Entries from July 1997

Middle Class Dismissed

David Frum July 30th, 1997 at 12:00 am Comments Off

Liberals used to jeer at the working-class social conservatives who voted for Ronald Reagan; Mr. Reagan, they said, was exploiting working-class resentment of abortion and racial
quotas, while delivering the economic goods to the rich. How could anyone be such a fool as to trade money for symbolism?

The new budget deal suggests that President Clinton believes there are plenty of such fools. It offers substantial tax cuts to the rich and poor — from the child tax credit to capital gains tax reductions — but the middle and upper-middle classes whose main source of income is their salaries get little but kind words and poll-tested gimmicks. Mr. Clinton said as a candidate in 1992 that he was seeking the Presidency on behalf of a “forgotten” middle class. But in this budget deal, it is he who is doing the forgetting.

Democrats have been losing Presidential elections since 1968 by appearing to champion the poor above everybody else. By talking tough on welfare and by promising tax cuts, Mr. Clinton tried to reach out to the broad middle of the electorate — families earning the median or slightly better than median income.

And he succeeded. In 1996, he beat Bob Dole among voters earning $50,000 to $75,000 a year. And what did those people get in return for their support over the years? Just what the social conservatives got: symbols. The V-chip. Pro-choice judges. Rousing speeches on Earth Day. The first female Attorney General. Not much else.

For the working poor, this budget deal creates a vast new medical entitlement for uninsured children and delivers a $500-per-child tax credit even to families that pay no income tax. The well-off get a reduction in the capital gains tax and an increase in 10 years to $1 million in the size of estates sheltered from the nation’s confiscatory death taxes.

But what about the two-earner family on Long Island or elsewhere in the costly New York area taking in a total of $75,000? The construction worker and the nurse who have two kids, a six-year-old car and a mortgage — but no stocks or bonds. What has the President done for them?

In his first term, President Clinton reneged on the promise of a “middle-class” tax cut, imposed a new tax on higher-income Social Security recipients, and tried to force through a comprehensive health plan drafted without much attention to the concerns of people like the Long Island couple.

Now in his second term, the President has deployed all his rejuvenated political strength to thwart tax relief for these middle-class salary earners. He has made clear since 1995 that broad reductions in income-tax rates will be vetoed. He fought to confine the per-child tax credit to families earning less than $60,000. And while he was forced in the end to give way on that point, salaried workers making $75,000 won’t be throwing many steaks on the barbecue to celebrate. With an annual Federal tax burden that the Tax Foundation estimates to be nearly $16,000, a $500-per-child credit looks rather more like a rounding error than a tax cut.

The good news for the middle class is, supposedly, the President’s elaborate plan for tax relief for college tuition. Unfortunately, many experts believe Federal student assistance programs have only tempted colleges to raise their fees, leaving the real cost to the student’s family unchanged — which is how tuition costs have been able to run up so fast over the past two decades.

But even if that turns out not to be true this time, there remains something highly offensive about the President’s reluctance to disgorge any middle-class money unless it is spent in ways of which he approves. This budget looks a lot less like middle-class relief than like a remission of tribute from a feudal lord who expects the peasantry to doff their caps in gratitude.

No, it’s no longer a forgotten middle class. Instead, it is a manipulated middle class. That may count as a political accomplishment in some ways. But it’s an accomplishment the President’s party may not thank him for in the end — not when the next recession reminds middle-class America that it has become even more overtaxed and underserved than it was when it erupted in political anger in 1992.

Originally published in The New York Times

Who’s Afraid Of Big Bad ITT?

David Frum July 29th, 1997 at 12:00 am Comments Off

There was a time, not so long ago, when intelligent people trembled in terror of the giant corporations that seemed to be taking over the planet. These monsters had, writers such as John Kenneth Galbraith warned, grown so big that nothing except an equally monstrous government could control them. And the biggest, scariest and most sinister of those monsters was a company known by three frightening initials: ITT. By the year 2000, it was predicted, the company would be one of just 300 conglomerates that would utterly dominate the global economy.

