From 2004: A behind-the-scenes look back at the man himself—detached yet accessible, astute and prophetic, colorful and complex.
June 28, 2004 Issue: There they lie in their guttered drawers, projecting from the rosewood desk I had specially made for them: four yards of cards, each eight inches wide, five inches tall, most of them with his initials handwritten, headline style, in the top left-hand corner, from “rr’s birth zodiac—feb. 6, 1911” to “rr dies of pneumonia—june 5, 2004.” In between these two extremes, some eighteen thousand cards document whatever I was able to find out about thirty-four thousand of Ronald Reagan’s days. Which leaves sixteen thousand days unaccounted for. Lost leaves. “The leavings of a life,” as D. H. Lawrence might say.
“All the rhetorical arts—gesture, timing, comedy, pathos—were at his command.”
I once planned to show Reagan this card file, just to see him react as drawer after drawer rolled out yard by yard, green tabs demarcating his years, yellow tabs his careers, blue tabs his triumphs and disappointments. He could have looked down, as it were, on the topography of his biography, and seen the shoe salesman’s son moving from town to town across northern Illinois, in the teens of the last century; the adolescent achieving some sort of stability at Dixon High School in 1924; the Eureka College student and summer lifeguard through 1933; then, successively—each divider spaced farther from the next, as he grew in worldly importance—the Des Moines sportscaster and ardent New Dealer; the Hollywood film star; the cavalry officer and Air Corps adjutant; the postwar union leader and anti-Communist; the television host and corporate spokesman for General Electric; the governor of California, 1967-75; the twice-defeated, ultimately successful candidate for his party’s Presidential nomination; and, last, the septuagenarian statesman, so prodigiously carded that the nine tabs “1981” through “1989” stand isolated like stumps in snow.
He never visited my study, however, and on reflection I am glad he did not, because he might have been disturbed to see how far he had come in nearly eighty years, and how few more cards he was likely to generate after leaving the White House. Besides, I would have had to keep my forearm over a file more than a foot long, practically bristling with tabs descriptive of “rr the man.” Now that the man is no more, and subject to the soft focus of sentimental recall, a riffle through some of these tabs might help restore his image in all its color and complexity.
The first subsection deals with Ronald Reagan’s body. In 1988, at seventy-seven years of age, the President stood six feet one and weighed a hundred and ninety pounds, none of it flab. He boasted that any punch aimed at his abdomen would be jarringly repulsed. After a lifetime of working out with wheels and bars, he had broadened his chest to a formidably walled cavern forty-four inches in circumference. He was a natural athlete, with a peculiarly graceful Algonquin gait that brought him into rooms almost soundlessly. No matter how fast he moved (that big body could turn on a dime), he was always balanced.
One recalls how elegantly he choreographed Mikhail Gorbachev up the steps at the 1985 Geneva summit: an arabesque of dark blue flowing around awkward gray. Reagan loved to swim, ride, and foxtrot. (Doris Day remembers him as “the only man I ever knew who really liked to dance.”) Eleven weeks after nearly dying in the assassination attempt of 1981, he climbed onto the springboard at the Camp David swimming pool and threw a perfect half pike before anybody could protest.
Gorbachev once remarked on Reagan’s “balance” to me in an interview. But he used the Russian word ravnovesie in its wider sense, of psychological equilibrium. The President’s poised body and smooth yet inexorable motion telegraphed a larger force that came of a lifetime of no self-doubt (except for two years of despair in 1948-49, after Jane Wyman, his first wife, left him for boring her). Reagan redux did not care whom he bored, as long as nobody tried to stop him. His famous anecdotes, recounted with a speed and economy that were the verbal equivalent of balance, were persuasive on the first, and even the fourth, telling. But when you heard them for the fourteenth, or the fortieth, time, always with exactly the same inflections and chuckles and glances, you realized that he was a bore in the sense that a combine harvester is boring: its only purpose is to bear down upon and thresh whatever grain lies in its path. Reagan used homilies to harvest people.
