Codevilla – Shaping the Character of the American Nation
Shaping the Character of the American Nation
By Angelo M. Codevilla
Thucydides, in his tragic account of Athens’ moral and political self destruction during the
Peloponnesian war, showed that Athens under Pericles was a city very different from Athens under
Cleon, and later under the spell of Alcibiades. Under Pericles the city enjoyed a precarious,
precious balance between self seeking and public spiritedness, between grandeur and moderation.
Under his successors it lost that balance, as well as the capacity to think about justice. Different
political leadership, Thucydides shows, even mandated certain kinds of public discourse while
effectively proscribing others. The Athens of Pericles had been the cradle of reason, "the school of
Hellas." The Athens of Cleon would barely listen to the claims of enlightened self-interest. In the
Athens of the Melian Dialogue a cardboard cutout ideology precluded consideration of enlightened
self-interest. The intellectual currency of the Athens upon which Alcibiades urged the disastrous
Sicilian expedition had further degenerated to mere image making. Recall how successfully
Alcibiades countered the facts of his military inexperience and personal scandals: He had put on a
good show at the Olympics! No wonder that Athens’ military commander in Sicily paid more
attention to domestic spinners than to a looming military disaster.
Aristotle tells us that the same people under different regimes is as different as a comic chorus is
from a tragic chorus. Because one people is capable of singing different songs, the choirmaster and
his song sheets are very important. Spartans, Athenians, indeed all Greeks lived lives different from
one another not because of any differences in race or in what the gods had done to them but rather
because they had chosen different ways of governing themselves, each way embodying a set of
priorities. Of course Aristotle taught that Barbarians can only be ruled by tyrants. But he also taught
that the difference between greekness and barbarism lay in habits that either enhanced or
suppressed man’s humanity.
Political science has come a long way since Aristotle. Nowadays it no longer recognizes the
distinction between barbarism and civilization. It scarcely recognizes the concept of regime, the
arrangement of offices and honors, the complex of social and legal incentives and disincentives, of
models for children and objects of’ envy for grownups.
And yet, it is impossible to live in the 20th century without noticing that regimes make a big
difference. Think about it: the oldest Germans alive today have lived in five different countries
without ever leaving home. How different were the standards of propriety and of success in the
Wilhemine monarchy, in the go-go Weimar Republic, during the Nazi regime, in the Adenauer era,
and in today’s red-green, sex shop – socialist Germany?
We are not accustomed to thinking about how differences in regime can affect people like
ourselves. When three years ago, the magazine First Things tried to start a discussion about the
nature of the American regime, many thought it outrageous and unpatriotic.
Yet we, like all other humans, are creatures of habit. It would be strange indeed if the American
people’s habits were impervious to a government that, at all levels, spends about forty cents of
every dollar we earn, and puts out thousands of pages of regulations every year. Of course, the
decisions we make about whom we elevate to high positions, about what laws we accept or reject,
affect our estimation of what is normal and abnormal, praiseworthy or intolerable, our capacity for
living certain kinds of lives and incapacity for living others. Of course our regime affects the very
language we speak. So do the preferences of officially sanctioned media executives and the views
of the publicly financed professors who decide what proper intellectual standards arc. A generation
ago, American public school began the day with prayer. Boy Scout troops and churches were
effectively part of the day. The National Rifle Association, using government surplus arms, would
organic/,e marksmanship teams. Today these are no longer part of the regime. But Planned
Parenthood and similar organizations provide compulsory education in their own conception of a
The most obvious example of the effect of regime is the one regime in our time that attempted to
have the greatest of effects, namely, the Soviet regime. Anyone traveling around post Soviet Russia
cannot help but notice that human beings there are in the grip of habits and attitudes that prevent
them from living useful and happy lives.
Consider the balance between production and redistribution. When the regime makes it more
profitable to profit from managing regulations than from producing goods and services, society’s
most creative energies are channeled into redistribution. In the Soviet Union economic rewards
flowed to those who managed to creep higher in the hierarchy of power. Freed from the one party
hierarchy, homo economicus Sovieticus simply organized many robber gangs.
Consider the rule of law. When the regime runs on power rather than law, people learn to wheedle
those above and take their frustrations out on those below. The Soviet regime taught its people that
the law, indeed words themselves, mean neither more nor less than what those in power want them
to mean. Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov knew how subversive was their suggestion that the Soviet
Union be made to follow its own laws to the letter. Today’s Russians, like Mexicans, pay for
privileges and do not waste time arguing for rights.
