Streetwise Professor

March 21, 2010

Jacobean England, Putin’s Russia, and Obama’s America

Filed under: Politics — The Professor @ 8:33 pm

Some weeks back I quoted from the jacket blurb of Steve Pincus’s 1688.  I remarked that Pincus’s description of James II’s attempt to create an authoritarian state in England (modeled on the absolute monarchy of Louis XIV) reminded me of Putin’s actions in Russia since 2000.  Reading the book has only convinced me of the aptness of the comparison.  What Putin has done parallels what James did almost exactly: splitting the opposition, cracking down on news media, establishing state control over all information sources, co-opting the courts, seizing control of local government; the list of similarities goes on and on.

But something else struck me while reading the book on a plane to Jacksonville this afternoon: parallels between James’s England and current America.

James ascended the throne with the good wishes of most of the English nation.  His anodyne statements about protecting freedom of conscience convinced most in England that a new era of tolerance was in store.  England, by a large margin, had great and positive expectations for James’s reign.

But it soon became clear that James had a strong ideological agenda that was at odds with the deeply held beliefs of most Englishmen of all political persuasions.  James’s rough actions belied his smooth words about tolerance.  He embarked on an aggressive campaign to remake England along continental lines, a campaign that attacked deeply held convictions in England about the relation between government and the governed.  Rather than being an empathetic man in touch with the sentiments of the country, as most had believed, he proved to be a haughty, headstrong, and stubborn one intent on bending the country to his will, and damn quickly.

In very short order–a little more than a year–James’s extraordinary actions had sparked intense opposition throughout England.  Protestant Dissenters, who had welcomed the King’s initiatives on religious tolerance, soon understood that his lip service for freedom of conscience was in fact a cover for a far-reaching plan to revolutionize the constitution of English government; a plan that threatened the liberties and property of all English people, Establishmentarians and Dissenters alike.

As a result, James went from being the hope of the nation to the subject of hatred and vilification.  Yet he plunged ahead with his plans, against strong and growing opposition from all classes of English citizens, of all faiths–including from many of James’s fellow Catholics.

I think that it is fair to say that Obama’s trajectory has been quite similar to James’s to this point.  Eerily similar.

I doubt that the path forward will be quite the same.  A mere 3 years after his ascension to the throne, James was a fugitive, overthrown in a Glorious Revolution.  Pincus makes a persuasive case that this was, contrary to conventional historiography, a true revolution that united broad swathes of the English public against a perceived tyrant.

There will be, I trust, no such resolution–or revolution–in the US.  But I do think that it is highly likely that there will be an intense popular reaction that will transform American politics for years to come.  The reaction is already manifest.  The question remains as to whether it will be sufficient to derail Obama’s headlong race to a statist future in 21st century America, as the Glorious Revolution derailed James’s race to an authoritarian, absolutist one in 17th century England.

And that is the key difference between the US and Russia.  Putin will succeed–and largely has succeeded–in his Jacobean plan because Russia is politically inert, lacks a vibrant civil society, and is so atomized that it cannot oppose the concerted efforts of the state; moreover, a history of idolatry of the state is a powerful ally for Putin.  In contrast, James’s England was politically active and contentious, jealous of its liberties, and convinced of its exceptionalism vis a vis continental rivals–most notably, France.  There are many in America who are similarly exceptionalist and adamant about their freedom.  As Toqueville noted in the 19th century, in America there is a tradition of civil action and civil society that was (and is) completely absent in Russia.

So Russia is likely to continue on its authoritarian trajectory, while America is about to enter a protracted political conflict over a statist future.  May America prove exceptional, yet again.

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23 Comments »

  1. Right now, Obuma and the Dimwitcrats are looking like the Politburo and the commie sovok union.

    The Dimwitcrats just passed the health care monstrosity in the House – but, oh how they had fun pretending to “agonize” over it.

    What principles are at stake?

    “We are going to do what’s ‘best’ for you with Other People’s Money” – and the Dimwitcrats know they can count on all the brain dead people in New York, Florida, and California towards that end.

    Obuma and the Dimwitcrats take away your money – and then claim credit for pretending to give it back to you.

    Political conflict over a statist future?

    Don’t make me laugh – the American people are too goddamn busy focusing on the NFL draft. They wouldn’t know communism at this point if it choked them and their kids to death – which it will. And soon.

    And that’s just fine with Obuma, Pelosi, Bawney Fwank and the rest.

    Comment by elmer — March 21, 2010 @ 11:26 pm

  2. The poster above is a prime example of what is wrong with America. Well, at least Elmer is now in the light of day where the stalking death panels can find him ;) Booga booga!

    Corporate America has survived far worse than some uppity niggra President and his “Socialist” leanings but I must confess I am far more interested in foreign policy. Obama really needs to end this faux “War on Terror” started by shrub and maybe now he’ll have the time to think about a clearer path forward on this.