He was always meticulously dressed in tailored suits and handmade shoes and boots. But he was neither a dandy nor a spendthrift. In 1976, he still stepped out in a pair of high-cut, big-tongued alligator pumps that predated the Cold War: “Do you realize what I paid for these thirty years ago?” His personal taste never advanced beyond the first affectations of the nouveau riche. Hence the Corum twenty-dollar-face wristwatch, the Countess Mara ties, the Glen checks too large or too pale, and a weekend tartan blazer that was, in Bertie Wooster’s phrase, “rather sudden, till you got used to it.” Yet Reagan avoided vulgarity, because he sported such things without self-consciousness. And he wore the plainer suits that rotated through his wardrobe just as unpretentiously. No man ever looked better in navy blue, or black tie.
On a card inscribed “alcohol”—his father’s cross—appears the comment of an old Hollywood friend: “Ronnie never had a booze problem, but once every coupla years, he wasn’t averse to a lot of drink. Its only effect was to make him more genial.” His face would flush after a mere half glass of Pinot Noir, giving rise to repeated rumors that he used rouge.
Actually, Reagan never required makeup, even when he was a movie actor. He didn’t sweat under hot lights: he basked in them. A young photographer who did a cover portrait of him in 1984 for Fortune told me, “When I walked into the Oval Office, I thought my career was made. He was just back from a long campaign swing, and looked terrible, all drained and lined. I hit him with every harsh spot I had, and etched out those wrinkles, figuring I’d do what Richard Avedon did to Dottie Parker. Know what? When my contacts came back from the darkroom, the old bastard looked like a million bucks. Taught me a real lesson. Ronald Reagan wasn’t just born for the camera. There’s something about him that film likes.”
Several of my cards itemize the President’s deafness. People who sat to his right imagined that they were privileged. In fact, he heard nothing on that side, having blown an eardrum during a shoot-out scene in one of his old movies. His left ear was not much better, so he relied increasingly on hearing aids, although their distortion pained him. One learned not to sneeze in his presence. When the room was crowded and voice levels rose, he would furtively switch off his sound box. I could tell from a slight frown in his gaze that he was lip-reading.
The quietness that insulated him was accentuated by severe myopia. As a boy, “Dutch” Reagan assumed that nature was a blur. Not until he put on his mother’s spectacles, around the age of thirteen, did he perceive the world in all its sharp-edged intricacy. He did not find it disorienting, as somebody who had been blind from birth might. Perhaps his later, Rothko-like preference for large, luminous policy blocks (as opposed to, say, Bill Clinton’s fly’s-eye view of government as a multifacetted montage, endlessly adjustable) derived from his unfocussed childhood.
Or perhaps the novelist Ray Bradbury, who also grew up four-eyed in small-town Illinois, has a more informed theory. “I often wonder whether or not you become myopic for a physical reason of not wanting to face the world,” Bradbury says in an oral history. Like Dutch, he competed with a popular, extrovert elder brother by “making happy things for myself and creating new images of the world for myself.” Reagan was not introverted, yet from infancy he had the same kind of “happy” self-centeredness that Bradbury speaks of, the same need to inhabit an imaginative construct in which outside reality was refracted, or reordered, to his liking. “I was completely surrounded by a wall of light,” Reagan wrote of his first venture onto a movie set. It was clear that the sensation was agreeable. Read the rest of this entry »
25 years after the Soviet Union ceased to exist, plenty of repressive regimes live on. Today, the free world no longer cares.
Garry Kasparov writes: A quarter-century ago, on Dec. 25, 1991, as the last Soviet premier, Mikhail Gorbachev, resigned after a final attempt to keep the Communist state alive, I was so optimistic for the future. That year and the years leading up to that moment were a period when anything felt possible. The ideals of freedom and democracy seemed within the reach of the people of the Soviet Union.
“It is difficult to describe what life in the U.S.S.R. was like to people in the free world today. This is not because repressive dictatorships are an anachronism people can’t imagine, like trying to tell your incredulous children that there was once a world without cellphones and the internet.”
