Big Government as Our Savior
There is not a single instance in history in which civil liberty was lost, and religious liberty preserved entire. If therefore we yield up our temporal property, we at the same time deliver the conscience into bondage.--John Witherspoon, "The Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men"
Throughout history, an integral element of American culture has been a fear of an overly powerful government. At least, this was once the case. It is still true, but for a shrinking portion of the population. Many today look to government to save them from the travails of life. How did this happen?
Americans once admired rugged individualism. We took family trips to Plymouth and Jamestown to honor the brave adventurers that started the first colonies. We respected frontier families that could build a home with nothing more than they could carry in a covered wagon. The cowboy lifestyle appealed to many because it symbolized complete freedom. During the Great Depression, government hand-outs wounded individual pride. Unlike the rest of the world, American soldiers used individual initiative when the situation required, and officers and enlisted alike admired anyone who could Mickey Mouse broken equipment. Americans may have historically been individuals, but they also took pride in their tightly knit families, churches, schools, and communities.
The opposite of individualism is collectivism, especially collectivism orchestrated by the state. This is where we seem to be headed today. This is odd, because it is counter to American culture--and dangerous. Oppression always comes from governments. It always has, and always will. This is not some ancient threat either. In the twentieth century, political scientist R. J. Rummel estimates that governments exterminated 262 million human beings.
The Founders feared overly powerful government for good reason, and for a hundred and fifty years, most Americans felt the same way. Cultural change started with President Wilson, but it didn't make much progress until President Franklin Roosevelt. It really picked up steam under President Johnson, and now President Obama is trying to shove the American culture past the tipping point.
Cultures are deep seated and very difficult to change. How did progressives make so much headway in overriding such a basic element of our American heritage?
Step 1: Cripple institutions that provide support for individuals
The first step was to make Americans feel vulnerable. Helpless. Progressives want people to depend on government, not support from people closer to home. So they had to go after the big three: family, church, and neighbors. If Americans could not depend on one or more of these, then in bad times they would have no alternative but to turn to government.
Families have been the bedrock of society since man and woman crawled out of caves. Weakening families required changes in cultural and legal norms. Government financial support contributed to taking the father out of the home, but heralding single-parenting as heroic was important as well. In many cases, the absence of a father took the mother away as well because she had to take a job outside of the home. For those with the foresight to marry before having children, divorce laws were simplified and some preached that divorce was better for children than having them grow up in a household with bickering parents who no longer loved one another. The next cultural change was to severely chastise anyone who appeared even slightly judgmental about diversions from the traditional family. Before long, many children were not raised by their parents and government used schools to perform many of the functions of traditional families.
Weakening the church was a double pronged assault. The first prong was to ridicule and denigrate prevalent religions while simultaneously demanding tolerance for obscure or foreign religions--the more distant the better. The second prong was to satisfy the human need to believe in something greater than themselves by providing a socially acceptable alternative. The earth and environmentalism fit the bill nicely. Even better, convince new converts that their deity was threatened by the unbelievers who spewed pollution. The next step was to define natural elements like carbon as pollutants. That made heretics of everyone except right-thinking progressives.
Neighbors were the easiest of all. Just incent everyone to move into cities where everybody minds their own business. Ridicule suburbia and rural America and make them uncool. Next, create zoning laws and public transportation that herd people together, the tighter the better. It is hard to find community with millions of people milling around.
Step 2: Make self-defense socially unacceptable -- or even illegal
Discourage self-defense and control weapons so people must depend on government for personal protection. Demonize vigilantism and then use this spiteful term to describe any example of self-defense. Do not even exempt people in jobs--like commercial airline pilots--who have seen their co-workers murdered.
Step 3: Tie advancement and satisfaction of basic needs to victimhood
Now that everyone is incapable of taking care of themselves, focus government help on victims. Carve out myriad new victim categories. Shunt aside non-victims, or better yet, define them as the victimizers. The goal is to encourage everyone to become a victim. Victimhood not only turns people toward the government as a powerful protector, it divides people into groups contesting for favors. It also arouses anger at all those outside the particular victim group. Soon, the entire populous will vie to become a member of one victim group or another and hate anyone outside their group as an assailant.
Now, individualism is dead.
Are progressives this committed, this patient, and this cunning? Has our culture already degraded to a collectivist mush? No. I used hyperbole to illustrate a point. Progressive leaders may understand the grand scheme, but for the most part, they just appeal to the instincts of their rank and file. There is no doubt, however, that we are on this path. Is it irrevocable? We will find out on November 6, 2012.
James D. Best is the author of the Steve Dancy Tales and "Tempest at Dawn," a novel about the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Look for his new book, "Principled Action, Lessons from the Origins of the American Republic."