The Political Circus
The 2000 election may well be another turning point in the unraveling of our overmighty rulers. In the meantime, it’s good clean fun for those watching from the sidelines.
The present standoff between the Evil and Stupid Parties--to steal Samuel T. Francis’s useful terms--is grand entertainment, even if it wasn’t cheaply supplied. One could fine-tune things a bit by saying that One Party professes a few good principles some of the time, with no intention of implementing them, while the Other Party professes bad principles and fully intends to carry them out to the utmost. I think the identities of the perpetrators will be clear to most readers.
This morning, a spokesman for the Evil Party described the present fun as "an injustice unparalleled in American history." Well, hang on there: I can think of nine or ten bigger ones without resorting to massive reference works. Flat-footed as ever, the Stupid Party has a hard time reacting to an orchestrated campaign of abuse. We can take our lead from Senator Harry S Truman’s comment in 1940 that we should let Germany and Russia fight it out and wear each other down until they were no threat to the United States. Perhaps the Parties will be kind enough to do something like that.
Now we must come back to serious analysis of the inner, psychological life of our would-be governors and saviors. In these justifiably cynical times one often hears people say "There’s not a shred of decency in the two major political parties." I beg to differ. There is one little shred, but it is not evenly distributed. The Republicans have it and it is a great handicap to them. They can never get off the mark as fast as their opponents. They can’t even impeach anybody.
As the present "crisis" developed, One Party roared ahead, flinging wild charges until the many of us were dizzy. The Republicans, by contrast, made a few lame statements and displayed relatively good manners--for all the good it does them. The kept official media was overwrought all Thursday morning about how Dubya was "snippy" to Algore, when the latter "withdrew" his concession. Indeed, why be snippy about such a little thing?
With that big issue quickly forgotten, the press had a field day deconstructing the particular ballot on offer in Palm Beach County. Lost in the shuffle is an obvious question: If people can’t read the ballot, why are they voting at all? As things spun out of control, or at least out of the normal, I could see that Reverend Jackson would have to go to Florida to do some of his matchless demagoguing. Alas, I was behind the curve: he was already there.
More sob stories poured forth from the press. New set phrases came into the language. (Remember "redacted"?) My favorite is "even Buchanan," as in "even Buchanan thinks that Algore should get those votes." This was offset, in perfect dialectical fashion, by tearful narratives about elderly Jewish voters who were traumatized at the thought that they might have accidentally voted for that terrible man. (Sob.) Actually, Buchanan’s principles are so unclear lately that one can hardly put any label on him, much less the one sometimes suggested. So much for peasants with pitchforks.
Of course, the best stories are on public radio, which - around here at least - has taken to calling itself Public Radio International. PRI. Partido Revolucionario Institucional?--how unintentionally appropriate. The rest of the media is no better, justifying Noam Chomsky’s famous claim that our vaunted "free press" does as much for state power as state-owned media do elsewhere. If things go on like this much longer, people are going to begin believing that absurd "far right" assertion that there is bias in the media.
Is There Any Historical Precedent?
Now we must get back to the fellow wailing about "an injustice unparalleled" and so on. I won’t defend the Electoral College here. Randall Holcombe has an excellent piece on that subject to which I refer anyone interested. Nor shall I defend the wicked property-owners who invented the college, except to ask whether anyone really believes we are better governed now than in the 19th century? Now I answer my own question: Yes, the practitioners of the higher corruption believe that, as do their allies the academic Bolsheviks.
So I don’t need to recount the election of 1824. But there is at least one precedent and that is the arguably stolen election of 1876. Republican Rutherford B. Hayes ran against Democrat Samuel J. Tilden. Two sets of returns came in from South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida. The issue was which ones were valid for determining the electoral votes of those states. The usefulness, as such, of the Electoral College did not enter into it. But who was to decide the disputed returns? Some hotheads in the Democratic Party adopted the slogan "Tilden or Blood." That wouldn’t work now. Imagine "Gore or Blood"!
More constructively, Democrats suggested simply not counting the disputed electoral votes. This would have meant that neither candidate had a majority, throwing the election into the House, which the Democrats happened to control. Republicans resisted. The compromise was a special commission made up of seven Republicans, seven Democrats, and a Supreme Court Justice presumably neutral. Of course the Justice voted with the Republican members and Hayes became President.
I don't see much precedent here, but at least there was no nonsense about an endless series of new elections. And it did put an end to the First Reconstruction, albeit at the price of forever alienating Professor Eric Foner.
There is another case that comes to mind. That is the Republican claim that massive vote fraud in Chicago gave the 1960 election to JFK rather than Richard Nixon. I realize that many people would be shocked at the notion of massive vote fraud in Chicago. Certainly, the national press did not find this an interesting story requiring heroic investigation by skilled, adversary journalists. I refer to the accredited media, who shone forth so nobly in telling us, belatedly, what the foreign press already knew about the war in Vietnam, and in bringing down Nixon, whom they had always hated. What Olympians they are.
We are lucky to live in a country possessed of so much democracy that we can afford to export it overseas, by force if necessary. Analysts of the imperial syndrome sometimes complain that we’ve exported so much as to create a shortage at home. Could be.