I remember the December evening in 1988 when I was having dinner with friends and my mother in Paris. My family and I still lived in Baku, capital of the then-Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan, where I was raised, but I had become accustomed to unusual freedoms since becoming the world chess champion in 1985. I was no longer accompanied by KGB minders everywhere I went, although my whereabouts were always tracked. Foreign travel still required special approval, which served to remind every Soviet citizen that this privilege could be withdrawn at any time.
“The U.S.S.R. ceased to exist in 1991, but there are plenty of repressive, authoritarian regimes thriving in 2016. The difference, and I am sad to say it, is that the citizens of the free world don’t much care about dictatorships anymore, or about the 2.7 billion people who still live in them.”
My status protected me from many of the privations of life in the Soviet Union, but it did not tint my vision rose. Instead, my visits to Western Europe confirmed my suspicions that it was in the U.S.S.R. where life was distorted, as in a funhouse mirror.
We were discussing politics, of course, and I was being optimistic as usual. I was sure that the Soviet Union would be forced to liberalize socially and economically to survive.
“The words of John F. Kennedy in 1963 Berlin sound naive to most Americans today: “Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free,” he said. That for decades the U.S. government based effective foreign policy on such lofty ideals seems as distant as a world without iPhones.”
Mr. Forman played the elder voice of reason to my youthful exuberance. I was only 25, while he had lived through what he saw as a comparable moment in history. He cautioned that he had seen similar signs of a thaw after reformer Alexander Dubčekhad become president in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Eight months after Dubček’s election, his reforms ended abruptly as the U.S.S.R. sent half a million Warsaw Pact troops into Czechoslovakia and occupied the country. Many prominent Czechs, like Messrs. Forman and Kavalek, fled abroad.
“Gorbachev’s perestroika is another fake,” Mr. Forman warned us about the Soviet leader’s loosening of state controls, “and it will end up getting more hopeful people killed.” I insisted that Mr. Gorbachev would not be able to control the forces he was unleashing. Mr. Forman pressed me for specifics: “But how will it end, Garry?”
I replied—specifics not being my strong suit—that “one day, Miloš, you will wake up, open your window, and they’ll be gone.”
“Ronald Reagan’s warning that ‘freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction’ was never meant to be put to the test, but it is being tested now. If anything, Reagan’s time frame of a generation was far too generous. The dramatic expansion of freedom that occurred 25 years ago may be coming undone in 25 months.”
It is difficult to describe what life in the U.S.S.R. was like to people in the free world today. This is not because repressive dictatorships are an anachronism people can’t imagine, like trying to tell your incredulous children that there was once a world without cellphones and the internet. The U.S.S.R. ceased to exist in 1991, but there are plenty of repressive, authoritarian regimes thriving in 2016. The difference, and I am sad to say it, is that the citizens of the free world don’t much care about dictatorships anymore, or about the 2.7 billion people who still live in them.
The words of John F. Kennedy in 1963 Berlin sound naive to most Americans today: “Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free,” he said. That for decades the U.S. government based effective foreign policy on such lofty ideals seems as distant as a world without iPhones. Read the rest of this entry »
The Ruling Class of America is not up to the challenge of leading America in the world, partly because it has engaged for several generations now in a process of reverse merit selection.
“Having been a college professor for many years I saw students become ever more confident of their own intelligence and their own preparation while they were becoming less able to do the most elementary things.”
As the ruling class wannabes, has beens, might’ve beens and I ams gather for today’s inauguration ceremony to offer laud and narcissistic supply to the most perfect exemplar of the ruling class that they have ever seen, Codevilla’s observations about the rapidly imploding ratio of competence to confidence among America’s elite are a breath of contrarian sanity.
“That’s what happens so often to ruling classes: they protect themselves against their competitors. Their greatest interest is in perpetuating their own cushy positions.”
