The Long View 2008-09-07: Some Notes on the American Political Major-Party Conventions of 2008


John J. Reilly gives us some solid grounding here in the foundations of cyclical theories of history, and also provides his assessment of why neither American party has been able to create a durable governing order akin to the New Deal.

This essay is highly recommended.

Some Notes on the American Political Major-Party Conventions of 2008

As regular readers of this space will know, the Imperial Period is the time when the stories of the state and the people again diverge. During Modernity, in whose final century we are living, those stories merged as public authorities assumed what had traditionally been private risk. This had to happen. During Modernity, wars and the threat of war become larger, requiring mass armies and a high degree of constant mobilization. Economies are more interconnected, and therefore prone to the sort of feedback-and-crash events that characterize the early stages of the development of any information system. There was a vast increase in public risk, risk that only the active cooperation of the people could manage. Therefore, the state undertook to mitigate private risk, especially the kind of private risk that had resulted from the increase in the scale of public institutions and events. This effort usually took the form of economic regulation designed to stabilize the financial and labor markets, a degree of care for public health, and of mandatory education to create a literate and loyal citizenry. In the Imperial Period, when simple acquiescence to the public order will do and there are no unprecedented public events of a major order, one might reasonably expect that the grip of the institutions created for these purposes will relax. Then, as is usually the case with lightly governed societies, patronage will become more important than law, and islands of caste and even slavery will reassert themselves under polite euphemisms. The only really interesting question for our politics is whether we have entered the direct path to that condition, or whether the ebb and flow within Modernity between periods of public order with periods of liberalism (in the 19th-century sense) still has one more cycle of rigor in store.

Viewing the Republican Convention, one might have thought that the Empire was long established. Speaker after speaker arose to promise to get the government off the back of an electorate that is already nearly in shock from the rise in private risk, in areas ranging from retirement planning to the availability of health care. There is nothing in civic life more frightening than the statement: “I am giving you a decision to make on which your life depends, but I promise not to help you if you choose wrongly.” That is, pretty much, the offer that the Republican Party has been making for the past 20 years, and yet they wonder why they have not become the majority party.

Incidentally, there is also an increasingly Third Worldish tone to the party’s adulation of the military. In Modernity, the New Deal model of government and the identification of the nation with the military went hand-in-hand. The term “home front” is not a metaphor. Modernity is the era of mobilization, and especially of economic mobilization (“war socialism,” as they called it during the First World War). The measures of regulation and welfare that made a society able to defend itself also made it worth defending. The Republican disparagement of the social safety-net is therefore actually a disparagement of the underlying reason for the popularity of the military in 20th-century America. No doubt unconsciously, the Party is moving toward a position in which the military is favored because it is the only public institution that works. Many countries have that relationship to their militaries, but in such places the militaries are better guarantors of social order than they are militaries. But I digress.

Let us now deal with the speakers specifically, at least those I saw: In the address by the governor of Minnesota, one of the principal candidates for the vice-presidential slot, we saw that the Party dodged a bullet by not nominating him. I can’t remember the man’s name, and I suspect I could not even if he had been nominated. I thought that Thompson, Ridge, and Romney narrow casted to their own sections of the base, while taking care not to avoid its other components. They were duly applauded by the denizens on the floor of the convention, but I cannot imagine that their remarks were helpful in the oxygen-breathing world. To my surprise, I liked Giuliani. He is not my favorite politician, but he demonstrated a pixie malice that gives partisan vituperation a good name. I was less surprised at liking Huckabee. Probably he shouldn’t be president, but his address again demonstrated his ability to comment thoughtfully on events and not simply spout the party line. He is a politician with his brain turned on, a quality he shares with the vice-presidential and presidential nominees.

The question about Palin’s speech is whether McCain was brilliant or just extremely lucky. I have not seen such a successful undernews campaign for a public event since the viral marketing for Cloverfield. The fact that the undernews was almost all derogatory in no way diminished its effect: millions more people watched Palin’s acceptance speech than would otherwise have done so, and the vast majority were pleasantly surprised. Again, she probably shouldn’t be president, but she did demonstrate the ability to be enthusiastic without sounding doctrinaire. One feels that one can trust her, should she be elected, not to stick to her party’s platform.

As for John McCain, the Alternative Senator himself, I think his acceptance speech was the best of his political life. He does not like giving speeches, and he’s not particularly good at it, but he radiated sincerity and goodwill. An important point (not original with me) is that he radiated these things to a wider audience than was on the convention floor or even in the party nationally. Almost alone among the speakers, he reached out to Democrats and Independents. That will be what wins him the election, and not the base. He was helped in this endeavor by that weird crowd he was addressing, with its uncanny silences and the torrents of praise that sounded like jeers. He was visibly fighting the audience at certain points, usually when he was saying something that would appeal to the general electorate but which offended against some tenet of Movement Conservatism. McCain’s address may be as close as we will get too seeing a man mastering a lynch-mob on live television. Well, now he has the convention’s credential, and he has made what peace he could with the convention’s anaerobic masters.

