Mark Steyn, After America, Regnery, $23.
Patrick J. Buchanan, Suicide of a Superpower, Thomas Dunne, $22.
A good prophet of doom, or at least a good-hearted prophet, always hopes that he is wrong. The same might be said of persecuted prophets, even of weeping prophets, as in the ancient tradition of Jeremiah. For that matter, it might also be said of good-hearted and good-humored prophets, as in the modern tradition of a Mark Steyn or a Pat Buchanan. Whether they would accept the title or not, both men are prophets of sorts; and as such, each seems to be hoping against hope that the future will not bring what they fear that it will bring.
Hoping against hope? Is that the best that we can hope to do? Perhaps not, but it is important to keep in mind that hope is a Christian virtue, and one that is especially (maybe only?) worth practicing at difficult moments. As G.K. Chesterton once put, “hope means hoping when everything seems hopeless or it is no virtue at all.”
If Chesterton saw great value of the virtue of hope, he put little stock in speculating about the future, especially if those doing the speculating were either grandly utopian or hopelessly distopian. In any case, when Chesterton peered into the future he saw only a “dead thing.” It was the past that was always alive, alive with “real possibilities and great adventures,” not to mention genuine surprises.
Where does all of this leave Messrs. Buchanan and Steyn? Each in his own way is quite aware of the great adventure that has been the American past. Each is also very worried about the state of the American present. And the American future? Admittedly, each is quite concerned that the American future threatens almost literally to be a dead thing, unless long-standing trends and ideas are reversed—and soon. But in the end each refrains from jumping off a doomsday cliff.
Given their preoccupation with the future that seems to loom before us, might Buchanan and Steyn more properly be labeled futurists? After all, futurists often stand accused of doing little more than projecting present trends into the future. Chesterton himself leveled that very charge at more than one alleged futurist of his day. To be sure, both Buchanan and Steyn engage in their share of such projections. Nor do they avoid dropping frequent hints at the doomsday future that awaits us. And yet something stops each of them from converting their hints and projections into bold predictions of inevitable decline and eventual doom. In other words, something blocks each of them from turning into nothing more than just another futurist. That something is their unrequested status as prophets.
As prophets (as opposed to futurists), each has left himself—and the rest of us—some wiggle room. Otherwise known as free will, this wiggle room does provide a basis for hope. After all, if something called original sin helped get us into this mess, something called free will can help us extricate ourselves from it.
Nonetheless, at this historical moment, Buchanan and Steyn are clearly right to insist that things have gone terribly wrong. To state the obvious, the West is in crisis. To say the least, the trend lines are not promising. And, to complete this depressing trifecta, heroic leaders do not appear to be abundant. For that matter, the crisis is such that great leadership might not be enough. Then again, who can say for sure? Only futurists (as opposed to prophets) claim to know things for sure.
Something else prevents Buchanan and Steyn from being called futurists. Something besides their refusal to be cocksure about the future prevents them from being lionized—or derided—as futurists. That something is their commitment to and understanding of the past, whether that be the distant past or its more immediate incarnation.
Preoccupied as Buchanan and Steyn are with what seems to be coming, each has remembered that he is at times a journalist first and an historian second—and at other moments that he is an historian first and a journalist second. To be sure, each of their efforts hints quite strongly at what might be in the offing, but his primary focus is on the past and, yes, at times on the present as well.
It’s precisely because Buchanan and Steyn have taken the time to peer into—and behind—our current crisis that both deserve to be read—and pondered. At the same time, what neither deserves is the derision and persecution that each has received. Then again, such treatment does go with the territory, the prophet’s territory, that is.
Because their peering has led them to issue jeremiads in a variety of media forums both men have had to deal with derision and persecution of varying degrees and in different ways. And yet each has more than managed to retain his great, good humor—and not just in response to what they have faced personally, but in response to what the west faces both at the moment and in the not very distant future.
Mark Steyn and Pat Buchanan as victims? In a very real sense they are, although neither has ever bothered—or so much as pretended—to wallow in victimhood. Nor do they portray the West as a victim. We have done what we have done to ourselves; hence the “suicide of superpower.”
Nonetheless, Steyn himself did have to face a formal charge of “Islamophobia,” courtesy of a Canadian human rights tribunal. And over the course of decades, Pat Buchanan has been unable to escape the seemingly permanent charge that he is nothing more than a bigoted anti-Semite.
More than that, both fall into the convenient category of “hate monger,” which is the favorite catch-all term that those on the left bestow on conservative opponents who dare to challenge the conventional pieties that pass for wisdom in such rarified places as network news departments or mainstream media editorial boards, not to mention Hollywood parlors.
Hatemonger? Why not? After all, when it’s difficult, if not impossible, to mount a reasonable argument against a Steyn or a Buchanan, why not engage in a little hatemongering yourself by so labeling your opponents?
Of course, both Steyn and Buchanan have managed to generate opposition within the ranks of conservatives. In Steyn’s case, that opposition comes largely from paleocons who regard him as just another neocon. Buchanan, on the other hand, is seen by those same neocons as little better than a throwback to the isolationism of the 1930s.
And yet far more unites these two writers than divides them. Both are prophets of the “demography is destiny” sort. As such, neither lacks for evidence to be worried about what is and what is, or at least what seems to be coming. Both are believers in American exceptionalism. In fact, both hope that that very sense of exceptionalism will in the end help save the country from its suicidal inclinations. Both are political junkies who nonetheless understand and share the wisdom contained in the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s admonition/aphorism that culture trumps politics. And yet, both refuse to shut the door on the possibility of an American recovery, a recovery that might begin with the defeat of Barack Obama in 2012, but a recovery that each knows will take many years beyond 2012 to achieve.
