Where Faith Gives Reason for Citizen Action
[Every now and then something I read produces a critical reaction that impels me to focus on the background historical and other assumptions that I take for granted in my thinking. This article is the first in a series that developed as I took note of my reaction to a piece about the significance and possible future of the Tea Party movement. Labor Day has traditionally marked the formal kick-off of the “campaign season” in American politics. It seems an appropriate day to publishing a series that aims to help readers think through the political reality veiled by the appearance of the so-called two-party system. ]
Not long ago I read an article signed J. R. Dunn that offered a plausible history of the relationship between conservatives and the GOP. It portrays a party in which the “liberal” tail has usually been wagging the “conservative dog”, the exception being the era of Reagan’s Presidency. Dunn observes that the controlling influence of the “liberals” means that the ‘loser position’ is the default state of the GOP. It switches from that position only when its leaders successfully exploit conservative voters, whom they thereafter routinely betray. The author concludes that “The politically independent, philosophically conservative Tea Partiers will win the upcoming election for the GOP. Once that’s taken care of, the current Republican leadership will do its best to put distance between the GOP and the Tea Parties, the quicker to return to their loser’s slumber.”
So a plausible analysis leads to a correct conclusion: The GOP leaders will again betray conservatives after the elections in 2010 and 2012. So how should the Tea Party patriots respond to this betrayal?
Says J. R. Dunn: “Not a future as a third party. Third parties as a rule have a miserable record, from the forgotten John Anderson and H. Ross Perot…to the perennial embarrassment of the libertarians, happily acting as tools for the Dems.” This clunker leads to the suspicion the author may be a clever propagandist for the RINO leaders whose duplicity the article purports objectively to expose.
It’s disingenuous to discuss the failure of third parties in certain circumstances without looking at the factors that led to the revamping of the party system at least twice in U.S. history. It’s disingenuous to speak of the present potentially terminal crisis U.S. political institutions without at least taking account of the possibility that we are going through an even more exceptional period.
The author’s analysis suggests the need to reconsider the third party concept the article rejects. The liberal elite identified as the dog wagging rump of the GOP have their counterparts in the Democratic party. Behind the facade of the Democrat/Republican division, is an elitist division playing both sides to its advantage. Remove the overlay of the existing party labels and what we see at work is the real two party contest, more accurately labeled the elitists and the populists.
The populists are the de facto majority party. In a division of the house between the elitists and the populists, the elitists would lose routinely. In order to gain power, they must win the support of a sufficient number of populists to garner a voting majority. But if they do so frankly and openly, their populist allies would work against the stigma of being associated with elitism.
So the elite camp divides into two squadrons, each one assigned to forge an alliance with enough populists to achieve electoral success. One camp pretends to champion populist principles and values. The other pretends to champion the populist interest when it comes to the distribution of material goods. Meanwhile, in the background, both work to make sure that the elites protect and extend their power and control. To do so the elitists must above all avoid the emergence of a party of, by and for the people, which is to say a populist party under truly populist leadership. What they aim above all to perpetuate is a political machinery that fosters the illusion of populist control, but that in fact allows the elitist element to dictate policy.
With this as the underlying landscape, let’s replace the Party overlay. We see that the so-called RINOs are the elite squadron assigned to exploit the populist attachment to the premise of equal rights. This premise gives rise to respect for individual freedom and ability, and a society outwardly shy of the oppressive barriers of inherited privilege and power. The Clinton/FDR Democrats are the elite squadron assigned to exploit the populist desire for material equity. This gives rise to a preoccupation with material equality, and the promise of a society free of oppressively permanent material inequities. Until recently both Democrats and Republicans professed to reject the nakedly repressive elite control characteristic of past so-called aristocratic oligarchies, but also common to the right/left totalitarian socialist regimes of the twentieth century (the Fascists and Nazis on the right, the Soviet Socialists and Chinese Communists on the left.)
Both elite squadrons seek to recruit and co-opt influential champions from among the populist element, champions the elitists can use to put a populist face on what is in fact the elite’s pursuit of its own advantage.
To succeed, the elitist squadrons must act on a common strategy that keeps the populist element divided by making sure it is never so roused by moral or material passions that it unifies under its own leadership.
Such moments of unified populism have occurred, however, notably during the Andrew Jackson era, the Lincoln era and the Reagan era. They came at times when material or moral circumstances forced a regrouping of the elitist divisions, allowing the populist element to slip, for a time, from the manipulative grasp of the elites. During that time truly populist leaders gained sufficient political ascendancy to renew, perpetuate and even extend the formal constitutional sovereignty of the people. But each such period was followed by another during which a revamped elite reasserted itself, reconditioning the populist element to accept elite manipulation in an altered disguise.
During the Jackson era the populist element owed its ascendancy to geo-political circumstances, as continental expansion produced robust, independent minded individuals living in places where permanent elite control was practically inconceivable. But territorial expansion also produced an organizational imperative. As new states sought admission to the Union, the issues arising from this imperative eventually crystallized around the morally charged issue of slavery’s expansion. The elite squadrons took advantage of this to displace the populist leaders of the Jackson era. They promoted leaders who devised the architecture that allowed the elitist reality of the slave culture to co-exist in union with the exuberant egalitarian individualism that was Jackson’s legacy.
This Whig party’s rhetoric focused on God-given individual rights and abilities, and the promise of material prosperity connected with policies that respected, encouraged and harnessed the enormous potential energy they represented . Such themes were consonant with the actual freedom of life in a frontier society, as well as the personal characteristics needed to survive it.
The Whig party relied on this rhetoric, and the concepts of liberty and justice that were so often its swelling emotional themes. But it turned out to be the stirring musical accompaniment for an historical drama that actually featured accommodation or complicity with contrary institutions, such as the importation and victimization of imported coolie labor, and especially the American South’s “peculiar” institution of slavery. Eventually the moral passion against slavery exposed the flawed assumptions this self-contradiction. Lincoln successfully articulated that moral passion. Without directly shocking the prejudices that facilitated America’s compromise with slavery, he focused the nation’s moral conscience on its incompatibility in principle with the very rhetoric the elite squadrons had used to express and co-opt the populist passion of the Jackson era. Lincoln’s shrewd articulation of populist moral principle eventually produced and sustained the Union’s will to do battle with the Confederacy.
In the course of things the Civil War led to emancipation for enslaved blacks. It confirmed the swelling tide of moral populism that confirmed the Republican Party’s displacement of the Whigs. But once the war ended, the imperatives of reconciliation between North and South combined with the enduring geo-political circumstances of continental expansion (and the unreformed prejudices that had facilitated compromise with slavery) to engender a new era of compromise. This not only involved imposing new forms of injustice on previously enslaved blacks, it eventually permitted the reinvigorated implementation of the elite’s strategy for manipulating the populist element. As the domestic and international issues associated with rapid industrialization came to the fore, the aim of this strategy changed. It was no longer enough to maintain de facto control of political decision-making behind a populist façade. The elite took aim at the more ambitious longer term goal of altering political and governmental practices in ways that fundamentally subverted the populist premise of America’s political constitution. The crisis of our day suggests that the longer term is approaching its end.