Democracy

Several months ago, an acquaintance complained that the problem with conservatives is that we don’t believe in democracy. In fact he might have said “Republicans” instead of “conservatives”; either way he seemed frustrated not only with the antics of a few Congressional bigwigs, but with the fact that they continue to receive, if not whole-hearted support, at least votes. It’s hardly a defense, and more reveals the depth of the problem, to point out that the same charges can be leveled at the Democratic party’s political managers and those who continue to vote for them. Actually I thought the statement quite a perceptive one, if not quite as damning as intended.

It is quite true that conservatives, on the whole, do not “believe in” democracy. First, quite a few are, by habit if not conviction, religious and specifically Christian; and in that vocabulary one “believes in” an ultimate good or goal, which earthly governance, since there are immortal souls to care for, is not. Even in earthly affairs, Rome and Westminster have both claimed the state should support the church; and “Christendom” has not truly lost its appeal. This is not an argument for or against such a position; it is a statement of fact about habits of mind. Further, Christian imagery – to say nothing of human history – tends to the hierarchical. If some have concluded – Milton and Lewis, Congregationalists and Presbyterians – that a democratic order tends to restrain tyranny of men over men; that only democratic principles capture the equal share of the dignity of Adam we all possess; well, they may have thought so, but others have not.

Second, conservative theorists on the whole do not “believe in” the good sense of demos – the people. This is neither unreasonable nor a surprise. Progressive theorists do not believe it either – all their programs must be, at first, imposed by force in theory; and in practice, maintained by such. The history of governance – if we can call it that – by greatest numbers (or loudest voices) is not entirely encouraging, and apart from innovation, it would be difficult to point to a specific benefit gained as our governments across the world have become – at least in theory – more democratic. Of course the democratic idealist can point to all variety of mitigating factors: a legacy of monarchy; colonies abroad even while democracy took root at home; perpetuation of national jealousies; unwillingness to actually extend democratic rights to all; and so on. On the other hand, the critic can counter that no “democratic” society has fully and ideally established itself, and could suggest that the dominance of democracy today as an ideal, so that all but the most dictatorial of regimes at least pay it lip-service, could turn out to be just a historical curiosity when seen from the distance of another five hundred years.

It is next necessary to examine the idea of “democracy”. And here again we see a quite accurate assessment hidden in my friend’s complaint. “Democracy” to a conservative refers mainly to a system of government. The government is taken to be set up by the people – or at least, for it to continue, it must be acknowledged to a great enough extent to ensure stability. (These are not exactly the same idea; but are close enough for my purpose today.) But other than this axiomatic sort of democracy, it is not of particular consequence to most conservatives exactly what form the government takes. It is of course plausible that democratic forms will be most stable, but if a monarchy or oligarchy or other form yet to be devised should better secure personal freedom, a free society, and good living – the conservative would have no objection.

I want to dwell on this for a minute, because this seems to me a foundational divide in how we talk about self-government. In the conservative ideal, this means the man governs – or behaves – himself; the family governs itself; the town, the state, the nation – each likewise; and power should be exerted “downwards” only to the extent these lesser authorities are unable to govern themselves. “Democratic” government is here conceived of in the sense that the citizen, the man who belongs to a city, has a say in what his own city does; but the city, if it belongs to a state or a nation, considered as a union of cities and other communities, has a say in what the nation does. A man can know his own neighborhood, and enough else that he may wisely enough govern a city, or choose someone to do so; unless he spends his days himself in the effort, he is unlikely to really know what the city itself requires from a more far-reaching government.

This principle is hardly recognized any more, and barely articulated, even by intellectual conservatives; and practically speaking even the States, for decades now, no longer decide themselves how to choose their senators to send to Congress. Instead, another sense of “democracy” has taken hold: where the individual is a member, to the same extent and in the same way, of every level of society and government that might affect him. It is, when you realize this, unsurprising that we now end up trying to raise all the same issues in almost every election of every official. The most widely-extending government is seen as the first and best; smaller units being mainly convenient for official purposes. In fact most Americans practically take this for granted; but progressive politics tends to make it part of the program, while conservatives are still trying to fight it.

If one were to look for a cause for its appeal, I have one to suggest: that in the conservative sense of democracy, the responsibility of each entity for its own self-government can be – has been – taken so far as to actually preclude government acting “for the people” generally. The starkest example, possibly in all history, is the American colonies declaring their independence, proclaiming the liberty of man – and keeping their slaves. But worst examples are easy to identify. What is more common is for the well-meaning to lose sight of less fortunate realities. Chesterton would hardly have considered himself a conservative, yet in the modern American sense, by virtue of being religious and a traditionalist, he could scarcely be identified as anything else; so I take the liberty of using him for an example. He relates in his autobiography how, at a certain labor meeting, a speaker produced bafflement if not resentment by seriously underestimating the degree to which his listeners might have run into trouble with the police. That which has been is that which will be; and there is nothing new under the sun.