The discussion is available here. Although the first section is devoted to foreign affairs and the second to the ruling class, this column will focus on the second of the two topics. What follows are my notes from the wide ranging and fascinating discussion. I hope you won’t limit yourself to my jottings about the conversation, but go on to the conversation itself. The following is a collection of paraphrased quotes from Codevilla.
“The Soviet system was completely closed. Our system becomes more closed as the years go on….today’s American ruling class differs from even a generation ago…now they come to the ruling class almost exclusively from the most prestigious universities and through institutions which are connected to government.”
Our ruling class has practiced negative selection for several generations now. I point you to a very, very interesting piece of research by a man called Ron Unz.
“Very few people now rise independent of the ruling class itself: you have to rise through the ruling class to get to the ruling class.”
Ron Unz, a wealthy entrepreneur, has just conducted interesting research on the admissions policies of America’s elite universities and has found that there is an iron quota against Asians in these universities: a limit of roughly 16 percent in these universities, even though the proportion of Asians relative to other ethnic groups among high achievers in the country has risen…they account for something like 40 percent of high achievers in the national merit scholar competition, national math and science competitions, etc.
“Our ruling class rules on the basis of sheer, unearned self-confidence. They are not up to running the nation, its economy, its markets, its school system, its philanthropies or its foreign affairs. It is a ruling class of pygmies who walk on stilts and call themselves giants. They are not giants and the moment the rest of us realize this, the long con is over.”
What you’ve got here is a ruling class in these universities which has perpetuated itself and has become more like itself, and has excluded alien elements. The element most excluded happens to be also the most numerous, which is to say ‘white non-Jewish Americans,’ and hence the overwhelming majority of high achievers. Yet the percentage of white non-Jewish admittees has continued to drop; there is especially a virtual absence of Christians among these admittees. The point being that this ruling class, which is increasingly styling itself as meritocratic, is anything but meritocratic and has renewed itself by cooption. Read the rest of this entry »
In foreign affairs, unlike math, the ultimate determination of success or failure isn’t immediately obvious. Major foreign events — wars, revolutions, coup d’etats and treaties — can take a long time to play out.
The Korean Conflict, once nearly as unpopular as the Vietnam War, is now probably viewed by most Americans as a “good war,” and Washington’s 63-year defense of Seoul as a worthwhile investment. Thirty-seven thousand U.S. servicemen, a number that dwarfs those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, didn’t die in vain.
Historical judgments are temperamental and subject to change until sufficient good news or bad piles up — and even then things can change given the mood and character of the nation looking back.
Few Democrats really want to expend much effort touting the foreign-policy successes of Jimmy Carter; more Democrats, but still not many, want to remember how ardently they believed Ronald Reagan would bring on Armageddon. Read the rest of this entry »
The horrors of Stalin’s repressions and the deaths of up to five million Ukrainians in the 1930s due to famine caused by forced collectivisation go unmentioned.
Donetsk (Ukraine) (AFP) – Nicolas Miletitch reports: Three portraits of former Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin are on display in the centre of Donetsk, the rebel capital of eastern Ukraine, as the separatist authorities fuel a mood of Soviet nostalgia.
“The Soviet Union was a great country and it was a huge mistake that it was destroyed by the CIA and other secret services.”
The portraits, adorning a main square, seem to go down well with one young woman walking past.
“I think the portraits of Stalin are a good thing. It’s our history and a lot of people have forgotten he even existed,” said Yekaterina, a 22-year-old student.
The previously taboo display comes as the rebels revive Soviet customs to cement their Moscow-backed rule — while glossing over Stalin’s atrocities.
“I think the portraits of Stalin are a good thing. It’s our history and a lot of people have forgotten he even existed.”
The Stalin portraits feature a quote from the wartime leader: “Our cause is just. The enemy will be routed. We will claim victory.”
The horrors of Stalin’s repressions and the deaths of up to five million Ukrainians in the 1930s due to famine caused by forced collectivisation go unmentioned.
