Critical but Not Serious

Near the end of World War I, there was an alleged (almost surely apocryphal) exchange of telegrams between German and Austrian officers whose units were fighting side by side, in difficult circumstances, against the Allies. The German cabled: “Our situation is serious, but not critical.” The Austrian responded: “Our situation is critical, but not serious.”

“Critical but not serious.” For all we know, the phrase could well be unfair as applied to the Austro-Hungarian past. It seems all too apt with respect to the American present.

The 2016 election was critical but not serious. The state of our universities has for a long time been critical but not serious. The condition of the media is increasingly critical but not serious.

In politics, the left isn’t serious. It’s in meltdown—but as resistant as ever to serious reflection on why. It’s been in the driver’s seat for so long, culturally and institutionally, and it so enjoyed its eight years of control of the White House that it can’t now come to serious grips with its critical situation. After all, if you’ve got a lot of faith in History, and if the arc of History now bends toward Trump—what’s a progressive to do?

Meanwhile, the right isn’t, to say the least, in good shape. Indeed the Trump White House virtually embodies that late Austro-Hungarian Empire condition of critical-but-not-seriousness.

So as Thomas Donnelly and Gary Schmitt demonstrate in this issue, while President Trump makes a point of how critical our defense needs are, his administration’s response of a small budget increase isn’t serious. As Mark Hemingway points out, the challenge of repealing and replacing Obamacare is critical—but it’s unclear that the administration is going to be serious in marshaling support for a viable and also thorough replacement. And as Stephen Hayes observes, though Donald Trump campaigned in high critical dudgeon against the debt, he rules out any serious entitlement reform.

Perhaps we shouldn’t expect too much of an inexperienced Trump administration. But is Congress doing much better? Not noticeably.

Fairly early in our history, American politicians devised a mechanism for overcoming some of the features of our constitutional and federal system that made serious policy-making difficult. That mechanism is called the political party.

We’ve quoted Edmund Burke’s definition of a political party before: It’s “a body of men united, for promoting by their joint endeavours the national interest, upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed.”

For those committed to constitutional government as opposed to administrative control, to self-government as opposed to the nanny state, to free markets as opposed to centralized power, and to strength and leadership abroad as opposed to weakness and retreat, the Republican party has been the organization (more or less) seriously advancing these principles.

Is it still? It’s true that Donald Trump, no adherent to traditional Republicanism, managed to effect a hostile takeover of the party at the presidential level in 2016. President Trump is a problem for Republicans seeking to be serious; a problem sufficient, perhaps, to prevent much that is serious from being achieved in the next four years. It’s certainly true that Republican officials on Capitol Hill have a tricky political path to navigate.

But difficult situations don’t absolve elected officials of the responsibility to stop bad things from happening, to do their best to carry forward what has been best about Republicanism, to make a serious case for Republican principles and policies, and to lay the groundwork for a Republican—and a republican—future.

The French have a phrase: “un homme sérieux.” The spirit of our age is hostile to serious men. That spirit is a strange combination of cynicism and hysteria, of irony and bombast. It would be soberly inspiring if some in the Republican party would stand up against that spirit and show themselves to be the hommes sérieux of our time.

This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard

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