This, I think, is what my friend was really getting at, and the point that in my observation frustrates progressives most about support for conservative politicians. Even if progressive policies may be at fault for, say, the state of various cities; well, the conservatives make mistakes too, and at least – thinks the progressive – we’re trying. Why isn’t that more popular?

It has – if I may be so bold as to suggest I can offer enlightenment – it has to do with how you are trying. The final reason conservatives “don’t believe in democracy” is that “democracy”, when the progressive makes this complaint, rarely refers to government “by the people”. He may, for the sake of argument, have gotten “for the people” down as a goal better than the conservatives do; but the actual democratic element has been lost somewhere. Not only is it national instead of local, top-down instead of popular; progressive “democracy” usually refers to the modern system of government, managed by bureaucrats appointed by “representatives” chosen from candidates selected by parties whose existence is more or less codified and secured by law. The situation is most pronounced in the United States, but hardly different elsewhere, whatever the claimed advantages of “parliamentary” government. The preferred form of this management – one can hardly call it government any more – is to enact mandate after mandate and let the bureaucrats or the judges – also rarely elected – sort it out.

But lest you doubt the repugnance of the procedure, consider: even a schooling mandate is, in a sense, anti-democratic. If we really believed in the good sense of all men, why favor the one who can read, right, and cypher? And if this is so of any such mandate in theory, national requirements are even more so. I am not disputing the benefits of schooling – though I find the years we require dubious – but trying to make a point about the nature of even a policy few would be so bold as to call detrimental. The progressive, no less than the conservative, does not simply believe in democracy. The difference, if there is one, is that the progressive’s vision proceeds from the highest level downwards, and makes exceptions – to be recorded, and registered on the newest version of the required form – only under duress.

In one sense, I am dealing in “no true Scotsman” terms here. If you reply that you find very few Republicans – or even Libertarians – actively trying to curtail and repeal the unwieldy national bureaucratic structure that barely asks for popular input, I can hardly prove otherwise. I wind up concluding that the Republican party is not particularly conservative in any meaningful sense; and then I can answer the progressive wondering why Republicans keep getting votes only by pointing out that the Democrats transgress further still upon conservative principles. Whatever their theories beforehand, progressives in power seem to regard national management by regulation and edict as a positive good, and have no regard for local custom or dissent.

The situation is, as I intimated at the beginning, somewhat dire; virtually anyone who showed actual intent to dismantle our top-heavy edifice before it topples over would receive my political interest. If you point out that there are progressives doing the hard work of engaging with and rebuilding their neighborhoods, while conservatives move further away – I will reply that, supposing this stereotype to be accurate, even Gentiles do the works of the law. It is in any case hardly an argument against conservative principles (although an indictment of conservative self-righteousness) to say the progressives are actually being more conservative. Meanwhile, I have yet to find any progressives really interested in redistributing the political power that puts us all in danger from the whims of the men at the top. Almost every Republican politician, if pressed, will admit the primacy of local self-government as an ideal; most Democratic ones, as far as I can tell, would be confused by the question.

Even the presidency of Donald Trump failed to awaken most progressives to the principle at stake – that the threat of immense power in the wrong hands is too great to trust to always keeping it in the right hands, but must be relieved by reducing the power available to wield. No: the progressive always has one more right or preference or policy or program that in his conception is so important it must be achieved by national – or wider – imposition. But an actual democrat would know that men must be left free to govern themselves, not merely to choose their dictators.

In Praise of Good Order

The following reflections are prompted by my recent vacation. I admittedly do not travel to new place a great deal: one of the results of living a good distance from family and older friends – to say nothing of the disruptive effects of our now-decling pandemic – is that time I have to travel typically is spent in visiting with those family and friends.

What struck me particularly in the past couple weeks is the fact that family does not sprawl. I don’t mean this geographically: my family is, for various reason, scattered now across the country and beyond. Although maybe I do mean it – I’ve never known or lost track of a number of extended family members I’ve never been able to meet easily. But family, practically, will mean those family members one does live and interact with: as distance of space or relation grows, a new family nucleus establishes itself – known parents, grandparents, and so on, interlocking with other families but not quite the same. Or, tragically, a person can find himself cut off from family – from interaction – by his own will or theirs.