    SWP, your dislike of Obama appears to be more visceral than cerebral. The electorate is fickle, lets see how Obama’s numbers look now that he has shown that the ‘Party of No’ can be overcome and those citizens that voted him into power on these very issues realize that.

    Comment by TRex — March 22, 2010 @ 12:32 am

  3. One of my readers sent me a link which SWP might find of interest – Will American Caesars Arise?

    Certain national difficulties and dangers exist today that, in unhappy circumstances, could cause the majority of the American people to turn to some potential Caesar-so long as that Caesar, like the original Julius, should wear an egalitarian mask. An economic depression as overwhelming as that which commenced in 1929-caused, in our own day, by loss of confidence in the dollar (what with the monstrous national debt) and the collapse of the shaky apparatus of credit-would push this peril forward immediately. A second military reverse serious as that of the Indo-Chinese defeat would be no less menacing to our constitutional order. Or a prolonged paralysis of the federal political structure, produced by the over-effective functioning of checks and balances-that is, a stalemate of grand proportions as a result of partisan hostility between legislative and executive branches of government – might open the way for a would-be Caesar, he promising decisiveness and efficiency.

    Vladimir Putin is just a precursor to the coming Caesars, and I for one intend to welcome our new imperial overlords.

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — March 22, 2010 @ 1:03 am

  4. Sounds as if it was Bush’s trajectory as much as Obama’s (or indeed any leader that was initially popular but became unpopular due to the implementation of policies based on principle/ideology (delete to taste)). But this very general comparison isn’t the nub of it: James II was a secret Catholic and his plan was to reintroduce this faith to England. So unless you believe Obama is a closet Muslim (could be…arf! arf!) it’s not a particularly enlightening analogy.

    On the other hand, perhaps it is, in that it reveals the almost apocalyptically irrational mind-set of some commentators. SWP: given your other views are so sane, I’m struggling to understand why your views on Obama are so hysterical – I recall you describing him as a Bolshevik once! He might be a useless statist but he’s not the equivalent of James II or VI Lenin. To think so is a bit nuts.

    Comment by Gaw — March 22, 2010 @ 3:31 am

  5. […] The end result was that we kicked him out in 1688. […]

    Pingback by Something about this rings a bell…. — March 22, 2010 @ 5:43 am

  6. “As a result, James went from being the hope of the nation to the subject of hatred and vilification. Yet he plunged ahead with his plans, against strong and growing opposition from all classes of English citizens, of all faiths–including from many of James’s fellow Catholics.”

    Wow…. RomneyCare will do all that….. Truly amazing!!

    “On the other hand, perhaps it is, in that it reveals the almost apocalyptically irrational mind-set of some commentators. SWP: given your other views are so sane, I’m struggling to understand why your views on Obama are so hysterical – I recall you describing him as a Bolshevik once! He might be a useless statist but he’s not the equivalent of James II or VI Lenin. To think so is a bit nuts.”

    Yeah, what we have here at SWP is a sore loser driving himself nuts with frustration. Imagine what it must feel like for a determined partisan to have all Federal power on His Side in 2004, only to lose all but the Supremes by 2010.

    Comment by rkka — March 22, 2010 @ 6:00 am

  7. And what’s worse, he’s seen Russia go from near-terminal decline to population growth.

    The frustration must be rising geometrically!

    Comment by rkka — March 22, 2010 @ 6:05 am

  8. Hold your horses! I think the Prof is spot on about Russia. It’s screwed for another generation or so. Thereafter, perhaps we might countenance some optimism.

    Comment by Gaw — March 22, 2010 @ 8:37 am

  9. Welcome to the Soviet Union of Communist States of North America.

    Complete with Pelosi Politburo clapping like the soviet seals used to do, and claiming that dictatorship is a “victory for the people.” Saint Tubby Kennedy, the porcine little Irish millionaire thug who killed Mary Jo Kopechne and then bought his way out of murder charges, got Medicare passed, along with other Dimwitcrats, by claiming that “it wouldn’t cost that much.” Medicare, predictably, ballooned out of control – oh, well, Saint Tubby Kennedy and the other Dimwitcrats claimed “victory” anyway. After all, why worry, when Saint Tubby Kennedy and his wealthy Dimwitcrat co-conspirators exempt themselves from their own legislation?

    Up until around 1960, there were still Dimwitcrats who respected that the United States of America was not supposed to be a communist state.

    Today – it’s all Oprah-ized. There is no thought except to grab and give away Other People’s Money.

    My parents came to this country having escaped both the nazis and the sovoks – only for their kids to wind up in the goddamn sovok union anyway, headed by a communist president full of hype and teleprompted slogans, and no principles except to grab money and power.

    Welcome to the Soviet Union of Communist States of North America.