Before 1917 Russian men were known for their attachment to their families. Yet during the Soviet
period the regime annihilated the father’s authority, and forced women to work outside the home —
often doing societys dirtiest work. It ridiculed the religious ideas that had underlain family
responsibility. It made abortion normal. It would have been surprising had the full socio economic
spectrum of Russian manhood not developed the opportunistic attitudes toward women and
children that we associate with our Ghetto men.
As regards spiritual life, peoples tend to take on the religion or the spiritual emptiness of their rulers
to speak and think in their terms. The Soviet regime failed to inculcate its atheist message. But the
regime did succeed in eliminating religion from the mainstream of the country’s intellectual and
public life. So, while there is much religious longing and even more religious nationalism in today’s
Russia, there is precious little understanding and practice.
As regards defense, recall Machiavellis statement that it is a truth truer than any other truth that
where there are men and not soldiers it is the fault of the prince and nobody else. Any regime that
fails to foster within itself and in its people the capacity to fight and win wars is quite simply
doomed, regardless of whatever else it might have going for it. We all know that the Soviet Union
died because it elevated men of base character, rewarded shabby performance, and sowed the
assumption of mutual betrayal — especially in the armed forces. When the leadership finally got up
the nerve to kill its opponents, it had sown so much distrust in the world’s largest and arguably best
armed forces that it could find nobody to carry out its orders.
In other words, a messed up regime messed up a lot of people.
Let us now turn to the American regime. What is it? how does it compare with the one of the
Founding Fathers — or even the one under which we lived a generation ago? How is it messing
with our character?
Consider economics. The founders said little that would pass for economics nowadays. There was
plenty of discussion of farming, manufacturing, and trade, cost cutting, competitiveness, and low
taxes. Commitment to free trade was near universal, and contested only on national security
grounds. Still, discussions on how to attain prosperity consisted primarily of moral admonitions.
George Washington considered sound money and faithful payment of debts as a foundation stone
of what he called "national character." The chief argument for American freedom by the likes of
Paine and Jefferson, an argument taken straight from Locke, was that land rightly belonged to those
who improved it, and goods to those who had produced them. The original American regime, then,
fostered the prosperity of devotees of the Protestant Ethic of labor in freedom under impartial law.
Compare the economic signals of today’s American regime. Of course it is still possible to make it
big in America by inventing a better mousetrap. Just look at Bill Gates. Hard work still pays. But it
pays less than making the right connections. Even Microsoft’s huge production of goods and
services pales next to the redistributive power of government. I suggest that the regime corrupts the
rich even more than welfare corrupts the poor. I recall the manager on a steel mill proudly showing
me his warehouse "there’s ten million dollars of steel there!" he said. At the time on the Senate staff,
ten million dollars was change too small for staffers to argue about. Then there is the indirect
economic power of government, consisting of regulations so complex that their real effect is to
empower the arbitrary power of officials. And so we see the growth of a vast overworld of
consultants, door openers, yes, lawyers, who have become indispensable to economic success.
Anyone involved in business at any level must heed them. And often their advice involves making
contributions to worthy causes, or employing just the right contractors. One notable example,
enshrined in law, is the Community Reinvestment Act, which obliges banks to contribute to
"community organizations" in order to get licenses. Try dealing with county planning boards, or
inspectors, and you had better hire those whom they suggest. Nowadays you can make a lot more
as a government affairs consultant than you can as an engineer. We are not yet as economically
sophisticated as the Italians, never mind the Russians. But there is no doubt in which direction our
economic regime is pushing us.
What does it mean to be a citizen of the United States? Until very recently, Americans were
governed by laws made by legislatures, and judged by juries of their peers. Today, they are
governed by the policies of agencies, or rather by the interpretations of agency policy made by
officials over whom only interest groups have any control. In this new system, there is no such thing
as equality. What does it take to prevail in the administrative – regulatory process? I’m afraid it
takes skills not so different than the skills required to succeed in lots of nasty places overseas.
The original regime’s principles were that all men were equal under the law were practically
undergirded by the intellectual habit of Americans to think of public affairs rigorously in terms of
right and wrong. The most impressive part of the record of the Lincoln Douglas debates has to be
the remarks of the crowds, who followed the debaters’ complex arguments and attempted to
correct them. Today’s political crowds lack the habits of heart and mind to behave as those
unschooled farmers did.