In 1968, I thought I’d learn about justifications for government and other such classic issues. The political scientists all said, "Oh, you want the philosophy department. We just do numbers and behavior here." And so they did. I took some of their classes anyway, and there I learned from textbooks by good, gray fellows like Easton that politics is all about "articulating demands" and "aggregating interests." And so it is.
They even had goofy input-output diagrams so you could visualize the articulatin’ and aggregatin’ going round and round through the electoral, legislative, lobbying process into the DC hopper, with pork coming out the other end, which then generated more articulatin’ and aggregatin.’ They were right: behavior and numbers.
In time, Walter Karp wrote two great books, The Politics of War and Indispensable Enemies, which sorted things in a more interesting way. Basically, he argued that from the 1890s on the Two Major Parties engaged in ritual battles over big issues. This impressed the voters, but in fact both parties understood that the point was to hold power and hand out favors to their friends. Holding power was the real point but politicians had to have friends. The system was one of conscious collusion --"bipartisanship" and "statesmanship"--in a two-party cartel. Overall, the Democrats manipulated the system more cleverly, while the Republican comforted themselves with being good losers with some manners.
"Reforms" were passed from time to time, but only the kind that reward the parties’ friends and keep the politicians in power. The biggest rewards go to certain pampered corporations, which leads Mr. Ralph Nader to suppose that this explains the system. The solution, then, is to regulate everything so that this can’t happen any more. Unfortunately, regulation is precisely the mechanism at the heart of "interest-group liberalism," "corporate syndicalism," or "liberal corporatism" (your choice). The Two Parties just have different corporate friends.
In addition, both parties need some mass appeal. The Evil Party aggregates victim groups, school teachers, trade unionists, and so on, while the Stupid Party specializes in speaking for, and immediately betraying, small business and all those Bubbas out there. This is why Republicans can be a bit cheaper. They only have to keep the right bankers and defense contractors happy; they don’t have to do a darn thing for their supposed mass base. By contrast, the Democrats have to hand out at least small rewards to legions of the downtrodden, an expensive undertaking which only leads to more articulatin’ and aggregatin.’ Just ask Reverend Jackson. It’s hard work.
Civil Service and Centralization
The problem of corruption brings me to some other matters. The first is Civil Service Reform. Max Weber wrote that American workingmen who opposed it knew "what they were about." Certainly, civil service took politics out of the hands of petty local bosses like Tweed and Plunkitt and, allegedly, entrusted it to high-minded, educated, trained sorts, who would only do good deeds.
This had a number of effects. It raised the price of corruption, freezing out tavern-owners and plumbers and increasing the political clout of the very corporations the reformers pretended to oppose. Very cosy. Equally important, it centralized corruption by centralizing the most important decisions affecting the political economy.
The heroic men and women of the press corps seldom notice such matters at the national level, but are always happy to investigate it in the states, those great bastions of reaction and evil. In this, they contribute to a sidelining of the states and the growth of federal power. As for the big fixes at the federal level, Republicans have leaned towards defense as their smoke-screen, while the Democrats have specialized in uplifting the masses. Lately, even this difference is blurred.
Bring on the Gladiators!
All this raises the problems of empire. At home, empire is big, unresponsive, irresponsible government. "Irresponsible" in the small-r republican sense of not answering to anyone. Abroad, empire means endless interventions and humanitarian bombings, and, eventually, the global articulation and aggregation of interests. What a prospect.
The only conceivable antidote is devolution of power to lower levels. This might allow for some corruption--after all, we are talking about government--but it needn’t be colossal, nor need it involve war every week or so. The late Russell Kirk referred to this as "territorial democracy." I prefer to say radical decentralization.
One observer has just written that the 2000 election proves that only the reactionary Electoral College keeps the GOP in business. Get rid of that, and the good Democrats can articulate and aggregate forevermore. Socialism can quit creeping and go to full gallop.
A county-by-county look at the map of this election suggests another reading. Outside of the coasts, big cities, state capitals, DC itself, and dear old Ecotopia, the Republicans--feckless and useless as they are--represent the actual country, the pays réel, as an unpopular Frenchman used to say. Bush won 4 out of 5 square miles of land! This is why our revolutionary generation represented the geography of the country and the states in the Congress and in the Electoral College. It made for a "concurrent majority," as another unpopular fellow termed it. Barring a return to government based on the Constitution--the real one and not the Supreme Court’s variations in D--we can look forward, I suppose, to imperial over-extension and eventual unraveling of the system of plunder and privilege centered on the Potomac.
Social theorist Joseph Tainter has noted that the Germanic kings who replaced the western Roman empire defended their (smaller) territories against invaders and more cheaply than the overextended empire had done. In North Africa, the Vandals (victims of a bad press) lowered taxes and economic well-being grew, until Justinian brought back Roman rule and, with it, imperial taxes. Roman collapse was not all bad: a disaster for the state apparatus may not be one for people as a whole. Devolution of power to smaller geographical units is, in Tainter’s words, "a rational, economizing process that may well benefit much of the population."
With the passing of our old friend the Cold War, the presidency and indeed the entire federal regime begins to look less and less important to real American life and more like an unjustifiable burden. The 2000 election may well be another turning point in the unraveling of our overmighty rulers. In the meantime, it’s good clean fun for those watching from the sidelines. Bring on the beer and chips!