    Comment by elmer — March 22, 2010 @ 8:39 am

  10. So, Russia is “screwed” for another generation, huh. Well, when the opportunity arises again to “un-screw Russia” try not to malnourish a decade’s worth of Russian kids while you’re doing it.

    Comment by rkka — March 22, 2010 @ 11:21 am

  11. rkka: It’s screwed partly because of the sort of self-pity and paranoia you evidence.

    Comment by Gaw — March 22, 2010 @ 2:14 pm

  12. By and large it’s not screwed up, and generally speaking wherever it is screwed up is the fault of the West.

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — March 22, 2010 @ 3:00 pm

  13. BS. You’re the opposite of LR. Go back to cloaking your foolishness with big words and academic references.

    Comment by TRex — March 22, 2010 @ 3:56 pm

  14. The evidence is impeccably documented at Top 50 Russophobe Myths, 10 Myths about Russia’s Demography, and Responses to Russophobe “Arguments”.

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — March 22, 2010 @ 4:38 pm

  15. Hm. Most people would take a >50% increase in the birth rate in a decade, a narrowing of the birth-death gap from ~950,000/yr to ~250,000/yr in a decade, and last year’s first net population growth in ~15 years when including immigration, as indications that things in a country are getting “un-screwed”.

    But then, most people are not followers of the “Chicago School” sect and it’s prophet Milton Friedman.

    Comment by rkka — March 22, 2010 @ 5:11 pm

  16. Make that a ~30% increase in the birth rate in a decade.

    My apologies for over-enthusiasm.

    Comment by rkka — March 22, 2010 @ 5:19 pm

  17. @rkka,

    Your enthusiasm is not misplaced. The birth rate went from 8.3/1000 in 1999 to 12.4/1000 in 2009 – an increase of nearly 50%.

    It was the fertility rate that rose from 1.17 in 1999 to 1.54 in 2009, i.e. 30%.

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — March 22, 2010 @ 5:58 pm

  18. PS. Does SWP hate democracy?

    A Thin Line Between Hate And Love

    49% of Americans consider the healthcare bill to be good, 40% think it is bad.

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — March 23, 2010 @ 8:13 pm

  19. S/O. Cherry picking a crappy poll that is an outlier. How persuasive. Re democracy, intensity matters too, and it is evident that the intensity is all on the anti side.

    Perhaps you’d know that if you got outside the Berkeley bubble.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — March 25, 2010 @ 10:08 am

  20. Re democracy, intensity matters too, and it is evident that the intensity is all on the anti side.

    Fools and fervor – go together.

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — March 25, 2010 @ 11:59 pm

  21. ^ And to prove that, do you mean this kind of “intensity”?

    Democrats face death threats and vandalism over healthcare reform bill

    The FBI was called in to help handle a torrent of abuse, from bricks through congressional office windows to sinister, obscene phone messages. The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, said the threats had “no place in a civil debate in our country”.

    The House Democratic leader, Steny Hoyer of Maryland, said that at least 10 House members were concerned for their personal safety, and a number reported their offices had been vandalised.

    In one incident, authorities in Virginia are investigating a severed propane gas line at the home of the brother of a Democrat who supported the overhaul measure. An activist with the “tea party” movement had posted the brother’s address on an internet forum, apparently thinking it was the congressman’s, and urged angry opponents to pay him a visit. A New York Democrat reported a brick was thrown through a window at her office, and a glass front door was smashed at the office of an Arizona Democrat.

    One caller to the office of Bart Stupak, a Democrat who voted for the legislation, said: “I hope you bleed … [get] cancer and die.” A fax to his office carried a picture of a gallows with “Bart (SS) Stupak” on it and a noose attached.

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — March 26, 2010 @ 12:50 pm

  22. My reply didn’t go through so I’ll repost it quickly.

    1) Reactionary propaganda.
    2) Chancellor started it – see UCB police brutality.
    3) 75%+ of the rowdy protesters weren’t even students.

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — March 27, 2010 @ 8:56 pm

  23. S/O

    1. Like I said, we are in a pre-revolutionary situation. That is a characterization, not an endorsement. Moreover, I have a sense that there is more than a little posing going on. What’s more, Nancy Pelosi in particular should stfu because she was no stranger to saying inciteful (never insightful) things pre November 2008.

    2. Re Berkeley. First, do you really expect anybody to believe that the LA Times is a font of reactionary propaganda? If so, like I say, get out of the effing Berkeley bubble and live in the real world for awhile. Second: “He started it!” is a staple of juvenile discourse. Third, if it is propaganda, are you denying that the facts in the article (e.g., broken windows, torches) are correct? Do you have a reliable source of information that credibly refutes these statements? Are the statements facts or lies? If they are facts, how is the article propaganda? Fifth, WTF does the status of the rioters–sorry, “rowdy” doesn’t quite cover it–e.g., student or no, have to do with anything?

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — March 28, 2010 @ 4:37 pm

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