Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, January 16, 2018
They Said It:
America is in the throes of revolution. The 2016 election and its aftermath reflect the distinction, difference, even enmity that has grown exponentially over the past quarter century between America’s ruling class and the rest of the country. During the Civil War, President Lincoln observed that all sides “pray[ed] to the same God.” They revered, though in clashing ways, the same founders and principles. None doubted that those on the other side were responsible human beings. Today, none of that holds….
The government apparatus identifies with the ruling class’s interests, proclivities, and tastes, and almost unanimously with the Democratic Party. As it uses government power to press those interests, proclivities, and tastes upon the ruled, it acts as a partisan state. This party state’s political objective is to delegitimize not so much the politicians who champion the ruled from time to time, but the ruled themselves. Ever since Woodrow Wilson nearly a century and a half ago at Princeton, colleges have taught that ordinary Americans are rightly ruled by experts because they are incapable of governing themselves….
On the other side, some two thirds of regular Americans chafe at insults from on high and believe that “the system” is rigged against them and, hence, illegitimate—that elected and appointed officials, plus the courts, business leaders, and educators are leading the country in the wrong direction. The non-elites blame the elites for corruptly ruling us against our will, for impoverishing us, for getting us into wars and losing them. Many demand payback—with interest.
So many on all sides have withdrawn consent from one another, as well as from republicanism as defined by the Constitution and as it was practiced until the mid-20th century, that it is difficult to imagine how the trust and sympathy necessary for good government might ever return. Instead, we have a cold civil war.
Angelo Codevilla, “The Cold Civil War,” Claremont Review of Books, April 25, 2017.
TRUMP, CALHOUN, AND THE COLD CIVIL WAR.
Unless you’ve spent the last few days in a cave – or some other sh*thole – you undoubtedly know that the American ruling class is absolutely tearing itself apart right now. Last week, President Trump purportedly sais some intemperate things about some countries in the developing world, and virtually the entirety of the nation’s elites lost their minds. Democrats insisted time and again that Trump was an inveterate racist. The Senate Minority Whip, Dick Durbin, went on TV and lied about the term “chain-immigration” in an attempt to make Trump’s comments appear worse than they were. Senator Cory Booker, a presumptive Democratic presidential candidate literally screamed for several minutes at the Secretary of Homeland Security because she had the temerity to tell the press that she didn’t hear the President use the term was accused of using.
In ordinary times, under ordinary circumstances, the outrage felt and demonstrated against the president and his administration would have indicated that something serious had happened, a grave and unforgiveable breach in the public trust. But, of course, these are neither ordinary times nor ordinary circumstances. Donald Trump is president, after all, which is to say that “outrage” is the perpetual state of affairs. Last week, you see, there was this book, which was truly and unbelievably outrageous. It was going to end the Trump presidency. The week before that, Trump was tweet-trolling Kim Jong Un about the size of their respective buttons, which, of course, was absolutely, positively, no doubt the most outrageous thing ever done by anyone anywhere and almost certainly going to precipitate a nuclear war. And then, some nit-wit in Hawaii pushed the wrong button, warning the state’s residents that a missile was inbound, and somehow it was all Trump’s fault and, naturally, cause for outrage. Outrage, outrage, outrage. Day-in, day-out.
Now, we don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade, but the simple fact is that all of this outrage is due to the fact that the United States today is engaged in civil war. It has not yet led to widespread bloodshed, and, God willing, it will not. Yet, it is, as we said, tearing the nation apart. And it could very likely lead to the destruction that Lincoln feared during those dark days of 1863. An exaggeration? Well, maybe. But we think that there is simply no other way to look at the on-going attack on Donald Trump by the leaders of the Democratic Party and the mainstream media. Moreover, we think it is about time that responsible people in both parties to look at this situation with clear eyes and serious intentions. If they don’t this metaphorical civil war could lead to very real and very serious damage to the nation.
For an entire year now, the assault on Donald Trump has been unrelenting, despite overwhelming evidence that he is performing his duties within the legal limits of his authority. Moreover, his performance so far has produced excellent results on many important fronts. Yet, every move he makes to honor pledges that he had made to the people who elected him are portrayed as egregious violations of every decent standard known to man and nature. This is not normal. It is, in fact, indicative of ruling class that is no longer willing to accept the basic tenets of self-government, particularly its most important feature, that being the peaceful transition of power.
