Andrew Roberts, one of the world’s great historians, took America to task last week. Let me rephrase that: He took Americans to task for what they — or rather we — are doing to these United States during an election season that often seems like a satirical novel, albeit one that would have benefited from more rigorous editing.
Professor Roberts is British in the best tradition, that is to say, the tradition of Winston Churchill and Benjamin Disraeli (as opposed to, say, the tradition of Jeremy Corbyn or Oswald Mosley). The author, most recently, of a masterful biography of Napoleon, he received the coveted Bradley Prize earlier this year. He also is a public intellectual and among Europe’s staunchest defenders of America — though, come to think of it, since the passage of Brexit, a cause he championed, Britain may no longer be in Europe.
Wherever Britain is these days, last Thursday evening Mr. Roberts was at New York City’s elegant Metropolitan Club, delivering the Manhattan Institute’s prestigious Wriston Lecture to well-known and formally attired conservatives — a tribe that does not gather often in that neck of the woods. Filet mignon was served: Vegans and those concerned about the environmental impact of bovine flatulence be damned.
His talk was titled “1776: Would You Like to Reconsider?” He noted that America’s two major presidential candidates “are despised by 60 percent of Americans,” calling that an indicator that the primary system “is broken and urgently needs to be reformed.” He added: “For all the undoubted genius of your Constitution, in 2016 it is no longer sustainable for Americans to say that they have the best democratic system in the world.”
I found myself in emphatic agreement. But then he began to wax optimistic, reassuring the crowd that he was “not for a moment suggesting democracy is under threat in America. With your Constitution, Bill of Rights, First Amendment, Congress, separation of powers — and the sublime instincts of the American people — democracy is under no threat whatsoever here.”
Color me dubious. Among the reasons: Increasingly powerful “progressives” regard the Constitution and the Bill or Rights not as a contract between the governed and those they elect to govern them but as a hoary document subject to radical revision by activist judges eager to infringe rights they disfavor (e.g., the First and Second Amendments) and add others based on fashionable notions of “social justice.”
As for Congress, it has been sidelined by a president with a “pen and a phone” — as well as by a burgeoning bureaucracy, an administrative state that makes rules without bothering to obtain — or even solicit — public consent. Fewer and fewer powers remain separated. Is there reason to think this tide will soon ebb?
If not, then Mr. Roberts’ next point should especially concern us. The concept of “democratic values as worthy aspirations for modern society,” he said, “certainly is under serious threat globally from a totalitarian state-capitalist model that is dangerously attractive in what it is producing for its populations.” I surmise he had China in mind. It doesn’t appear to me that Russia, Iran and North Korea are producing anything of value for their populations. But maybe what I want for my children is not what they want for theirs.
We now come to the remark that caused me the most beard-stroking. “If we in Britain got over losing America and went on to become the largest empire in history,” he said, “you can get over four years of Mrs. Clinton.”
The British Empire reached its peak just after World War I. Less than two generations later, in the aftermath of World War II, it crumbled. Meanwhile, the Soviet empire, exploiting the postwar weakness of its neighbors, began to expand. Who knows how far communist tyrants would have marched had the United States not assumed the burdens of leadership?
Today, however, many on the right think what happens overseas will stay overseas if we just don’t interfere, while many on the left believe that the projection of American power inevitably does more harm than good.
Who, if not Americans, can be the designated driver of the global political and economic order? The rulers of China, Russia, Iran and North Korea are all eager to get behind the wheel. Do we not know what that would mean? President Obama and his fellow globalists continue to place their faith in failed transnational institutions and something they call the “international community” which, it should be obvious by now, is as much a figment of the imagination as Frosty the Snowman.
That said, I concur with Mr. Roberts that the “ideals of 1776” can “still work in the modern world” and indeed are “the best ones to cleave to.” The catch is that reviving those ideals — for example, reasserting the inalienable rights (as opposed to entitlements) of individuals (as opposed to groups), and the freedom to pursue happiness (a condition no government agency can guarantee) — will be no picnic.
“America needs to double down on the concepts that made her great and modernize the political system that gave her global hegemony in the first place.” Yes but what’s the chance that the next president — whoever he or she may be — will lead that effort? Can such a mission be accomplished in the absence of such leadership?
I want to believe it can — considering how abysmal is the alternative. But that will require the rise of a courageous new movement. The swell folks gathered at the Metropolitan Club — where the pumpkin cheese cake was delicious, by the way — are among those who have the resources, intellectual and otherwise, to get it started. Whether they also have the requisite determination is a separate question.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.