Instead, two weeks ago, ITT took the final steps toward dismantling itself. All that will remain of this allegedly indestructible colossus will be a rather small corporation focused on one single line of business: the publishing of foreign-language phonebooks. Phonebooks! It’s a sad end for this once awe-inspiring firm, but it drives home a truth that should never be forgotten: There is no such thing as corporate power. No matter how rich, no matter how large, every corporation is an abject slave to the whims of its customers. Should it ever cease to serve them, it will die.

ITT — or International Telephone & Telegraph, as it was originally known — was assembled in the 1920s by a Danish immigrant to the U.S. He collected a ramshackle set of dinky Caribbean and Latin American telephone companies, and then attempted to glorify his not-too-stable enterprise with a name intended to equate his flimsy business with mighty AT&T, American Telephone & Telegraph.

By the late 1950s, ITT was in desperate trouble. Its board hired a gifted young accountant, Harold Geneen, to remake the company. Geneen believed that management was a statistical science. There was, in his view, no difference between a phone company and a bakery. “Management,” he liked to say, “is management.”

And so over the next 12 years, he embarked on one of the great corporate buying sprees in U.S. financial history. He bought the Sheraton hotel chain, the Diner’s Club credit card, the Avis rental car company, the Hartford insurance company, and Continental Bakeries, manufacturers of the Twinkie, to name only a few of the dozens of firms he purchased. Geneen thrust ITT into the very first rank of American business, when measured by total revenues. And he promised to find some “synergy” that would transform this weird collection of assets into a dynamic, ultra-profitable global
conglomerate. Along the way, he frightened liberal-minded people half to death.

President Richard Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell, attacked ITT in a 1969 speech. “The danger that super-concentration poses to our economic, political and social structure cannot be overestimated.” That same year, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission warned that ITT and companies like it “pose a serious threat to America’s democratic and social institutions by creating a degree of centralized private decision-making that is incompatible with a free-enterprise system.”Michigan Senator Phil Hart — one of the most powerful and respected men in Congress — convened hearings into the menace created by a company so big and so powerful that none of the ordinary rules of economics applied to it.

They were all wasting their time. ITT’s grab-bag corporate strategy was a threat to nobody except ITT’s investors. ITT was in fact never a very profitable company (it turns out that the sort of person who is good at managing a bakery is very seldom good at running a telecommunications company). Because ITT was failing to increase its earnings, it sought to generate the appearance of earnings growth by buying up other people’s earnings. To pay for these acquisitions, the company took on immense loads of debt. The scheme lasted only as long as the sizzling stock market of the 1960s. Once the market slumped in 1973, the ricketiness of ITT’s business was exposed.

Over the next 20 years, stock-market pressures forced ITT’s managers to sell off Geneen’s acquisitions one by one. By 1997, the hotels were the only good business left. Faced with a takeover attempt, ITT’s management set up the hotels as a separate business, and jumped over to it — abandoning the original ITT and its pitiful phonebooks. That’s bad news for ITT’s investors. But a useful lesson for anyone inclined to believe in corporate bogeymen.

Originally published in The Financial Post

Did The U.S. President Auction Off U.S. Foreign Policy?

David Frum July 19th, 1997 at 12:00 am Comments Off

You probably haven’t heard much about the Clinton financial scandals recently. The U.S. media aren’t interested — the story is complicated, it’s vacation season, and besides, the only scandals they care about involve Republicans.

But all of that may at last be about to change. Thanks to the FBI and the Senate investigative committee, the complicated Clinton campaign finance story is this month becoming very simple. What it comes down to is this: Did the president of the United States auction off U.S. foreign policy to the highest bidder?

Throw your mind back to early 1995. President Bill Clinton has just suffered a humiliating defeat in the 1994 congressional elections. He is terrified he will lose in 1996. His campaign adviser, Dick Morris, comes to him with a plan to save his job by putting television advertising on the air earlier than ever before, 18 months before the next election. The problem is, Morris’s plan will cost hundreds of millions of dollars — more than anybody has ever spent on the presidency — and the Democratic party is broke.