By now, everyone – at home and abroad – knows what Trump apparently said last week in a PRIVATE meeting with legislators on the sticky topic of immigration. And the reason everyone knows is because the mainstream press decided that it was its job to take the President’s private comments and blare them out to the world, the prudence of such a course of action be damned. As the dust has settled a bit in the nation’s capital, it appears that the initial outrage may have been overblown. Two Republican Senators and, the Secretary of Homeland Security – all of whom were at the meeting – now say that the words in question never crossed Trump’s lips. Not that anyone cares. The initial story was what mattered, and the Washington Post – whose new motto is “Truth dies in darkness” – felt that the story was too important to miss:
President Trump grew frustrated with lawmakers Thursday in the Oval Office when they discussed protecting immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and African countries as part of a bipartisan immigration deal, according to several people briefed on the meeting….
In addition, the president singled out Haiti, telling lawmakers that immigrants from that country must be left out of any deal, these people said. “Why do we need more Haitians?” Trump said, according to people familiar with the meeting. “Take them out.”…
Lawmakers were taken aback by the comments, according to people familiar with their reactions…. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) said the comments “will shake the confidence that people have” in the ongoing immigration policy talks….
What do you notice about this story? Well, the first thing you should see is that the entire account is not even second-hand, but third-hand. No reporters were at the meeting. There is no audio. There is no video. Moreover, no one who was actually at the meeting spoke with the Post. The sources are “people briefed on the meeting” or “people familiar with lawmakers’ reactions.” In addition, you should see that the sources the Post did find are ALL unwilling to go on record. They’re all anonymous. The meeting was private, yet afterward, some people who were at the meeting told some other people that they were unhappy and then those people called up reporters, but didn’t feel bold enough to let those reporters use their names.
Finally, what you should see here is that the very point of this third-hand story with only anonymous sources was to damage President Trump and his administration, but also America’s standing abroad because that would reflect poorly on the administration. In a previous day and age, one might call this treasonous, or at least one would consider it to be part and parcel anti-Americanism that infected the political Left during the 1960s. But not today. Today, this telling the “truth” so it doesn’t die in darkness. This is a noble and important task. As we said, these are anything but normal times. There is a war on, after all.
And here is where we come to the crux of the matter. Prior to the 1960s, most Americans were inclined to see the American experiment in similar terms. The great American “creed” – born of the Founding Fathers and hardened during the Civil War – was still alive and well. It was powerful, and it was triumphant. The United States emerged from World War II alone atop the mountain of nations, unscathed, unrivaled, and unafraid. And, for the most part its people did, in fact, share a common ideology and a common vision of what it meant to be an American.
Additionally, and more to the point, given the tenor of what passes for political discourse today, before the 1960s, the Constitution itself was still functional. It had been dealt a heavy blow by the meddling of the Progressives, but it limped on, and the constitutional protections against the tyranny of the majority that James Madison had astutely placed in the document, were still extant and honored. But the decade of the ‘60s would change all that. During the 1960s, the American creed was challenged, as were the Madisonian provisions that protected political minorities. The entire order gave way, fomenting the conditions that gave rise, in time leading, to the Civil War in which the nation is currently engaged.
It is ironic, we know, but perhaps the best way to explain these provisions and how their breakdown led to civil war is by taking a closer look at the work of the 19th century political polymath John C. Calhoun. Calhoun, as you may know, was one of the political progenitors of the bloody real Civil War. And it is for this reason that his insights provide clues to our own current state of affairs.
Today, John C. Calhoun is reviled by American partisans of all stripes and American historians of all ideological predispositions. But over the course of the first half of the nineteenth century, he was a very important, very powerful, and very influential man. He served his country as its Secretary of War, its Vice President, a two-term Senator, and its Secretary of State. Of course, Calhoun was a racist and an elitist, a believer in the importance and permanency of a social class and the measure of social class in terms of slave ownership. He was one of the staunchest and most aggressive defenders of slavery among the American political class. He saw himself as a political theorist and statesman and a defender of “minority rights,” a southern, agrarian republican and in the tradition of Jefferson and Madison.
