20 July 2011

Republican stakes in the 'cataclysmic struggle'

In his latest indictment of irreconcilable Republicanism, David Brooks (who still styles himself "conservative") attempts to categorize the elements obstructing constructive conservative compromise on the debt-ceiling question. He denounces "Beltway Bandits" like Grover Norquist ("the Zelig of Republican catastrophe"), "Big Government Blowhards" on the radio, "Show Horse" presidential candidates like Michele Bachmann and cynically partisan "Permanent Campaigners." All these groups have in common a preference for sensationalism over substance, in Brooks's analysis. They "enforce rigid ultimatums that make governance, or even thinking, impossible," "portray politics as a cataclysmic, Manichean struggle," and "pass responsibility onto the other party and force them to take as many difficult votes as possible." Sensationalism keeps the money flowing and the ratings high. They don't seek results in practical, pragmatic terms, but supposedly "believe that if they can remain pure in their faith then someday their party will win a total and permanent victory over its foes." This apocalyptic aspiration inspires Brooks to dub the irreconcilables "the Gods of the New Dawn." That, he supposes, is their self-image.

If we boil it down, Brooks's main complaint seems to be that these Republicans are more interested in winning elections than in governing the country. To the extent that the extremists have an ideological aversion to government, that only makes sense. It is also a bad thing, in Brooks's opinion, that the "Gods of the New Dawn" seek total, final victory over their "foes," whether those be Democrats specifically or liberals in general. That's a predictable reaction that reflects the punditocracy's equation of Bipolarchy with pluralism. But if you believe a political party to be a dangerous faction, as many of our Founders presumed any party would be (before they formed their own), why should you want to see that party perpetuated permanently? As long as you're contemplating a conclusive electoral victory and not a ban on a specific faction or factionalism in general, what harm would actually befall the nation if a major party expired? If that's the worst thing that can happen, then the nation was in its greatest peril in 1820, when the withering away of the Federalist party allowed James Monroe to run for President unopposed. But no one considers Monroe the closest thing to an American tyrant. Nor do I think that any Republican leader today aspires to the kind of tyranny we identify with a "one party state." In fact, I question whether any Republican leader actually seeks the "total and permanent victory" Brooks accuses them of wanting.

Bipolarchy assumes that the ideal number of political parties is no more and no less than two. The chief American theorist of Bipolarchy, Martin Van Buren, believed that any political campaign should be characterized as a fundamental struggle in which the American experiment in democratic republicanism was at stake. For him, the election of 1824, not of 1820, was the great disaster of American politics, because four powerful Republicans campaigned as individuals rather than partisans. This irked Van Buren because he expected Republicans to abide by the result of the congressional caucus that picked presidential candidates. The failure of Adams, Clay and Jackson to defer to Crawford reduced the 1824 campaign to mere unprincipled personal ambition in Van Buren's mind. For him, party cohesion depended on portraying any given campaign as a "cataclysmic struggle" with an implicitly un-American opponent. That depended on the existence of an opponent. President Adams played that role in 1828, and Van Buren helped build the Democratic Party around Andrew Jackson by accusing Adams of having won the Presidency unfairly through a "corrupt bargain," and of reverting to the Federalism of his father. If the Whig Party had not emerged to challenge President Jackson, Van Buren would probably have had to invent an opposition party in order to prevent another 1824 after Jackson's retirement. For Bipolarchy, "cataclysmic struggle" is the state of continuity, and "total and permanent victory" only the stuff of propaganda. Notice, after all, that Brooks ascribed such a desire to all the Republicans who were allegedly interested in self-promotion rather than results. Think of them as arms merchants who would have to worry about their future livelihood if "total and permanent victory" were actually achieved. If a time came when multiple Republicans contested a general Presidential election on their personal merits, these people might not know how to deal with it, but they would most likely settle on one candidate and dub him or her a closet liberal/socialist/whatever in the hope of restoring Bipolarchy as soon as possible.

My point isn't that Brooks is wrong to denounce an unwillingness among Republicans to compromise. I simply want to suggest that the current crisis is just an advanced stage of a condition characteristic of Bipolarchy that might eventually be remedied if a "total and permanent victory" were achieved temporarily. I refuse to be paranoid about Republicans or impute tyrannical ambitions to them. Were they to achieve total victory, they would be at each other's throats almost immediately. I don't believe that a "one party state" would be the long-term result of the end of the current American Bipolarchy. It might be preferable if the Republicans fell first, but the important thing is that true pluralism follow, whether it's based on parties or personalities, rather than the reproduction of the Manichean parody of pluralism I call Bipolarchy.


Anonymous said...

I don't believe "pluralism" is either possible or desirable. The former because the average person is very much incapable of thinking in those terms. To the average person, everything comes down to either "this" or "that". Any third choice is merely a derivative of "this" or "that".
The latter because, in my mind, in order for a social unit (in this case nation) to maintain stability and cohesion, it must have a direction to move in. Pluralism would result in multiple groups pulling in different directions and the result would be worse than what we have.
My thought is "one nation. one people. one direction." If we are to achieve our fullest potential. Eventually, I would hope that the entire human race could understand that basic concept.

Samuel Wilson said...

I probably don't need to tell you that that'll be a tough sell, since that kind of rhetoric strikes a lot of people as "totalitarian," which is the opposite of "pluralism" for many thinkers. But if the imperative of planetary survival makes individual freedom a less viable rallying cry, your type of appeal should have a better chance, however unpalatable it may seem now.