In 1885, the year Johannes Brahms finished his Fourth Symphony, the German lands were the heart of European civilization. German was spoken in a thousand-mile belt extending from Koenigsberg (now Russia) to Strasbourg (now France). Germany, displaying the finest in music, science, and engineering, was overtaking Britain as the leading industrial power.
Modern and cultivated, 19th-century Germans remained alarmingly backward in one fatal respect. In contrast to most of the West, republican constitutionalism in the German principalities was feeble and stunted. Liberalism had only a brief, shallow vogue. In political economist Albert Hirschman's formulation, passions rather than interests were the currency of public and private discourse. German civic institutions were far too weak to broker irreconcilable passions into national consensus. As we know, this hole in the German version of the Enlightenment would have catastrophic global consequences.
The United States, meanwhile, had constructed a constitution that carefully balanced constraints on tyranny with a state strong enough to govern. Winning majorities did not treat losing minorities as traitors; the loyal opposition would play a constructive role and govern another day. Religion, the object of brutal state promotion and suppression in Europe, was kept in a private realm, with the result that Americans were the most religious of peoples. Civic republicanism -- the active engagement of the citizenry in the business of self-government -- flourished.
America and its Constitution, of course, were works in progress. Still to be engaged after 1789 were the blight of slavery, the casualties of the Industrial Revolution, the periodic financial panics and depressions. Although the Constitution's bias against action was a particular challenge in emergencies, government nonetheless took on expanded responsibilities beginning in the Franklin Roosevelt era, with the broad consent -- even acclaim -- of the governed.
Today, America feels more like 19th-century Germany. Contending interests cannot be brokered. Passions trump reason. Faith overrules science. An ordinary policy difference is a Kulturkampf, casually but vehemently branded as treason. One of our two major parties has turned nihilist, giddily toying with default on the nation's debt, reveling in the dark pleasures of a fiscal Walpurgisnacht. Government itself is the devil.
Though the tea-stained Republican Party and its allies on the Roberts Court claim fealty to the Constitution of Madison and Hamilton, their own weak-government constitution is whatever they deem convenient. For Rick Perry, it prohibits Social Security. To Ron Paul, it forbids a Federal Reserve. Eric Cantor contends that the Founders neglected a balanced-budget requirement.
Whether the target is the Environmental Protection Agency, the Dodd-Frank law, or the Affordable Care Act, Republicans are out to destroy government's ability to govern. This attack, not on policy differences but on government itself, is new and ominous. Its modern roots are as diverse as Ronald Reagan, the Dixiecrats, and the anti-New Dealers. But even Reagan knew when to compromise, and nobody would describe the Gipper as nihilist.
Politically, a weak president keeps vindicating the right's strategic paralysis of government. Many citizens not ideologically predisposed to loathe government are now disillusioned and debilitated. A progressive friend in his mid-thirties laments, "I just feel further and further removed from any confidence that our politics can make a difference." President Barack Obama's advisers, tragically, read that frustrated passivity not as a cry for stronger presidential leadership but as a cue for more accommodation.
Obama, uneasy about getting ahead of public opinion, hesitates to reassert the case for government activism. Most economists outside the radical right are calling for more stimulus. But Obama's advisers consult the polls, discern that the electorate mistrusts government to execute major public investment, and resist offering it.
As token outlays and budget hawkery fail to solve the economic calamity, the circular doubts about government are only reinforced. The more skepticism Democrats detect, the more they embrace the cheap political grace of tax cuts. The administration, trapped in the radical right's surreal logic, plays by Tea Party rules rather than changing the game.
If ever strong government is needed, it is in a national emergency. The fatal combination of a nihilist Republican Party and a weak Democratic leader will steadily erode government's competence to address a deepening economic crisis -- and the people's faith in government itself.
The demons of 19th-century Germany were only guardians of the gates of the hell that was to come. America, by contrast, has always relied on the genius of our constitutional government -- restrained in normal times, potent in times of crisis. The right's reckless assault on our public institutions is not just an attack on government. It is a war against America.