[Every now and then something I read produces a critical reaction that focuses my attention on the background historical and other assumptions that I am taking for granted in my thinking. This article is the first in a three part series that developed as I took note of my reaction to a piece about the significance and possible fate of the Tea Party movement.]
Last week I read an article signed J. R. Dun 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. The controlling influence of the “liberals” means that the default state of the GOP the loser position. It is saved from that position only when its leaders successfully deceive and exploit conservative voters. 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 betray the conservatives again 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.” With this clunker the author reveals his real identity as a clever propagandist for the RINO leaders whose duplicity the article purports objectively to reveal.
It’s disingenuous to discuss the failure of third parties in certain circumstances without looking at the factors that led to the emergence of new parties at least twice in U.S. history. It’s disingenuous to speak of the present potentially terminal crisis of the U.S. constitution without recognizing the possibility that we are going through an even more exceptional period.
A slight change of perspective using the very analysis the author offers, forces serious reconsideration of the third party concept the article rejects. Remove the overlay of the existing party structure and what we see at work in the political history of the twentieth century is a contest between two sides, let’s label them the elitists and the populists.
In a clear contest 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 bear the stigma of the association 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 in the distribution of material goods. Meanwhile, in the background, both work to make sure that the elites protect and extend their power and control.
What the elitists aim above all to avoid is the emergence of a party of, by and for the populists. What they aim above all to perpetuate is a government in which the populist element appears to be in control, while the elitist element actually dictates 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 as it gives rise to respect for individual freedom and ability, and a society free 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 and a society free of oppressively permanent material inequality. Both pretend to reject the naked repressive elite control common among twentieth century regimes of the fascist, Nazi or Soviet/Chinese communist ilk.
Both squadrons recruit articulate champions from among the populist element, champions the elitists can use to put a populist face on what is in fact their pursuit of their 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 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 material circumstances, as continental expansion produced robust, independent minded individuals living in circumstances where permanent elites were practically inconceivable. But territorial expansion also produced an organizational imperative that eventually crystallized around the morally charged issue of slavery’s expansion into the territories as new states were formally admitted to the Union. 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.
Eventually the moral passion against slavery exposed the flawed assumptions of this architecture. Lincoln successfully challenged it by articulating that moral passion in terms that focused on slavery’s incompatibility in principle with the ideas focused on God-given individual unalienable rights and abilities that the elite squadrons had used to express and cop-opt the populist passion of the Jackson era.
Thus during the Lincoln era and its immediate aftermath the Republican party emerged on the swelling tide of moral populism that informed the Union’s war against the Confederacy. But even as it produced emancipation for the enslaved, the Lincoln also set the stage for the first phase of the elite’s decisive attack on the essentially populist character of America’s political life.