How come? Because the regime, in its schools and through the example of the highest men in the
land has taught us a new language with new standards. How foreign are the examples of intellectual
and moral probity of Washington and Adams! Recall the books by which Lincoln educated himself.
The Bible is now semi – illegal in schools, and Shakespeare is deconstructed.
This is not the place to discuss the great divorce of mind, taste, and habit between America’s elites
and the culture of the founders, a divorce already evident in the second hall’ of the 19th century.
The substance of the elite culture is the rule of Rabelais’ Abbey of Theleme, "fais ce que voudras"
(do what you will, and do not attempt to judge better and worse because those terms are
meaningless). The regime enforces its culture. Just imagine if a public school teacher were to try to
counsel some troubled youths by telling them that the God who created them expects certain things
of them? Why that teacher could be fired. What if a principal were to discipline students who came
to school, as some did at that unfortunate school in Colorado, with jackets showing a stop sign
superimposed on a cross? No citizen would be allowed to stand in the way of the official religion of
the new American regime.
What can be the meaning of citizenship in a country where an entire major political party supports a
President who swears that while she was having sex with him he was not having sex with her? Why
do so many support the President’s assertion of the power to define the meaning of "is"? Because
for them citizenship has come to mean getting a piece of the budget, and living by the regime’s new
What then are the consequences of America’s habituation to this new regime? Let me dwell only on
the set having to do with the language in which the regime treats national defense.
Three years ago, General Colin Powells memoirs made two scarcely noted points. Powell
recounted that even though he had been much opposed to the Gulf war, he never made his case to
the President because he knew the president’s mind was tending in the opposite direction. Powell
also wrote that people inexperienced in the ways of Washington, people unlike himself, tend to
speak up in "big meetings with the boss" and make full dress arguments for their position. But those
in the know, like himself, get just the right people together and strike a deal among interests. Powell
was rightly acclaimed as someone who knew how to deal in Washington. But consider: what sort
of wisdom can come out of the sort of deliberation that Powell advises?
Today America is at war in Europe. The deliberations at the highest level by which we got into this
war were laid out in last Sunday’s New York Times. The verbal shorthand, the backscratching, the
tendency to avoid considering options simply because they would not please the boss, sound right
out of Powells memoirs. Yes. This is how things are done. How about the Constitution’s language
that only Congress can declare war? It might as well not have existed because following it would
have involved making full dress arguments and standing behind them. That sort of thing is not part
of the new American regime. The public scarcely raised an eyebrow to the President’s meaningless
articulation of the country’s plans "we will persist until we prevail." American citizens from an earlier
regime might have asked: How might persistence in something obviously ineffectual lead one to
prevail — and prevail in what?
But in the new regime, commitments are made without serious question because there is no real
expectation of meeting them. Last year the country and the Congress went along with the expansion
of our commitment to defend Europe. It did so upon receiving assurance that the commitment
would not have to be honored. At the same time Congress and the Administration continued to
decrease the capacity of our armed forces. The new American regime spoke louder while our stick
was getting smaller. Americans talked about expanding NATO while actually gutting it. The proof?
Last week, as US forces were making war on Yugoslavia, a convoy of Russian tracks pulled up to
the Hungarian border, heading for Belgrade. The Hungarians, having no love for either Serbs or
Russians, stopped the column. The Russians threatened "the gravest consequences" on this newest
member of NATO. The Hungarians called Washington. The US government should have faxed
Moscow a copy of Art. 5 of the NATO: an attack upon one is an attack upon all. Instead,
whatever the US government said, the trucks went through. NATO stands exposed, and so does
the US. God only knows who will take this as a warrant for doing what.
But wait. According to the new regime all of the above is wrong. Last week Dick Morris, the voice
of the new regime’s "effective truth," told a television audience that the Clinton Administration had
handled Kosovo just right, and cited polls showing that while most Americans disliked what Serbia
did, most would not want to risk their lives in the Balkans. From which Morris deduced that "just
right" meant compromising between doing nothing and doing something serious by doing something
unserious. I suggest that this compares with the irresponsibility of the Athenian assembly that voted
for the Sicilian expedition.
All of this is to say that regimes have consequences.