The Donetsk rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko told AFP how he regretted the break-up of the Soviet Union.
“Stalin portraits have become de rigueur in the offices of rebel officials in eastern Ukraine, where the separatist conflict has killed more than 8,000 people.”
“The Soviet Union was a great country and it was a huge mistake that it was destroyed by the CIA and other secret services,” said the 39-year-old former field commander who prefers to dress in camouflage gear.
“Europe and other countries were scared stiff of us.”
New cult of Stalin
Stalin portraits have become de rigueur in the offices of rebel officials in eastern Ukraine, where the separatist conflict has killed more than 8,000 people.
The Donetsk rebels’ deputy defence minister Eduard Basurin wears a badge with Stalin’s profile on his uniform.
This new cult of Stalin revives the memories in Donetsk, a coal-mining city that was formerly known as Stalino.
It was renamed in the early 1960s after Nikita Khrushchev, who emerged as Soviet leader in the power struggle that followed Stalin’s death, condemned his predecessor’s cult of personality. Read the rest of this entry »
The Ronald Reagan Foreign Policy Legacy Distorted
Peter Wehner writes: One of the more amusing things to see in journalism is for committed liberals who didn’t work for Ronald Reagan, who didn’t vote for Ronald Reagan and who were fiercely critical of Ronald Reagan to invoke his name in order to instruct conservatives on how to better understand Ronald Reagan.
“J. Dionne, Jr. of the Washington Post…argues in his column that Barack Obama’s Iran strategy parallels Reagan’s approach to Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s. In fact, the lessons are exactly the opposite.”
The most recent example of this is E. J. Dionne, Jr. of the Washington Post, who argues in his column that Barack Obama’s Iran strategy parallels Reagan’s approach to Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s. In fact, the lessons are exactly the opposite.
“Both Reagan nor Thatcher were able to revise their assumptions based on new facts, new actors on the world stage, and new opportunities. They were not dogmatists. Mr. Obama, on the other hand, most assuredly is.”
For all the criticisms of the left against Reagan that he was a rigid ideologue, he was, in fact, a man who was quite willing and able to adjust his views in light of shifting circumstances. That is precisely what he and Margaret Thatcher did in the case of Mr. Gorbachev.
“Barack Obama is all about trust and completely indifferent to verify. The president was determined to strike a deal with Iran, any deal, for the sake of a deal. The Iranians, knowing this, were able to win one concession after another from the president.”
To their credit, both Reagan and Thatcher were dedicated anti-Communists. They understood the evil nature of the Soviet regime and they took a hard-line stance against it for most of their careers. But equally to their credit, they saw that Gorbachev was someone with whom, in Thatcher’s words in 1984, “We can do business together.” And they did. Both Reagan nor Thatcher were able to revise their assumptions based on new facts, new actors on the world stage, and new opportunities. They were not dogmatists.
“Mr. Reagan negotiated from a position of strength and operated within the four corners of reality; Mr. Obama negotiates from a position of weakness and operates in a world of his own imagination.”
Mr. Obama, on the other hand, most assuredly is. He has been ideologically committed to a rapprochement with Iran even before he was elected president; it has been his foreign policy holy grail for his entire tenure. Nothing was going to keep him from striking a bargain with which he was obsessed. (It explains in part why the president was so passive during the Green Revolution in 2009, essentially siding with the Iranian regime over the democratic movement seeking to topple it.)
And here’s a key difference between Reagan and Thatcher and Obama. The former revised their approach based on an accurate assessment of Gorbachev and, therefore, the Soviet regime he ruled. Read the rest of this entry »
Islamists set the time machine to the Dark Ages. Putin dreams of czarist Russia. A common enemy: America
Garry Kasparov writes: The recent terror attacks in Paris at the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, and at a kosher supermarket, leaving 17 people dead, represented the latest offensive in a struggle that most people, even many of its casualties, are unaware is even taking place.
“The guaranteed freedoms represented by the First Amendment frighten the radical mullahs and dictators more than any drone strike or economic sanction.”