Not that either of them thinks that the country has many years to waste before beginning the arduous process of turning things around. On this score Buchanan is more precise than Steyn. The question on the dust jacket tells it all: “Will America Survive to 2025?” Steyn is less inclined to pick a date, but he is not one to mince words. The American collapse, he fears, will not be slow and soft, but rapid and ugly.
A good deal younger than Buchanan, the Canadian-born Steyn is much less inclined to engage in nostalgia about a lost American past. Born in 1959, he may have come of age during the age of Reagan, an age about which nostalgia currently reigns supreme. But Mark Steyn was not an American then, and he is not an American citizen now. A resident of New Hampshire and an outsider at heart, Steyn has only managed to inch his way toward the heart of the American beast, even as he continues to leave himself an easy escape route north.
Buchanan, on the other hand, grew up in the literal belly of the beast, albeit at a time when said beast had just begun to grow to a fearsome size. Born in 1938 and reared in Washington, D.C., Buchanan cannot resist looking back to the 1950s as a golden age for both the capital and the country.
Golden or otherwise, the age could not last. None do. As Richard Nixon’s economic adviser, Herbert Stein, once put it, ”if something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” The same might be said of the European social democracies, whose golden age appears to be a) now; and b) fast disappearing.
Long ago, another economist offered his own take on why things will stop. Surveying his own England, Adam Smith declared that “there is a great deal of ruin in a nation.” If that was true of Smith’s England at the time of the American Revolution, a fortiori it is true of England today, not to mention true of the United States that Steyn and Buchanan survey.
Much of what Steyn surveys can be found in and around Buchanan’s Washington. His target is not just the growth of the beast, but the mindset of the elite who inhabit it. Ring Lardner inadvertently captured that mindset long ago with this line: “Shut up, he explained.”
To his credit, Mark Steyn has not shut up. To his greater credit, he cannot resist explaining to big government types and their defenders that the whole thing is, to borrow one of their favorite words, unsustainable. Margaret Thatcher had it half right when she noticed that the trouble with socialism is that sooner or later you run out of other people’s money. The other half of the problem for the modern welfare state is that it is rapidly running out of people, meaning, as Steyn puts it, people “to stick it to.” As a result, the European Union is about the business of committing what Steyn dubs a “pre-crime”: it has “mugged the next generation.” He might well have tacked on a few more beyond that.
Instead of learning from the mistakes of our European brethren, the United States seems all too determined to copy them, the efforts of Mark Steyn and Pat Buchanan notwithstanding. And that would be the United States under both of the administrations of this century. Here Buchanan is more pointed than Steyn, probably because his resume includes a campaign to defeat the elder Bush’s bid for re-election in 1992.
While Steyn has never been bitten by the political bug, it would not be fair to Buchanan to dismiss his analysis as something akin to a political grudge match, or as preparation for one last hurrah at electoral politics. For that matter, Buchanan refuses to resort to even an occasional “I told you so,” busy as he is sweeping across the country and around the globe as he surveys the movements of peoples and the permanence of tribes.
On this score the two books complement each other nicely, if depressingly. Steyn’s focus is largely on the elites and their decisions, while Buchanan dwells on the masses and their movements. And therein resides some basis for hope. If elites can be persuaded, Steyn seems to hope, the course of the ship of state may be altered. And if peoples persist, Buchanan seems to hope, perhaps elites won’t matter—at least not quite so much.
Actually, there is more agreement here than first meets the eye. In his epilogue Steyn borrows from Milton Friedman to make a very powerful point. According to Friedman, a successful and prosperous country has to establish a political culture in which it would be politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing. Unless such a culture exists, adds Steyn, the right people in office will not do the right thing either—or, if they try, they soon will be out of office.
So there we are, back to square one, hoping against hope that somehow, in some way, such a culture can once again be created in a country that both Steyn and Buchanan fear is closer to becoming a third world country than it is to returning to great days gone by.
But one large area of difference remains. Remember the title of Mark Steyn’s first book? That would be America Alone. What Steyn laments, Buchanan pines for. If only America had remained alone, perhaps America would have remained strong and vibrant—and committed to limited government. If only America had resisted superpower status, especially once the Cold War was over, perhaps America could have been strong and vibrant and committed to limited government. And if only America could once again go it alone, divorced from entangling alliances, free of free trade commitments, and without a dog or an oil barrel in any Middle Eastern dispute, perhaps America can once again become strong and vibrant and able to practice limited government.
Here Pat Buchanan occupies ground that Mark Steyn does not. Since America had the backs of other nations for lo these many years, Steyn does not look forward to the day when no one will have its back. Buchanan is not in fundamental disagreement with much of the Steyn argument. The real concern of each is that there is no there there in much of modern America. To Steyn, multiculturalism is the “last belief” system of the West. To Buchanan, the “great experiment” of transforming a “western Christian republic into an egalitarian democracy made up of all the tribes, races, creeds, and cultures of planet Earth” is a utopian experiment that is doomed to fail.
On this score, Steyn and Buchanan stand together against the original neocon, Irving Kristol, who two decades ago declared that the culture war was over—and had been lost. In his last chapter appropriately titled “The Last Chance,” Buchanan declares that the culture war “is never over.” Rooted as it is in ”colliding about right and wrong, God and country, good and evil, the culture war will be with us forever.”
Who knows if Mark Steyn has read Pat Buchanan’s book? But if he has, here’s hoping that those fighting words produced a great, good smile. Because whatever their differences might be over the size and scope of the American empire, each knows in his heart of hearts that Daniel Patrick Moyniihan and Milton Friedman (who, to put it mildly didn’t always agree) were right. Matters of culture do come first. At least they should when it comes to finding a basis for continuing to hope against hope that our seemingly inevitable decline will prove to be something other than that.