While Calhoun’s opinion of himself was certainly not consistent with historical reality, he was no dummy. In fact, he contributed greatly to the practice of nineteenth and twentieth century American governance through his conception of the “concurrent majority,” which he – and many others – saw as a continuation of or improvement on Madison’s above-noted constitutional protections against the tyranny of the majority.
Over the course of the last nearly one-hundred-seventy years, Calhoun’s ideas have largely been dismissed, principally because those ideas were formulated in defense of slavery, and that issue was definitively settled at Appomattox. But those ideas have explanatory power, both because of the reality they clarified and because of the fateful end they met.
In 1948, the late, great Peter Drucker argued that Calhoun’s conception of the concurrent majority was among the most powerful ideas in American political history. Indeed, he called “the organizing principle of American politics.” Drucker described Calhoun and his enterprise as follows:
His basic principal itself: that every major interest in the country, whether regional, economic or religious, is to possess a veto power on political decisions directly affecting it, the principle which Calhoun called — rather obscurely— “the rule of concurrent majority,” has become the organizing principle of American politics….
Sectional and interest pluralism has molded all American political institutions. It is the method – entirely unofficial and extra-constitutional – through which the organs of government are made to function, through which leaders are selected, policies developed, men and groups organized for the conquest and management of political power. In particular it is the explanation for the most distinctive features of the American political system: the way in which the Congress operates, the way in which major government departments are set up and run, the qualifications for “eligibility” as a candidate for elective office, and the American party structure.
Drucker went on to explain how all of this has shaped American politics, has shaped the parties, and has facilitated the creation an informal but exceptionally powerful “bloc” system, which ensures that sectional interests are represented and given preference over ideology. For example, once upon a time in this country, we had what was called a “farm bloc.” The members of this bloc – i.e. the representatives from agricultural states – had primary input into and de facto veto power over agricultural policy. This ensured that farm interests were not just considered in the formulation of policy that would affect them, but that this influence would supersede party affiliation. Drucker continued, noting that the concurrent majority/sectional interests aspect of American politics plays out in the committee structure of Congress, which is powerful means of protecting minority interests and a uniquely American tradition. He put it thusly:
It is not only Congress but every individual member of Congress himself who is expected to operate according to the “rule of concurrent majority.” He is considered both a representative of the American people and responsible to the national interest and a delegate of his constituents and responsible to their particular interests. Wherever the immediate interests of his constituents are not in question, he is to be a statesman; wherever their conscience or their pocketbooks are affected, he is to be a business agent….
The principle of sectional and interest pluralism also explains why this is the only nation where Cabinet members are charged by law with the representation of special interests — labor, agriculture, commerce. In every other country an agency of the government — any agency of the government — is solemnly sworn to guard the public interests against “the interests.” In this country the concept of a government department as the representative of a special interest group is carried down to smaller agencies and even to divisions and branches of a department.
Drucker continued on in this vein, describing the importance of sectional and special interests, the unique power of concurrent majority, and the strength found in the American system’s radical uniqueness. And as you might imagine – Drucker being Drucker – he made a very strong and compelling case that Calhoun’s theories, long presumed to be consigned to the dustbin of history, are actually quite correct and clarifying in their depiction of American politics.
Drucker argued, persuasively, that the American system is superior to the European parliamentarian systems because it values actual interests over dogma. And along those lines, he noted that the real risk in all of this is and ever shall be ideology. “In a genuine clash of principles,” Drucker wrote, “‘the rule of concurrent majority’ breaks down.” He pointed out that the irony of Calhoun’s crusade for the concurrent majority principal is that the structure he described did, indeed, break down, precisely as the theories began to gain prominence. Calhoun’s ideas became most prominent precisely as slavery morphed from a regional concern – a sectional or special interest – into an ideological issue. According to Drucker, channeling Calhoun, American pluralism is a powerful means of ensuring domestic tranquility and protecting the rights of minority interests, but it cannot withstand the power of ideological conflicts and collapses in the face of such battles. The principle broke down and led to war, as slavery became a moral issue. Ideology, then, becomes the enemy both of pluralism and of peace.