Globalization has effectively compressed the world in size, increasing the mobility of goods, capital and labor. Simultaneously this has led to globalization across time, as the 21st century collides with cultures and regimes intent on existing as in centuries past. It is less the famous clash of civilizations than an attempt by these “time travelers” to hold on to their waning authority by stopping the advance of the ideas essential to an open society.
“Many politicians and pundits in the Free World seem to think that refusing to acknowledge you are in a fight means you can avoid losing it. But ignoring the reality of the conflict puts more innocents like the Paris victims—instead of trained soldiers and law enforcement—on the front lines.”
Radical Islamists, from the Taliban and al Qaeda to Boko Haram and Islamic State, set the time machine to the Dark Ages and encourage the murder of all who oppose them, often supported by fatwas and funds from terror sponsors like Iran. The religious monarchies in the Middle East are guilty by association, creating favorable conditions for extremism by clamping down on any stirring of freedom.
“There are no easy ways to deter homegrown terrorists or nuclear-armed dictators, but this culture of denial must end before true progress can be made.”
Vladimir Putin wants Russia to exist in the Great Power era of czars and monarchs, dominating its neighbors by force and undisturbed by elections and rights complaints. The post-Communist autocracies, led by Mr. Putin’s closest dictator allies in Belarus and Kazakhstan, exploit ideology only as a means of hanging on to power at any cost.
Since the time travelers cannot fight head-to-head with the ideas and prosperity of the Free World, they fall back on their arsenal of ideology, violence and disregard for human life.”
In the East, Kim Jong Un ’s North Korea attempts to freeze time in a Stalinist prison-camp bubble. In the West, Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela and the Castros in Cuba use anachronistic socialist propaganda to resist increasing pressure for human rights. Read the rest of this entry »
Like Gorbachev, Obama will be esteemed in certain quarters a generation from now, but probably more by foreigners than fellow citizens, and more by his country’s enemies than its friends.
Christopher Caldwell Democrats nominated Barack Obama in 2008 to extract America from George W. Bush’s Iraq misadventure and to spread more fairly the proceeds of a quarter-century-old boom for which they credited Bill Clinton. The Election Eve collapse of Lehman Brothers changed things. It showed that there had been no boom at all, only a multitrillion-dollar real-estate debauch that Clinton’s and Bush’s affordable-housing mandates had set in motion. It also showed how fast historians’ likely rankings of presidents can shift: Clinton went from above average to below average, Bush from low to rock bottom.
“Obama’s legacy is one of means, not ends. He has laid the groundwork for a political order less answerable to voters.”
Obama may wind up the most consequential of the three baby-boom presidents. He expanded certain Bush policies — Detroit bailouts, internet surveillance, drone strikes — and cleaned up after others. We will not know for years whether Obama’s big deficits risked a future depression to avoid a present one, or whether the respite he offered from “humanitarian invasions” made the country safer. Right now, both look like significant achievements.
Yet there is a reason the president’s approval ratings have fallen, in much of the country, to Nixonian lows. Even his best-functioning policies have come at a steep price in damaged institutions, leaving the country less united, less democratic, and less free.
“For a generation, there has been too much private wealth in politics; Obama’s innovation has been to bring private wealth into government.”
Health-care reform and gay marriage are often spoken of as the core of Obama’s legacy. That is a mistake. Policies are not always legacies, even if they endure, and there is reason to believe these will not. The more people learn about Obamacare, the less they like it — its popularity is still falling, to a record low of 37 percent in November. Thirty states have voted to ban gay marriage, and almost everywhere it survives by judicial diktat.