That’s when the president and Al Gore and the First Lady started making their notorious phone calls to every Hollywood executive and rich liberal in the U.S. That’s when the Lincoln Bedroom is turned into a Motel 6. That’s when the shady international businessmen and the convicted drug dealers begin showing up at White House functions. But even this was not enough.

So the president brought in an old acquaintance: John Huang. When the Huang story broke, the president insisted he barely knew who the man was, and had no idea how he had come to work for his re-election campaign. However, internal White House documents show the president personally ordered the hiring of John Huang — first as an official in the commerce department, and then as a Democratic National Committee fundraiser.

Huang had been an employee of the Lippo Group. Lippo is an Indonesian company, owned by an extremely wealthy Chinese family named Riady. Lippo had bought an important Arkansas bank in
1984, and that is when Huang and Clinton came to know each other. Through Huang, in turn, Clinton came to know some other interesting people: The Riadys are large investors in China and have intimate business relations with the Chinese military and the Chinese government.

At the Commerce Department and then at the DNC, Huang was clearly something more than an ordinary employee. He repeatedly received secret intelligence briefings. Phone logs show he received
several calls from the Chinese embassy in Washington. And for no reason that anybody can figure out, he visited that embassy at least six times. Nor was it ever fully clear whom Huang was working for. He received a nearly $ 1-million gift on his departure from Lippo.

In 1995 and ’96, Huang raised millions of dollars for the DNC. Many of the donations came from people who manifestly could not afford to make them. But not to worry: They would within days or weeks receive wire transfers from China reimbursing them.

It looks, in other words, as if Huang were co-ordinating a scheme to route money from China to Clinton — and that Clinton knew it. What makes this all the more alarming was that this immense flow of money was occurring at precisely the same moment the U.S. and China were toughing out the worst crisis in their relations since the Vietnam War. Nineteen ninety-five was the year of Taiwan’s
first free presidential elections. The Chinese were determined to overawe the Taiwanese, and began “testing” missiles off the Taiwanese coast and muttering threats about invasion. After some delay, the U.S. government ordered the Seventh Fleet to the area. And all the while, the president of the U.S. appears to have been pocketing money from the potential enemy his fleet was

Some cynics might say: so what? In the end, the president did the right thing. He did back Taiwan. And yes, that’s true. But you have to wonder — would the Chinese have dared behave as they did if they did not know they held a powerful secret about the president? Clinton may believe he didn’t sell himself. But the Chinese seem to be holding a substantial receipt.

Clinton’s critics have in the past compared his scandals to those of Richard Nixon. They are now looking far more grave even than that.

Originally published in The Financial Post

Image Of Generous U.S. Doesn’t Sit Well With Europeans

David Frum July 15th, 1997 at 12:00 am Comments Off

It is an uncomfortable thing to attend meetings of Europeans and Americans. Last weekend, in an vast old Victorian hotel overlooking San Francisco Bay, a German foundation sponsored
a meeting of journalists and politicians from the continent and the U.S. to talk about the reasons for America’s amazing economic success over the past 15 years and Europe’s troubling economic failure.

Since 1983, the U.S. has enjoyed solid growth and low unemployment, punctuated by one relatively mild recession in 1991-92. The labor market in the U.S. has become so tight, it squeaks. Inflation has tumbled to virtually nothing. And in the industries of the future — industries headquartered in the famous Silicon Valley just to the east of San Francisco Bay, the U.S. lead has grown from the commanding to the almost overwhelming. The credit goes to the era of deregulation that began here in the late 1970s, which slashed the cost of communications and transportation, enlarged access to credit, and weakened private-sector unions, making it easier to fire — and therefore less daunting to hire — workers.

Meanwhile Europe is staggering through its eighth year of high unemployment, with no sign of improvement. Investment capital is flooding out of countries such as Germany. It’s going to Mexico,
to the Far East, often to the U.S. — anywhere to be out from under the weight of the oppressive Western European system of crushing taxes and crippling regulation.

