As Angela Merkel warns the world that the failure of the euro might well mean war, the new world disorder I predicted months ago approaches apace.
But if, as I argued, the likelihood of world chaos is of paramount importance this election year, its manifestations here at home are now set to dominate a presidential contest that everyone still thinks is about something else.
Some say we’re facing a referendum on debt and structural deficits. Some claim it’s all about jobs. Others declare a fateful choice between liberty and servitude, our constitutional principles hanging in the balance.
None of these are weak political narratives. But an even more powerful election-year framing is beginning to intrude — a monster issue with the power to scare into the background all our other policy polarities.
As police clash violently with Occupy protesters in Oakland and Atlanta …
As calls intensify for a military drug war in Mexico …
As the Obama administration doubles down on “rule by waiver” and stonewalls on Fast and Furious …
The race for the White House — and the state-level contests caught up in the maelstrom — could hinge on the old watchword of Americans bent first and foremost on averting national decline.
I’d bet my trick-or-treat bag it’s going to be a law-and-order election.
Don’t be afraid. Be very, very afraid.
We’re already deep into a major crisis in the rule of law. Even as he uses the regulatory state (a la Solyndra) to distort and defy legality, Obama himself understands he must take action to prevent a headlong slide into federal illegitimacy — deporting, for instance, hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants.
But the administration’s heavy reliance on drones and kill teams abroad symbolizes our fear at home that, today, the maintenance of order anywhere, at any time, requires the use of brute force.
This sentiment is especially painful given the general political realignment of Americans toward a more libertarian set of ideals. Yet it prevails — leaving the electorate more favorable toward cracking camped-out skulls even as support for the legalization of pot tops 50% for the first time since polling began.
Today’s stewing new breed of pessimistic populists are increasingly permissive on social issues — from abortion to immigration to sex and drugs — while growing increasingly dismissive of those whose choices lead to costly disruptions of basic social order.
From the perspective of communitarians left and right, pessimistic populism is a crisis all its own — a scary indicator of the collapse of the cultural institutions that have long drawn us out of our narrow self-interest and into cooperation for a common good.
Leading the outcry is Pope Benedict XVI, whose newly announced vision of a global economic authority to care for the world’s wretched strikes America’s pessimistic populists as the worst of both worlds — too puritanical and too pampering, and an embrace of servitude to boot.
But beneath the apparent selfishness of the dog-eat-dog mentality that could caricature pessimistic populism lurks a grim determination to preserve the small portion of the social contract that actually can be preserved.
People are beginning to recognize that there really will be some lost causes and unqualified losers in the great shakeout to come over the next five, 10, perhaps 15 years.
The failures of many of America’s least well-off make a mockery of the government’s corrupt, inept and inefficient efforts to blunt them.
The reduction of every economic class to a satrapy of one set of lobbyists and pork-artists or another gives individuals with a residue of personal and civic pride reason to think that we hardly deserve a middle class if we cannot sustain it without massive, perpetual federal aid.
Yet with policy in Washington set again and again by the rule against letting elites fail and the rule against giving less to the poor, the crush being felt by the middle class is, to lift a formula from the president, more a matter of math than class warfare. Take away the ideology of redistribution, and the machine grinding down America’s independent small producers still grinds on.
Why? For the same reason that law and order is poised to sweep away all other issues this election year. For even the bravest of policymakers, the alternative is too horrible to contemplate.
Libertarians hope to convince our pessimistic populists that we can scrap the drug war, reform the prisons and slash entitlements without unleashing a tide of miserable failures on our freer neighborhoods and cities.
Conservatives hope to persuade them that the federal government should be trusted to dole out tax cuts, incentives and other subsidies in order to prevent the collapse of middle-class standards of living and the bourgeois dream of upward mobility — while insisting that, at home, the federal government should be trusted with nothing else, for no other reason.
Respectable liberals, meanwhile, gape in shock at the popularity and the logic of pessimistic populism — at once too rube-like, too freakish and too Nietzschean.
But the law-and-order preoccupations of our pessimistic populists have been sown for decades by the largesse and willful ignorance of our self-styled progressives. Now, the reaper has come around.
It’s going to be a long election year, and it won’t be pretty. Jobs? Spending? The cost of health care? These are but warts on the ghastly face of our troubles.
Heads will roll. Teeth will gnash. Children will weep. There will be blood.
James Poulos is the host of The Bottom Line and Reform School on PJTV. A doctoral candidate in Government at Georgetown University, he holds degrees from Duke and USC Law. His writing has appeared in The American Conservative, The Boston Globe, Cato Unbound, The National Interest, and The Weekly Standard, among others, and is featured in the collection Proud to Be Right, edited by Jonah Goldberg. He has been an editor at Ricochet.com and a fellow of the Claremont Institute. He lives in Los Angeles. His Twitter handle is @jamespoulos.