These are, however, typical Obama achievements. They are triumphs of tactics, not consensus-building. Obamacare involved quid pro quos (the “Cornhusker Kickback,” the “Louisiana Purchase,” etc.) that passed into Capitol Hill lore, accounting and parliamentary tricks to render the bill unfilibusterable, and a pure party-line vote in the Senate. Read the rest of this entry »
“After Xi Jinping took over as head of China’s Communist Party in December, some liberals dared to hope that change was in store for the world’s most populous nation,” Simon Denyer reports for The Washington Post:
But now, six months later, Xi appears to be more of a Putin than a Mikhail Gorbachev, behaving like a leader more interested in consolidating his power and ensuring the survival of an authoritarian system than in adopting significant political reforms…..Complicating matters, Xi has sent different messages as he has sought to unify the party behind him. He has promised economic reforms but urged his party colleagues to promote the ideology of Marx and Mao. He has cast himself as a nationalist, determined to restore China to its ancient glories, but his “Chinese dream” seems mostly about achieving middle-class comfort.
“The fundamental priority for him is to guarantee the ruling position of the party,” said historian Zhang Lifan. “From the bottom of his heart, Xi Jinping wants to be a strong man. But I am not op Read the rest of this entry »
The old regime fears a revolution
Does Alexis de Tocqueville have anything to say to the current generation of Chinese leaders?
In recent decades, the case study of political change of greatest interest to Chinese leaders has been the passing into the dustbin of history of the Soviet Union, that most powerful of all Communist regimes. Some analysts blame Mikhail Gorbachev for political reforms that precipitously undermined the government’s hold on power; others point to the sclerosis that overtook the Soviet system and the failure of its leaders to adjust socialist principles to new circumstances; others still—good Communists to the end—see the hand of the West at work, manipulating internal weaknesses to bring down America’s superpower rival.
Interest in this question is more than academic. For the Chinese -government and its supporters, the overriding concern is to head off a similar fate for their own Communist party. But as a new generation comes to power, many increasingly doubt they can avoid such a turn. Major protests throughout the country continue to alarm and bedevil the government and the party, and with good reason. The economic growth that for 30 years helped keep hopes high and dampen social tensions is slowing dramatically. University graduates struggle to find good jobs, even as nouveaux riches proliferate. The party’s ubiquitous slogan, “Social Harmony,” is at odds with what everyone sees. Corruption remains pervasive, elites secrete their wealth overseas, and party “robber barons” appropriate land from farmers only to turn it over to the developer who promises the middleman the biggest cut. Add to this the environmental disasters China faces and the looming demographic crisis (too few females; too few younger workers to support a rapidly aging population), and it is no wonder that so many Chinese leaders worry about the future—not only for their country but also for themselves.
Given these challenges, some in China seem to feel they have extracted all the lessons one can from the fall of the Soviet Union. Which brings us to Tocqueville, who, according to the Economist, has “been enjoying an unusual revival in bookshops and in the debates of intellectual bloggers.”
Even high-ranking officials are now reading Tocqueville—apparently including Li Keqiang, China’s new premier. Feng Chongyi, a Chinese academic teaching in Australia, recently wrote in the Australian Financial Review that many Chinese government officials, “including two members of the all-powerful Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party,” are studying The Old Regime and the Revolution, Tocqueville’s other classic, a book that analyzes the causes of the French Revolution and which is barely known to most Americans. Chongyi observes that while “it sounds bizarre that such a book published more than 150 years ago on the history of a seemingly remote country would become popular among top leaders in China at this juncture, . . . a lot of strange things are taking place in China nowadays.”
Strange indeed, but Tocqueville’s Old Regime may be exactly the book for this moment in Chinese history. As Tocqueville himself explains, his aim in writing about that bloody and ultimately disastrous revolution was “to discover not only what illness killed the patient, but how the patient could have been cured. . . . My purpose has been to paint a picture both accurate and instructive.”
Some major themes of the book cannot help but remind the Chinese of their own circumstances. For a Chinese reader, the revolution of 1789 is neither the revolution of 1911, which overthrew the last imperial dynasty and established the Republic of China, nor the Communist revolution of 1949, but the revolution they wish to avoid in the future by achieving a successful transition from their current situation to a more stable order. This reading suggests, paradoxically, that the Chinese are still living under the Old Regime.