So when Europeans and Americans meet to talk, they are engaged in something more than an intellectual exchange. The exchange rapidly degenerates into debate, and then into ideological argument between champions of what the Europeans see as two ideological systems — the American system of bareknuckled competition and the European system of controlled capitalism.

The argument isn’t always friendly. I was asked to talk about the U.S. welfare reform of 1995, which went into effect on July 1. That reform ended the federal welfare entitlement, and replaced it with a system of federal grants to the states. States are free to spend the money more or less as they like, on two conditions: They must ensure that their poor work and they must set limits so that nobody gets welfare for more than two consecutive years or more than five years in total over his lifetime. I explained it as best I could.

And then I got myself into trouble: I said that while the Europeans present probably believed that the reform arose out of U.S. callousness, the truth was that it was motivated by U.S. generosity and compassion. A callous country would have left the old welfare system in place, and shrugged off the misery of the inner cities. It was precisely because the U.S. would not tolerate the squalor and degradation of inner-city life — because Americans insisted that everyone could work and be a full participant in society — that the demand for welfare reform overwhelmed President Bill Clinton and compelled him to sign the Republican Congress’ law.

Well! I’ve given a lot of speeches in my life, but I don’t think I’ve ever given one that so utterly enraged my audience. It was actually quite disconcerting: To say something that one doesn’t think of as particularly inflammatory, only to discover that one has tossed a match on some unmarked pile of explosives.

It was so disconcerting, in fact, that later I made my way to the bar to ask some of the people I knew: Just what was that about anyway?

What you have to understand, my friends said, was how nervous and irritable we Europeans are. Our statist way of managing our affairs has failed, but we find it politically impossible to change. When governments try, as the conservative government in France tried, they are tossed out of office. So we are trapped. We feel ourselves falling behind, we don’t know what to do about it, and so we want this one consolation — we want to tell ourselves that the reason we are failing is that we are at least more caring and compassionate than the Americans. To deny that the Americans are harsh is a direct attack on our self-respect. Why would we put up with that?

Good point. But for a Canadian it raises a question: Our country perches half-way between Europe and the U.S. Our economic performance is similarly stuck half-way in between. Why do we hesitate to take the obviously better way?

Originally published in The Financial Post

Splendor In The Grass — Revisited

David Frum July 14th, 1997 at 12:00 am Comments Off

In college, my friends and I used to debate the year that one was irretrievably, unqualifiedly, with no more excuses middle-aged. The age we finally settled on was 37. And here I am. If my college self could somehow be introduced to my now middle-aged self, what would he think? More than anything, I imagine, he would be startled by how much of my time I spend thinking about grass. No, not the kind you smoke. The kind you water and mow.

When my wife and I bought our house in Washington, the first house we’d ever owned, one of its principal attractions was its lawn. It was the most beautiful lawn I’d ever seen, thick and dewy and verdant. It was the previous owner’s pride and joy, and as we concluded the deal, he solemnly enjoined me to take good care of it.

That seemed easy enough. I’d grown up in Canada. In between the time the snow melts and the time the autumn rains start, you need to water a lawn maybe six or eight times — no
trouble fitting that into a busy schedule. I had a vague memory of my father moving the sprinkler around the yard on Sundays, and he never seemed over-burdened by the job.

Then I moved to Vietnam-on-the-Potomac. Suddenly I found myself paying $ 600- a-month summertime electric bills. I bought short pants for the first time since 1981. I bought a straw hat. And I began devoting my life to the upkeep of my lawn.

It didn’t take me long to learn that the reason my lawn looked so lovely was that the previous owner had been saturating it with enough chemicals to poison a small town. He had signed a multi-year contract with a local lawn- maintenance company, and once a month they slip a little card under the door itemizing the fertilizers and nutrients, the fungicides, insecticides, and herbicides, the antioxidants, deodorants, and antidepressants they have applied over the past four weeks.

Sometimes they leave behind a little yellow tag on a stick; pushed into the grass, helpfully suggesting we keep the children off it for the next 24 hours. Protecting my children from Love Canal-like toxins has turned out, however, to be the least of my agricultural responsibilities.