The Democratic Convention the week before was far better produced than its improvised, almost furtive Republican counterpart; certainly the Democrats had better speakers. It is no small irony that the Republican Party, hoist by the Democrats’ own slanderous undernews, ended with better ratings.

The burden of their message expressed the real strength of the Democratic Party. At least at the national level, it has become the refuge of people who are interested in governing, in ordinary administration, in the integrity of public institutions. Such people are only a minority, of course, but they are a disproportionate fraction of the “grown-ups” in Congress and the career civil service who keep the necessary wheels turning. It’s not that such people are particularly attracted to the principles of the Democratic Party. They tend to gravitate to Democratic circles because the Republican establishment, with the exception of McCain and a few others, has lost interest in mere expertise.

Jerry Pournelle has a principle, “The Iron Law of Bureaucracy,” which has it that any bureaucracy will eventually be taken over by people who are more interested in maintaining the bureaucracy than in doing what the bureaucracy was created to do. There is something to that, as Fr. Neuhaus might say, but I think it is possible to overstate the point. Of course a bureaucracy tends to fall into the hands of the people who retain its institutional memory and who care for the institution as such. That does not mean that they cannot also be very good at their jobs. The worst institutions are in fact precisely those whose leadership is imported for ideological reasons and who care about nothing but the implementation of their own agenda. In such situations, the agenda is rarely carried out in full, and the people who try hardest to implement it are often indicted. But again, I digress.

The great flaw in the Democratic Party is that its fundamental instincts are quite as “demobilizing” as the Republican’s soft-Libertarianism, but disguised as something else: the continuation of the New Deal. As we have elsewhere considered on this site, the New Deal is the true American “conservatism.” Its aim was to promote public order and social solidarity; the New Deal consciously accepted that the cost of these good things was a business climate that was economically suboptimal. The Democratic Party is still unconcerned about economic suboptimality, but the benefits from its enthusiasm are not public goods, but the private profit of activists and the diversity industry. The New Deal was about public order; the Great Society was about rights. Indeed, the Great Society was about rights claimed against the public order, an order that is regarded as something to be mined for profit rather than maintained.

The Republicans’ Libertarianism is implicitly unpatriotic. The Democrats’ multiculturalism is explicitly anti-American, anti-Western, and anti-religious. No amount of patriot convention-hall staging, not even a chorus line of high-kicking retired generals, can disguise that fact. The Party believes, however obscurely, that the barbarians are a kind of solution.

Obama’s acceptance speech was initially praised to the sky, and I still say it was pretty good. In retrospect, though, the effect it left on me was something like the effect that presidential candidate Franklin Delano Roosevelt had on H. L. Mencken: the candidate was a nice young man, with no particular qualifications, who very much wants to be president. The chief problem with the speech (and this point, too, is not original with me) is that Obama was narrowcasting to his base, just the opposite of what McCain did. There could be a great irony here. Have the Democrats adopted the Rove strategy of seeking 50% of the electoral votes, plus one?

A note about vice presidents: it’s not quite true that the vice president has no duties under the Constitution except to collect a monthly check and inquire periodically after the president’s health. Nonetheless, the expansion of the role of the vice president, beginning with the Carter Administration, has been extraordinary; not unconstitutional, I would say, but aconstitutional. This trend reached a climax with Vice President Dick Cheney, who functions as a prime minister, a role usually performed by the White House Chief of Staff.

If the Obama-Biden ticket is elected, this pattern is likely to recur. It is notoriously the case that Obama has no shadow government. His senior advisers are not very senior. He can call on expertise, but not experience. Biden, however, and McCain too, entered the Senate so long ago that Cicero was on hand to show them the ropes. Both have run for president before. In short order, both could assemble a cabinet of the Wise and the Good, or at least of The Not Completely Clueless. Obama’s Administration would be Biden’s Government.

As for Vice President Palin, one suspects she would not be relegated to the outer darkness of the Naval Observatory. She would probably make an effective diplomat and general presidential spokesman, which is one of the vice president’s traditional functions. If McCain is wise, he will keep her in the loop; inexperienced is not the same as uneducable. Nonetheless, in a McCain Administration, the Mayor of the Palace is certain to retreat to a more modest role.

And what of our initial question: are we on the Imperial glide path, or will there be one more updraft of national solidarity? I would go with the latter. Movement Conservatism would work only in a world of Wilsonian tranquility; indeed, only of Kant’s Perpetual Peace. We won’t have that for another 80 years. The Democrats, in contrast, do well enough when they let their experts run the state, but are driven off the stage with rotten eggs and cat-calls whenever they try to implement one of their bright ideas. (If Obama is elected, just you wait for the fireworks that his “Comparable Worth” pay initiative will set off). There are components of each party that could, and probably will, fit together to create a 21st-century Newer Deal. The outcome of the upcoming election goes to the timing of this process, not its eventuality.

With McCain, it will go faster.

Copyright © 2008 by John J. Reilly

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