Frightening Similarities between Revolutionary France and Modern America
There are many frightening similarities between Revolutionary France and Modern America.
To explain, I think 2020s America has many similarities to 1780s France in the era just before that nation’s bloody revolution. Those similarities frighten me because the French Revolution led to terrible atrocities.
For example, historians estimate the French Army killed almost 200,000 people when it crushed the Vendée, a counterrevolutionary revolt by Catholic peasants in 1793, New Republic estimates. Additionally, the Jacobians executed between 16,594 and 23,000 political prisoners during the Reign of Terror. Finally, historian Peter McPhee thinks another 6,000 people died in revenge killings for Reign of Terror violence.
The Illusion of Strength and Stability
Skeptics will say such atrocities could not happen in America because of the age and stability of our democracy. French people held similar opinions in 1789 because their government, the Ancien Régime had endured since the 15th Century. Indeed, France became the largest and richest country in Christian Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries.
Moreover, the French monarchy dated back to the 8th Century AD. Additionally, various branches of the French Royal Family, the House of Capet, had been on the throne since 987. The French King in 1789, Louis XVI, was a member of the House of Bourbon, which taken the throne in 1589 after the male members of the rival House of Valois died out.
Hence, France in 1789 was supposedly ancient, stable, and one of the most powerful nations on Earth. In particular, many people believed France had the world’s largest, most advanced, and most powerful army in the 1780s. Just as today’s Americans think they have the world’s powerful military.
Yet history shows France’s stability was an illusion. The ancient pedigree of France’s government and pedigree did not prevent revolution. Today’s Americans who think our 234-year-old Constitution will protect us from revolution need to examine French history. History shows just being old will not protect your nation from a revolution, or a Reign of Terror.
Similarities between the United States and the French Ancien Régime
Frighteningly, the illusion of strength is only one of many similarities between modern America and the Ancien Régime. Some of those terrifying similarities include:
1. Income Inequality
In 2018, Inequality.org estimated the richest 0.1% of Americans took in 196 times the income of the bottom 90% of Americans. Similarly, the top 1% of the US population had 22% of the country’s wealth in 2018. Additionally, the wealth of the top 1% of the US population grew by 2.2% during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Federal Reserve estimates.
In 1789, 3% of France’s population owned around 35% of the nation’s land, Pollijuice estimates. Since land was the principal source of wealth in the 18th Century, the situation in ore-revolutionary France was worse than modern America. However, Fed data shows America is heading that way fast.
2. Culture War
You can describe the French Revolution as a culture war between a rising class of secularist intellectuals and traditional France.
For example, the Reign of Terror’s victims included the clergy, King Louis XVI, Queen Marie Antoinette, nobles, and tens of thousands of conservative peasants. In other words, all the leaders of traditional France.
In 1793, radical leftist leaders such as Robespierre were liquidating their enemies. The Reign of Terror was cancel culture taken to its logical conclusion. The Jacobians began cancelling their enemies permanently with guillotines and muskets.
The Revolutionaries changed many aspects of French culture. They redrew the country’s map, rewrote its laws, created a new calender, and tried to replace Roman Catholicism with a Cult of Reason.
Moreover, the Reign of Terror was the culmination of a long culture war between the intellectuals of the Enlightenment and traditional French Culture. That Culture War began decades earlier with intellectuals such as Voltaire.
Anybody who watches cable news, or glances at the internet, knows America is fighting a brutal Culture War against itself. Everyday there’s a new culture war battle over the 1619 Project, Critical Race Theory, Trans Rights, George Floyd, and Confederate Statues. We’ve already seen riots in the streets, the destruction of monuments, and the killing of people over a statue of Robert E. Lee.
3. Class Warfare
The French Revolution featured ugly class warfare. However, the popular view of the Revolution as a battle between the starving mobs of Paris and aristocrats is fantasy.
Instead, you can view the French Revolution as a class war battle between intellectuals and educated aristocrats and ordinary French people. For example, the Revolution’s leaders were middle-class intellectuals such as Maximilien Robespierre, or aristocratic intellectuals such as Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord and the Marquis de Lafayette.
In reality, the French Revolution was a series of radical changes forced on France from above, not an uprising from below. For example, the redrawing of the map, the new calendar, and the seizure of the Roman Catholic Church’s lands and property.