The blend of grasses in my lawn, I’m told, is almost exactly the same as that of the famous lawns of Oxford University. But at Oxford, it rains every day and averages 62 degrees in July. We are trying to keep our Oxford lawn alive in a city that lies on the same latitude as Palermo.

So it must be watered all the time. Endlessly. And in certain precise ways. You cannot water a Washington lawn in the daytime: The water evaporates before it sinks below the surface. You wake up at dawn to start the sprinklers, move them at 7:30, and then turn them off when it’s time to take the kids to school. You start them again after dinner and move them when the kids go to bed. It’s not a task. It’s a calling.

Sometimes I contemplate slackening my standards and letting my inherited greensward turn a little brown. Sometimes I calculate the cost of installing built-in sprinklers that can be controlled with a timer. Sometimes I think about replacing the whole thing with a rock garden. Sometimes I wonder whether there isn’t more to life than this.

But that’s the thing about middle age. You realize: Actually, there isn’t more to life than this. The people amongst whom I live, my neighbors, aren’t interested in my interior life. They judge me, as they must, by what they can see, and nothing I do is quite as visible as my care of my lawn. We hear a great deal about community nowadays. Well, there’s only one thing I do whose consequences
fall inescapably upon my community, and that is my care of my property. If I maintain it well, I’m doing my duty by my neighbors. If I fail it, I fail them.

This is of course the sort of thinking that used to lead intellectuals to condemn the emptiness of middle-class life.

I remember reading as a student one of the earliest of those critics, Philip Slater, who published The Pursuit of Loneliness in 1970. Slater had many severe things to say about lawns. He had many severe things to say about marriage, raising your kids, and paying your taxes, too. Slater called himself a “social critic.” My neighbors would call him a slob. If I lived next door to him, so would I.

I volunteered for the job of taking care of this grass, just as I volunteered for every other responsibility in my life. I’m glad to have them all. You know, on the whole I’m surprisingly happy to be 37.

Originally published in The Weekly Standard

France Must Let Go Of Its Economic Delusions If It Is To Prosper

David Frum July 12th, 1997 at 12:00 am Comments Off

It will be a gloomy Bastille Day in France Monday. The French economy remains mired in its worst economic slump since the Depression. For eight consecutive years, almost 13% of the population of France has been unemployed. Among young people, the unemployment rate exceeds 20%.

It’s true that France’s generous welfare state prevents the unemployed from going hungry or homeless. But no welfare state can alleviate the psychic pain of unemployment: the feeling that one is useless, that one is doing nothing with one’s life. Nor is it clear that France’s generosity can continue for very much longer. The country’s budget deficit is scraping 4.5% of gross domestic product, or almost five times worse than Canada’s. Since French taxes are among the heaviest on earth, the only way to balance the budget will be with draconian spending cuts — tough medicine in a country already in severe economic distress.

In their despair, the French are turning to political extremism. The ultra-nationalist National Front won 16% of the vote in the first round parliamentary election last month. The Front proposes to rescue the French economy by expelling France’s Muslim population — not only immigrants, but those born on French soil — and then spending billions on government make-work programs for everyone else.

At the other extreme, the French Communist party has come back to life. It won 40 seats in parliament in June, just enough to give Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin his majority. The Communists still champion what might be called the anti-Galileo point of view: The earth doesn’t move around the sun, two and two do not equal four and you can solve your economic problems by nationalizing banks and steel mills.

What is so strange about this sad situation is that, just across the channel, the British are providing the French with the proof that a high-unemployment European economy can create jobs nearly as effectively as the U.S. The British economy is booming, and it looks likely to continue booming. Last Monday the new Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer — Labour! — brought in his first budget, and cut Britain’s corporate tax rate by two percentage points. Britain is now the single-largest recipient of foreign investment in Europe, and not only from English-speaking North America as one might expect, but from Japan, Taiwan and South Korea as well.

The moral of this story is that in politics, ideas still matter. The French governing classes still adhere to the statism of the past. I attended a conference of prominent Europeans some weeks ago, and was startled by the extent to which even right-wing Gaullists denounced the alleged “savagery” of capitalism, and insisted that France would not accept what they called (preposterously) the “Anglo-Saxon” model of globalized capitalism.

