CHICAGO, September 11, 2013 — On a September 11, President George Bush gave one of the most insightful speeches of our lifetimes. That address might have been our historical turning point, the marker we crave that says “before this moment the world worked this way, and afterward things were different,” but hardly anyone remembers his speech because it didn’t happen on that September 11 and it wasn’t delivered by that George Bush.
Our last century was dominated by the bloody conflict between liberal democracy and totalitarianism. It ended, to borrow a phrase from T.S. Eliot, “not with a bang, but a whimper.” Over the 1980s and 90s, the Chinese gradually abandoned Maoism. The Soviets retreated from Eastern Europe before implding into a rusty heap. Tinpot dictators from the Philippines to Latin America fled their palaces in terror abandoning gold-plated pistols, exotic animals, and vast collections of shoes.
By the early 1990s it was apparent that liberal democracy was alone in the world as a source of political legitimacy. There is no single date or event that officially marks the achievement. It just happened, the way you wake up one morning and discover that somewhere along the line you got old.
On September 11, 1990, as the nation braced for the campaign to remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait, President George H.W. Bush described the remarkable global transformation we were experiencing.
“We stand today at a unique and extraordinary moment … A hundred generations have searched for this elusive path to peace, while a thousand wars raged across the span of human endeavor. Today that new world is struggling to be born, a world quite different from the one we’ve known. A world where the rule of law supplants the rule of the jungle. A world in which nations recognize the shared responsibility for freedom and justice. A world where the strong respect the rights of the weak … how we manage this crisis today could shape the future for generations to come.”
From his vantage point on the edge of such a frightening conflict, Bush recognized that the dynamics of global politics had changed. His speech was the bookend to an address given 50 years before as Britain stood alone in 1940 against the Nazis. Winston Churchill in that dark moment delivered a warning coupled with a promise:
“Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age.”
President Bush’s September 11 speech pointed to our arrival on Churchill’s “sunlit uplands.” At long last, after so much blood sacrifice, we were heirs to a world marked by freedom, prosperity, and rule of law that so many had dreamed of building.
Bush’s speech could have inspired us to rub our eyes and look around, recognizing the beautiful new opportunities, and fresh problems, that surrounded us. We could have seized the chance to emerge from our Cold War defensive crouch, embracing a new, post-war order at home that would bring the freedom and prosperity of this new world to more people than ever before.
That is not what happened.
President Bush had guided the nation through a transformational victory and pointed the way to a new, freer, more prosperous global order. Domestically, under the influence of men like Jack Kemp, he was initiating a transition away from the old social welfare system into something that would eventually be branded “the Ownership Society.”
Unprecedented new trade agreements were being forged to help us lead the way into a global economy based on information and commerce rather than sweat and blood. After years of pressure from a young Democratic Senator named Al Gore, George Bush in 1991 signed an act that converted a Cold War military computer network into a public “information superhighway.” New cooperation was opening with Asian and Eastern European countries that had once been closed to mass trade.
Bush entered the ’92 next election cycle as the presumed winner. An SNL skit from late 1991 parodied the attitude among Democrats. Titled, The Race to Avoid Being the Guy Who Loses to George Bush, it featured all of the major figures in the Democratic Party explaining why none of them should be asked to challenge the President. All of the Democratic Party’s heavies declined to run, which should have cleared the field for Bush.
Unfortunately, a rebellion was underway inside the Republican Party. A vision for the world that Republicans had once barely dared to imagine was becoming a reality yet the party was turning fiercely against it, embracing a religious-themed populism virulently hostile to global capitalism.
Bush lost the election to a little known southern Governor named Bill Clinton who prevailed with only 43 percent of the vote. Instead of embracing the new world order, the nation would begin a long drift into malaise.
Few people in either party took seriously the dangers presented by the increasingly bizarre collection of people concentrating power in traditional Republican institutions. The public generally assumed that the extremists, if left alone, would simply burn themselves out. Besides, with all the major matters of interest more or less settled, there didn’t seem to be much harm these people could do.
Now, the Republican Party, the pragmatic bastion of fiscally sound problem-solvers has devolved into a cartoon show. There seems to be no conspiracy theory too outlandish, no fear too unrealistic to animate the base.
Yet the fact remains that we won the long, bloody wars of the 20th century. The battle between Capitalism and Marxism is behind us. Despite the lost opportunities of the past few years, the world at large is vastly freer, wealthier, and friendlier to capitalism than it has ever been.
Obama, the President Republicans so love to hate, is arguably more conservative than Nixon. No major national Democratic figure since Mondale has dared to endorse the 20th century leftist vision that once gave America 70 percent top marginal tax rates and ubiquitous union membership.
Our challenge now is preserving the effectiveness of public institutions in an environment far too dynamic for “big government” to function. Faced with the relief of victory, the toll of decades of trauma now seems to be bubbling out of us. Instead of seizing our new opportunities, we are breaking down into collective hysterics. On the “broad sunlit uplands” promised to us by Winston Churchill, we are building bunkers stuffed with preserved food, ammo, and gold coins.
We are allowing ourselves to be defined by the wrong September 11. We could have been, and could still become the heirs of George H.W. Bush’s forward-looking declaration of victory. To do so will require courage and vision we have yet to demonstrate.
It is time to move beyond the logic of the War Century and reckon with the challenges of our own time. We have to decide which September 11 will define our future.
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