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.