Aesop tells the fable of the Greek monkey trap. You put candy in a narrow-necked jar, the monkey reaches in and grabs a fistful, and then is caught because he can’t pull his hand out of the jar without letting go of the candy. His greed holds him fast.

Like the monkey, we so often think we are prisoners of circumstances, when we are in fact prisoners of our own misconceived ideas. France could prosper tomorrow. It need only cut taxes, reduce the spending that forces tax rates up, soften the rules that forbid businesses from firing people (and therefore deter them from hiring people), and take a more tolerant attitude toward foreign investment. It’s not a very difficult plan: Free-market economics has been enriching every country to try it since the British invented it 200 years ago.

But to prosper, France must let go of its delusions that there exists some unique French-speaking version of economic logic that somehow spares France from the need to do what every other country in the world must. That economic logic doesn’t in fact exist. The French get no more benefit from it than Aesop’s monkey gets from the candy in its paw. But so long as they clutch at it, their nation will remain ensnared in endless recession, will fall ever farther behind the English-speaking world technologically, and will become ever more vulnerable to the terrifying blandishments of political extremism.

Originally published in The Financial Post

French Lessons

David Frum July 7th, 1997 at 12:00 am Comments Off

France 1814-1914

By Robert Tombs

Longman, 592 pp., $ 29. 75 (paperback)

A Victorian Englishman went to his local library looking for a copy of the French Constitution; “I’m sorry sir,” the librarian replied, “but we don’t carry periodical literature.” A creaky joke, but the British had reason to laugh. In the century after the 1789 revolution, France adopted a dozen new constitutions: in 1790, 1792, 1793 (never put into effect), 1795, 1799, 1804, 1814, 1815 (also never put into effect), 1830, 1848, 1852, and 1875.

And it wasn’t as if the French behaved themselves in between overthrowing regimes. The monarchy of King Louis-Philippe lasted 18 years, from 1830 to 1848, but it was punctuated by two important Paris insurrections — one in 1832 and another in 1834 — and eight assassination attempts on the monarch. Napoleon III ruled for 19 years, and survived six assaults, one of which killed eight and wounded 150. Before the Third Republic could establish itself after the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, it ferociously crushed a dissident “Commune” government organized by Paris radicals. Altogether, 60,000 or more Frenchmen perished in internecine fighting between 1814 and 1871.

The English-speaking countries have never known anything like this sort of turmoil. The last break in the continuity of British government came in 1688. And while American history has certainly been stained with violence, the United States too has seldom gone in for radical legal or constitutional upheavals: Only in 1865, and then only in part of the country, have Americans ever suffered anything like the total collapse in state authority that the French have lived through once or twice in every generation.

The French seem in recent years to have grown embarrassed by their bloody history. Back in 1950, the revolutions and counterrevolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries could still be romanticized; these were bourgeois revolts that gave way to premature proletarian uprisings, and were then followed by temporarily successful but ultimately futile attempts to reimpose a bourgeois order. Without Marxism to infuse world-historical meaning into slaughter, all too many French writers prefer to avert their eyes from the disorder in the city streets and study instead the changeless rhythms of life in the countryside.

But if the French revolutions of the 19th century have less to say to the French of today than they once did, perhaps they have more to say to those of us in the English-speaking world. It may be that the question that has long interested English-speaking historians of France — Why have our societies been so stable when theirs has not? — should now begin to give way to a new, less flattering question: What does the instability in France’s past tell us about the instability that may lie in our future?

Robert Tombs, a professor of history at Cambridge University, puts the problem of instability at the very top of his list of concerns in his new account of 19th-century France. In 1789, the French had discovered that it was possible for a society to capsize itself, shatter its old institutions, and invent entirely new institutions, removing its old elites and creating new ones. Tombs observes that “the sudden violent remaking of society was a new concept of politics. It upset old certainties, reversed relationships of power and intruded into every aspect of life.” The French were not able to recover their balance for decades afterward. The French mistrusted one another; so fantastically mistrusted one another that they were capable of believing even the most lurid horror stories about their internecine enemies. “Conspiracy theories,” Tombs writes, “perpetuated ‘the language of civil war’ in politics. They portrayed not a society pluralistically divided by legitimate beliefs and interests, but a ‘binary divide’ between a united, patriotic and wholly legitimate ‘us,’ and a diverse unholy alliance of traitors and criminals ‘them.’ The struggle was dramatized into a historic battle for the soul of France and the future of the world.”