Ironically, the seizure of Church lands was engineered by Talleyrand, a bishop. The National Assembly, a legislature dominated by intellectuals and aristocrats, imposed those reforms – not the Paris Mob.
Similarly, modern American politics are degenerating into a class war between college-educated Democrats and uneducated Republicans. For instance, NBC News estimates 60% of Americans without a college degree identified as Republicans in 2020. Conversely, 60% of Americans with a college degree voted for Democrat Joe Biden in 2020.
Moreover, Pew Research estimates 59% of Republicans said colleges had a negative effect on the country in 2019. That percentage rose from 37% in 2015. Similarly, 38% of Americans told Pew colleges had a negative impact on the country in 2012, that percentage rose from 26% in 2012.
The New York Times observes “Educational Differences Are Widening America’s Political Rift.” Moreover, the Times’ The Daily podcast has two frightening features on The School Board Wars. Similarly, Vox warns of “The intellectual right’s war on America’s institutions.
America in 2021, like France in 1789, is divided along educational and cultural lines. Moreover, those divisions are widening and getting nastier.
One of the immediate causes of the French Revolution was vetocracy. A vetocracy is a political system in which small groups can block any legislation or policy indefinitely.
In France, a group of courts known as parlements blocked all of King Louis XVI’s efforts to reform the country’s financial system and increase taxes. In response, a desperate King called a meeting of the Estates General, the nation’s parliament, which had not met since 1614. Louis hoped the Estates could find a solution to the unending fiscal crisis.
Instead, radicals in the Estates General declared themselves the National Assembly, ignored Louis’s orders to disband, and began rewriting the Constitution. It was the Estates General that launched the Revolution.
Modern America has its own Vetocracy in the form of mechanisms such as the Filibuster. The Filibuster is a fake legislative tradition that allows individual US Senators to block any legislation. Other examples of American Vetocracy include the Conservative dominated US Supreme Court, the presidency, and the U.S. Senate.
Americans are proposing radical measures for overcoming the Vetocracy. Those measures include packing the Supreme Court, and adding new states to the Union (and US Senators). There is also some talk of the ultimate radical solution of calling a Second Constitutional Convention.
Notably, America’s last Constitutional Convention in 1787 “went rogue” and began rewriting the Constitution, just as the French Estates General did. In fact, the members of the French Estates General were emulating the American Founding Fathers by rewriting their Constitution. The difference is that most Americans in 1787 accepted the new Constitution, while many French people in the 1790s resisted the revolution from above.
5. An Endless Fiscal Crisis
King Louis XVI called an Estates General because he could not solve France’s endless fiscal crisis.
To explain, by 1787 France was broke because the Vingtième, a 5% income tax on all citizens, was expiring. Louis could not replace the Vingtième because nobles who held most of France’s wealth controlled the court system. Hence, nobles could block any new income tax.
Moreover, unlike its great rival, the British Empire, the Kingdom of France could not issue debt to finance the government. France could not issue debt because nobles feared, correctly, that debt could lead to new taxes.
Today, America faces endless battles over the debt ceiling, a rising national debt, and an inability to tax the wealthy. Meanwhile, many of America’s richest citizens pay little or no taxes. For example, Elon Musk sometimes identified as the world’s richest man paid no federal income tax in 2018, Propublica alleges.
In addition, the wealthy can game the system to reduce taxes just as the French nobility did. For example, the Tax Cut and Jobs Act cut the corporate tax rate to 21% in 2017. Critics allege the Tax Cut and Jobs Act could raise the federal deficit by $2 trillion by 2030.
Meanwhile, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimates US infrastructure needs $13 trillion in investment to keep functioning. Yet it took a brutal political battle to pass a puny $1.2 infrastructure bill that adds just $550 billion in new investments to the nation’s infrastructure.
Hence, America’s government, like France’s in 1789, seems incapable of meeting the nation’s needs. Something needs to change if the USA wants to remain a viable country.
My prediction is that frustration with America’s dysfunctional politics will grow to uncontrollable levels – if the situation remains unchanged. Eventually, that frustration will cause an explosion that will lead to radical reforms or even revolution, as it did in France in 1789.