Fortunately, Drucker argued, ideological differences are rare in America, for a variety of reasons. And chief among these is “the development of a unifying ideology – an American creed.” He continues, describing this creed:
Even the term “un-American” cannot be translated successfully into any other language, least of all into “English” English. In no other country could the identity of the nation with a certain set of ideas be assumed — at least not under a free government. This unique cohesion on principles shows, for instance, in the refusal of the American voter to accept Socialists and Communists as “normal” parties, simply because both groups refuse to accept the assumption of a common American ideology. It shows, for another example, in the indigenous structure of the American labor movement with its emphasis on interest pressure rather than on a political philosophy. And this is also the only country in which “Civics” could be taught in schools — the only democratic country which believes that a correct social philosophy could or should be part of public education.
In Europe, a universal creed would be considered incompatible with a free society. Before the advent of totalitarianism, no European country had ever known anything comparable to the flag salute of the American school child.’ For in Europe all political activity is based on ideological factions; consequently, to introduce a uniform ideology in a European country is to stamp out all opposition. In the United States ideological homogeneity is the very basis of political diversity. It makes possible the almost unlimited freedom of interest groups, religious groups, pressure groups, etc.; and in this way it is the very fundament of free government. (It also explains why the preservation of civil liberties has been so much more important a problem in this country — as compared to England or France, for instance.) The assumption of ideological unity gives the United States the minimum of cohesion without which its political system simply could not have worked.
Unfortunately Drucker’s analysis of the American creed was trenchant and insightful seventy years ago, but it has not stood the test that of time especially well. And all of this brings right back around to where we started this discussion above.
The emergence of postmodern thought, the intellectual posturing of critical theory, the sexual revolution, and the rise of radical interest group politics all combined to destroy the universal American creed and to render the pluralist notions of both Madison and Calhoun inoperable – again. By the end of the 1960s, the ideological die had been cast, and the nation began dividing itself up into two teams, just as had almost exactly a century earlier. One of these sides embraced an overwhelming ideological component dictating that traditional faith and morals should govern public choices; the other embraced its own overwhelming ideological doctrine, one in which traditionalism is deemed evil and the Enlightenment concepts of reason and truth are rejected out of hand.
We won’t bore you here with another long rant on our “clash of moral codes” thesis. Today, it should suffice to say that over the last five decades, morality, in its various iterations, has come to replace pluralism and sectional interests as the governing principle of American politics. Sectional interests are more or less irrelevant, falling far behind ideological concerns in terms of importance.
It is hard to imagine a “farm bloc” any longer, when one can no longer even imagine a “bloc” of unified interests within the farm states. Indianapolis, for example, does not share the interests of the rest of Indiana. And nor for that matter does Chicago have much in common with downstate Illinois. Even Omaha does not share the values and the interests of the rest of Nebraska, having demonstrated its differences by handing its one electoral vote to Barack Obama in 2008, while the remainder of the state voted overwhelmingly for John McCain. Houston votes differently from the rest of Texas. Denver votes differently from the rest of Colorado. Northern Virginia and the rest of the commonwealth could not be less alike in terms of interest if they tried. Indeed, Northern Virginia’s interests and politics more closely resemble those of far-distant California than those of Lynchburg or Mount Jackson.
The two sides in this conflict are divided on every issue, and every issue is seen by the most ardent partisans as absolutely critical and unalterable. All of which is to say that we have descended into the same condition as existed in this country in the decade after John Calhoun’s death. We are, as our old friend Angelo Codevilla has said, in the throes of a Cold Civil War.
To make matters worse, the ideological rift in this country is compounded by the failure of and the purposeful isolation of the American ruling class. Near the conclusion of his essay, Peter Drucker argued that the Anglo-American version of pluralism can survive just about anything, if it is properly managed within the bounds of a unifying creed or at the discretion of a unifying and patriotic ruling class. To wit:
This is the real discovery on which the Anglo-American achievement rests – factions can be used constructively only if they are encompassed within a frame of unity. A free government on the basis of sectional interest groups is possible only when there is no ideological split within the country. This is the American solution. Another conceivable solution is to channel the driving forces, the vectors of society, into ideological factions which obtain their cohesion from a program for the whole of society, and from a creed. But that presupposes an unquestioned ruling class with a common outlook on life, with uniform mores and a traditional, if not inherent, economic security. Given that sort of ruling class, the antagonist in an ideological system can be expected to be a “loyal opposition,” that is, to accept the rules of the game and to see himself as a partner rather than as a potential challenger to civil war. But a ruling class accepted by the people as a whole, and feeling itself responsible to the people as a whole, cannot be created by fiat or overnight.