The sharpest line dividing the French from one another was the society’s furious disagreement over the role of religion. As the century progressed, the conflict intensified. By the 1880s, “instead of at least paying lip service to Catholic ethical and spiritual values as the foundation of morality in society, representatives of the republican State condemned them for undermining the ethical standards of a modern democratic nation. . . . All their educational aims — the promotion of scientific rationalism, of national unity, of progressive political attitudes, of a new rational morality, of individual self-reliance — they saw as blocked or undermined by Catholic education, which, they believed, made children superstitious, submissive, hypocritical and unpatriotic.”

The religious schism in French society divided the country geographically as well as by faith. “What has principally determined the beliefs and political loyalties of French people since the Revolution has been the part of the country where they lived,” Tombs says, with radicalism strongest in the center and south of the country, with Catholicism strongest in the west and southwest, and with militant nationalism strongest in the east and north.

This all sounds abundantly familiar. America too is increasingly divided along religious lines. As in late 19th-century France, the animosity comes to a head most vividly in the classroom, with the state ever more determined to use its schools to form a citizen free from what educators see as the prejudices of the past, and with religious communities truculently determined to resist. The different factions in American life likewise seem increasingly prone to paranoid fantasies: invisible U.N. helicopters, CIA drug-smuggling into inner-city neighborhoods, and October surprises. And these dividing lines can also be traced geographically, with the conservative and individualistic southern and western United States confronting the more statist and permissive northeast and Pacific regions of the country.

Of course, it would be ridiculous to describe today’s United States as an unstable society. Nor is it sensible to pounce on every parallel between one historical situation and another as proof that history must repeat itself. But here are some questions about contemporary America that a reading of 19th- century French history does raise.

A traditional, agricultural society does not demand very much from its citizens. It doesn’t even demand that its citizens be citizens. Eighteenth- century France got along very well without a common language, without much in the way of a tax system, and with a mercenary army that recruited as avidly in Switzerland as at home. But modern states need more from their people. They ask for citizen armies, for popular participation in politics, for shows of patriotism, for money, and for submission to thousands of minute regulations. The ability of modern states to get the things they ask for is the crucial measure of their health. And in order to attain that measure of health, to win the wholehearted support of their citizens, modern states have to arrive at some strong degree of social and cultural consensus. This is something that 19th-century France was only occasionally able to do, and it is something that late 20th-century America also seems to find increasingly difficult.

In the name of consensus, 19th-century France was driven toward repression. In 1905, at the height of the country’s anticlericalism, Tombs says, teachers conferences “were held on a Friday with a compulsory meat dinner” in order to “unmask schoolteachers who were secret Catholics.” (French republicanism was in many ways the functional equivalent of American feminism. Like feminism, it made control of education its highest priority; like feminism, it saw religion as its main enemy; and like feminism, it was capable of the greatest ruthlessness in the pettiest circumstances.)

Tombs suggests that the two French governments that most successfully united the country were also the two most illiberal: the First and Second Empires of the Bonaparte family. The great Napoleon and his nephew Napoleon III managed to reach accommodations with the Catholic church while still representing themselves as inheritors of the revolution. They satisfied nationalists by winning military victories (or, in the case of the nephew, by trying to) while appeasing royalists with aristocratic pomp and ceremony. They won over the working class with expensive public-works projects and gratified the middle classes by creating a meritocratic civil service. But this Napoleonic synthesis could not last, because it resorted so frequently to war and because its legitimacy was too tenuous to survive a single defeat. The very incoherence that made the Empires work for a time ultimately doomed them: “How can you expect the Empire to run smoothly?” Napoleon III asked. “The Empress is a legitimist, Morny [his interior minister] is an Orleanist, my cousin Napoleon is a Republican, I am a socialist; only Persigny [his most faithful minister] is a Bonapartist, and he is mad.”

