Wednesday, March 11, 2015

What End-of-Dynasty Looks Like

If you are a conservatives like me you look at the news every day for portents. You hope to see signs in the sky that the Liberal Dynasty is coming to an end, and that the way is clearing for the Glorious Conservative Future.

I know. Life isn't really that simple, not even close. But still, it's obvious that the liberal regime is tired and uncertain. Liberals know something is wrong, even if the New York Times and NPR insist on assuring everyone that everything is copacetic.

If the Liberal Dynasty is really ageing, then it ought to look a bit like China in the second half of the 19th century. I've been reading Jung Chang's Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China, and I have to report, liberals or no liberals, it's pretty harrowing, as you read about the Manchu ruling class stumbling from one disaster to another. It's sobering to realize that when Cixi died, in 1908, the horrors hadn't really begun.

Jung Chang (author of Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China and Mao: The Unknown Story) is writing a revisionist history. In her story Cixi is a frustrated reformer instead of the Dragon Lady of previous histories that held China back and frustrated all the reformers.

In any case, the situation in China, from the start of the Opium Wars in 1839, was extremely challenging. The imperial system, that had existed for a thousand years, was suddenly confronted by western commercial powers that wanted to open up China to trade. That's what commercial nation states do. Their merchants want to trade, and they pressure and fund their governments to protect their trade from pirates and plunder.

China's response to this challenge was, to radically simplify, twofold. On the one side were the conservatives who wanted to continue the Confucian system as written, and on the other side reformers that in varying degrees liked the western system and/or realized that China better get with the program or else. Complicating the whole thing was Japan, that woke up from its ancient slumber and decided it wanted to dominate east Asia, including China.

Understand that emperors (and the rest of the Manchu ruling class) were educated solely in the Confucian classics. So when the west came in wanting to set up trading ports and institute western commercial law, and build railways and so on, what on earth would Confucius say? No much. But obviously the western ways would completely transform China. Everyone understood that.

In the event, of course, China under various incompetent emperors and advisers and the remarkable Cixi stumbled from one cock-up to another, during which the education system was completely revised, Beijing University was founded, a modern navy was built and destroyed by the Japanese, and the western armies visited Beijing in 1860 and 1900.

Indeed, China came into the modern world just in time for nationalism and socialism and all the horrors of the 20th century that we, in the Anglo-Saxon west, have mostly dodged.

Back to the Liberal Dynasty. Are we looking at some sort of Mandarin end times with the manifold failures of the Obama regime? We have the president invoking various readings from the liberal scriptures as in Crusaders and colonialism and endless racism while he mindlessly sets liberal activists loose to tangle the nation up in stupid Obamacare and stupid race wars and mindless green politics. Is that a repeat of the Chinese stumblings in 1840-1900?

The answer is that we don't know. Obviously liberalism and big government social democracy is in trouble. Any fool can see that. But politics and reform isn't a simple matter of issues and policy proposals and reform. Politics is about power, and liberals still have lots of power, and they still have lots of faith in their project. And they have the 47%, the folks getting some sort of free stuff from the government.

It's obvious though that liberals are nowhere where they'd thought they were after the glories of 2008 and America's First Black President. It was obvious back then that liberals thought they were going to own the future: a quick stimulus to set the economy to rights, a health reform to finally set health care on the right path, and green energy to save the planet from global warming. Grateful minorities, women and educated youth would then vote them in for a generation.

In fact, the opposite has happened. The economy has sputtered, Obamacare is a metastasizing disaster, green energy is a bird-slaughtering boondoggle, and Congress is solidly Republican. How could it have happened?

That's exactly what the conservatives asked in China in the second half of the 19th century. They were trying to do everything by the book but things were collapsing all around them.

Who knows how things will end up in America in the first half of the 21st century?

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