And herein lies the second problem with the current state of the American experiment. As we have written countless times before, and as the likes of Codevilla and Charles Murray have written far more eloquently than we, the American ruling class is not only radically different from its purported subjects, the country class, it is also overtly and unashamedly hostile to said country class. In an essay published by the Wall Street Journal nearly two years ago, as Donald Trump was emerging as the bona fide Republican presidential frontrunner, Murray addressed the new ruling class, its contempt for the country class, and the abandonment of the American creed – all of which were described as anathema to the American spirit by Drucker just seven decades prior.
What does this ideology — Huntington called it the “American creed” — consist of? Its three core values may be summarized as egalitarianism, liberty and individualism. From these flow other familiar aspects of the national creed that observers have long identified: equality before the law, equality of opportunity, freedom of speech and association, self-reliance, limited government, free-market economics, decentralized and devolved political authority.
As recently as 1960, the creed was our national consensus. Running that year for the Democratic nomination, candidates like John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Hubert Humphrey genuinely embraced the creed, differing from Republicans only in how its elements should be realized.
Today, the creed has lost its authority and its substance….
The new upper class consists of the people who shape the country’s economy, politics and culture. The new lower class consists of people who have dropped out of some of the most basic institutions of American civic culture, especially work and marriage. Both of these new classes have repudiated the American creed in practice, whatever lip service they may still pay to it….
Another characteristic of the new upper class — and something new under the American sun — is their easy acceptance of being members of an upper class and their condescension toward ordinary Americans. Try using “redneck” in a conversation with your highly educated friends and see if it triggers any of the nervousness that accompanies other ethnic slurs. Refer to “flyover country” and consider the implications when no one asks, “What does that mean?” Or I can send you to chat with a friend in Washington, D.C., who bought a weekend place in West Virginia. He will tell you about the contempt for his new neighbors that he has encountered in the elite precincts of the nation’s capital.
For its part, mainstream America is fully aware of this condescension and contempt and is understandably irritated by it….
These major changes in American class structure were taking place alongside another sea change: large-scale ideological defection from the principles of liberty and individualism, two of the pillars of the American creed….
Given all of this, it is hardly a stretch for us to assert that the American experiment is in trouble – serious, seemingly irreversible trouble. The ruling class hates the country class, and factions within both classes hate each other. Our ruling class has no interests except its own and thus it can no longer serve, as Drucker expected, as a “loyal opposition.” Rather, it serves as a hostile faction within the government, seeking its own ends, advancing its own priorities, and caring nothing about the damage done to the nation or its interests in pursuit of those ends.
All of this, we should note, is compounded in the case of President Trump. He not only represents one side in ideological war, but also repudiates the ruling class that surrounds him and still controls the levers of power in Washington, New York, and Hollywood. Trump is Enemy Number One in the eyes of almost everyone who is in a position to do anything about it, and their hatred for him, for their ideological opponents, and for the “rubes” who are Trump’s constituents is palpable.
We don’t think that any of this analysis is dependent on one’s feeling about Donald Trump, his use of coarse language, or his alleged offensiveness. Whatever he did last week, whatever he said, none of it would have been cause for the type of backstabbing and destructiveness in an earlier era, one in which the American creed still existed and the opposition was still loyal. Lyndon Johnson, for example, was far coarser than Trump, and, Jack Kennedy had his own, very obvious, very destructive issues. But they governed then, not now. And now we are in a state of war. The Cold Civil War animates virtually all of our politics.
Calhoun’s concurrent majority thesis fell apart in the mid-nineteenth century as the nation descended into ideological bickering and eventually into war. It is doing so again today. Peter Drucker argues that Calhoun was right about the concurrent majority and that his thesis is the only foundation for truly free government. If Drucker is right, that doesn’t bode well for the future of the American experiment.