The warning that French history should flash to Americans is not to fear dictatorial coups or urban street fighting. Both of those were timebound events, responses that the French could resort to because in the era before universal suffrage, any few hundred agitators could convince themselves that they represented the will of the people, and because in the era before rifles and small-unit tactics, an urban mob equipped with muskets and hidden behind a barricade could hold off regular troops for days. The warning that French history flashes is that a polity riven by fundamental disagreements over religion, culture, and morality will suffer great difficulty in governing itself effectively.

The history of the public policy of 19th-century France is the story of one colossal error after another: the invasion of Russia in 1812, protectionist trade policies, the alliance with Prussia in 1866 that made German unification possible, Napoleon’s insane attempt to create a satellite state in Mexico, near-war with Britain in 1898, the cover-up of aristocratic treachery that enflamed the Dreyfus Affair, and the infamous Plan 17 that sent French troops in bright-red trousers charging at German machine guns in the woods of Lorraine in the opening weeks of the First World War. At the bottom of nearly every one of these fiascoes, you encounter the same explanation: A weak state was unable to act intelligently even when intelligent options were available. Why?  Because its leaders were obliged to decide every issue with an eye to holding together a fractured country.

The United States likewise cannot begin to get a grip on the problem of fatherless families because its leaders know that while half the society is horrified by family breakup, another half sees it as the necessary price of sexual liberty. Why can’t the United States act now to curb Social Security promises that cannot be honored? Because Americans don’t trust one another enough to give back any claim they have been given on the public treasury for the sake of the public good. Why is the U.S. response to foreign crises so tentative and nervous? Because the country’s leaders know that there is virtually no foreign policy objective that a president can name for which American voters are prepared to tolerate the loss of any substantial number of American soldiers. The creeping enervation and incapacitation of the state is every bit as deadly a symptom of the trickling away of legitimacy as marches in the streets — or, for that matter, demonstrations on campuses.

Like 20th-century America, 19th-century France was a country perplexed by ethnic and linguistic diversity. Over the previous 800 years, the kingdom of France had expanded southward, westward, and eastward from Paris, but it had never truly absorbed its conquered territories. The French Revolution got rid of what remained of the old internal political boundaries: After 1789, for the first time, all of the French paid the same taxes, regardless of where they lived. But the Revolution did not efface the differences between peoples. Tombs repeats the estimate of the historian Eugen Weber that in the mid-19th century only 20 of the 83 departments of France were wholly French-speaking. In the 1870s, French was a foreign language for half the population of France. The rest spoke Flemish, Provencal, German, Breton, Basque, Catalan, and 88 dialects of standard French, among many other tongues. They looked almost as dissimilar as they sounded; and 19th-century Frenchmen believed that there were also profound differences in character among the people of the various regions of France.

The French political Left was determined to absorb and eliminate all these local particularities in order to forge a republic “one and indivisible”: One reason that French republicans so disliked the church was its willingness to operate schools in the local speech. At first, this seems a response completely at odds with that of the American multiculturalist Left. But in both France and America, Left and Right have understood that there is an intimate connection between the governance of the state and the diversity of its population. The difference between the two situations is very largely tactical: In France it was the elimination of diversity that the Left saw as essential to its political dominance, while in America it is via the deconstruction of the country’s common linguistic and political culture that those on the left see their route to hegemony. In both 19th-century France and late 20th-century America, the failure to work out a settlement acceptable to all perforated a fault line through the very heart of the country — a fault line that in France at last snapped in 1940.

America in 1997 is rich, quiet, and secure. It seems unimaginable at this tranquil moment that any of that could ever change. But the only thing we positively do learn from history is that things do change, and not infrequently for the worse. What that “worse” might look like is something the comfortable Americans of today can learn a little about from the unhappy French of a century ago.

Originally published in The Weekly Standard