Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Political Rhetoric and Political Philosophy

In every Democrat's home is a fax machine that early each morning churns out the day's talking points.*

Lately the fax has said, "Republicans are destroying the effectiveness of government by undermining public trust in the effectiveness of government. And that's because Republicans want no government at all."

Certainly it's a stretch for most to connect the archetypical Republican with the archetypical anarchist. Libertarians make up a considerable segment of the GOP, but the traditional libertarian position loudly affirms the role of government in protecting the rule of law. A fellow of the leading libertarian think tank, the Cato Institute--one Gerald P. O'Driscoll--today reminds folks:

Classical liberals, whose modern counterparts are libertarians and small-government conservatives, believed that the state's duties should be limited (1) to provide for the national defense; (2) to protect persons and property against force and fraud; and (3) to provide public goods that markets cannot.

But the party of Jackson and Johnson these days tells the public that Republicans (all of them apparently, not just libertarians but also social conservatives and tories and pro-business types) want all government to fail.

The obvious and best explanation for this odd move is found in the polls. There's no bounce for Obama following the singular political achievement of ObamaCare. Public opinion now runs against government programs instead of in favor. Democrats are out to explain this political phenomenon as the consequence of Republican Evil rather than Democratic Incompetence (note well the tropes by which each party explains the other, though they frequently trade them).

Of course, the notion of limited government is pretty much the American political story, as is known well by those who have read Paine's Common Sense, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, the Federalist Papers, or any civics textbook that dates the founding of the Republic to the 18th century instead of the 20th. But these days, from Rahm Emanuel to James Fallows to Eleanor Clift, the real story is that Neoconservative Nattering Nabobs of Negativism are throwing bricks through the shiny plate-glass windows of governmental efficiency, simultaneously starving and slandering it.

Of course, Dubya is also to blame for runaway federal spending, but the incongruity is only apparent. Dubya cleverly intended to bankrupt government in order to destroy it, or he was simply stupid. Evil or incompetent: take your pick.

We say differently. In 2008 there arose an electorate that knew not the 1970s. Some young and others forgetful, without a functional narrative of governmental failure, exhausted after nearly three decades of accepting government's limitations (in which even a Democratic President famously announced, "The era of big government is over"), ready to place their "hope" in "change" that promised to deliver what previous, less blessed leaders had warned simply did not exist, the American electorate voted for something that runs counter to the prevailing political philosophy of its history.

Then roughly eighteen months later, it returned to its roots, as if awakening to a hangover and swearing off booze. And that is the fault of the party of Lincoln, Coolidge and Reagan.

We offer a brief reminder of history. This Republic's foundational legacy is the empirical philosophy of John Locke and the experience of the frontier, to which ambitious Europeans came to escape the failures of their history of feudalism and absolute monarchy. In Europe, where the long-term experience is feudalism and absolute monarchy through and through, the foundations are the French Revolution's romantic rationalism coupled with Bismark's attempt to transfer the loyalty of the monarch's subject peoples to a cradle-to-grave welfare state that dispenses favors. The one regards all people as endowed with inalienable rights. The other oddly affirms liberty, equality and fraternity while assuming that most benighted souls need someone from the elite to care for them. In sum, the New World seeks to have citizens while the Old World is content to have clients.

Whatever the silliness of the present political rhetoric, that distinction lies at the heart of most present debate on the preferred side of the Atlantic.

*Republicans accomplish the same with older technology: AM radio.


Bryan D said...

"Neoconservative Nattering Nabobs of Negativism" I didn't know white dude could alliterate like that!

Also, I *must* start referring to the States as "the preferred side of the Atlantic." Maybe I could slip it into a sermon or something!

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

Credit where credit is due (or explaining allusions to the young): William Safire coined the phrase "nattering nabobs of negativism" for a speech delivered by Vice President Spiro Agnew sometime during the first Nixon term. We just added another "n" word and put the phrase in the other side's mouth.