite adequate to reality.


About the Author

Daniel Casse is a senior director of the White House Writers Group, a Washington, D.C. communications firm.

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