But I noticed something odd, which I will represent with the symbol of each-his-own-car. Each family member is also a bundle of individual interests and – here is my question – these interests are today regularly (given sufficient wealth) unconstrained – if one can maintain a vehicle, one can go where one wants and do as one pleases. Religion, hobbies, purchases, leisure, fitness.

I don’t know that this is a bad thing – but the other odd thing is that to find these we scatter to the four winds and only later wind up back to the family center, the home. Life oriented on a home is good. But I find myself and see others reluctant to abide this natural if involuntary orientation to a shared center in the two other spheres of religion and civil society.

In the first case, the American church of course features its denominations, and it strikes me that even the Roman Catholic organization’s parishes are hardly held to definitively.

In the second, I have been struck by the number of people who resent jury duty; the lack of enthusiasm – I admit fault here myself – for open meetings of local government (to say nothing of the difficulty in finding such information, which seems not to be widely resented); the number of people who expect officials to fix everything for them; and a corresponding number (I’m more prone to this temptation) who don’t expect them to get anything done at all. As somebody pointed out to me recently, you tend to get what you expect, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that when it comes to any given problem it can seem that half the politicians don’t want to change a thing and the other half think micromanagement of behavior is the only solution.

The odd thing about these involuntary connections is that they indicate duties which need to be voluntarily assumed to be maintained. Even family can become virtual strangers through distance or abandonment; the other relationships seem even more vulnerable to neglect.

I don’t propose to explain the origin of our dissociation: it’s hard to tell the symptoms from the causes, and too tempting to blame modern phenomena. In broad strokes it’s easy to say something like: “Americans get hung up on “freedom” and don’t want to interfere, but family life tells us somebody has to watch the kids”. I have my theories, ranging from the Christian declaration that the fear of Lord is a necessary guidance to half-learned principles of good urban design to the thought that perhaps prioritized the concentrated over the distributed is not always wise.

But all I really want to do here is note the necessity of these natural but involuntary – as far as the facts of their existence and relation to individuals – structures and encourage you to participate in yours. We are, I think, very good at building order and community in what might be called “communities of interest” – a shared passion, skill, or hobby – but I suspect us at times of trying to replace the more important responsibilities to the common good of disparate peoples with attention to the easier-to-manage organization of the like-minded.

President Trump, Part 2: The Fall of Trump

I wrote a Part 1 way back in January, focusing on the political mistakes made by the Democracts that gave President Trump a viable chance at re-election, but never got around to writing the second part. It’s going to be shorter, from what I remember, than originally planned, because I’ve forgotten what all details I meant to work in.

President Trump entered the early part of 2020, approaching the heart of the campaign season, in a surprisingly strong position. He had weathered a ham-fisted impeachment attempt where the personal motivations appeared to overwhelm any actual interest in the not-that-doubtful charges. The Democratic platform has friends in high places, and some traditional support in low ones – but Trump had done what decades of Republicans had failed to do, and appealed directly for minority support, on the obvious grounds that whether they really cared or not, Democratic policies hadn’t, on the whole, worked out.

And he was out in front of the coronoavirus thing. He’d insisted it was serious; over several months as it spread worldwide and to the US he’d been gifted foreign (Chinese), international (the WHO), and Democratic (chiefly in New York) mismanagement to dunk on – which isn’t good statesmanship, but plays well with a populist base. The staredown with the political establishment was, in short, going extremely well.

And then he blinked.

It’s not a surprise, of course, that many people resented the restrictions put in place to attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus. There were a lot of things that weren’t known about the specific disease; and it was hard to believe, given the spread that continued to happen, that the measures were actually effective. Models showing what could have happened without preventative measures were not successfully explained, and their relatively short-term outlook was open to criticism.

But Trump had made his campaign run by taking on the GOP cronies; there is no good way to explain why he suddenly reversed course on the severity of the problem. Reporting suggested that by March at least two national emergency plans had been developed, one by a team of experts hand-picked by Kushner, and one by a panel of medical industry experts. Instead of using either plan, instead of trying to play FDR and lead the nation against a threat everyone know acknowledged, and which President Trump could have legitimately claimed to have been right about first, he threw in with the reactionaries. Instead of playing the big man in charge, which he’d done so successfully, Trump followed what he saw as his base’s mood. About the only thing he did get on track was the vaccine development authorization effort.

Then, once the coronavirus reality had truly set in, and states – almost all of them, even the most reluctant – started organizing ways to conduct elections by mail or with significant mail components, Trump again took on the inevitable instead of embracing it. It’s arguable he was forced into this logically by the previous stance; but politicians change their minds and hold incompatible positions all the time, and Trump had displayed his mastery of the art. Many of the criticisms leveled at mail-in ballots are entirely reasonable – but instead of trying to do the necessary the best possible way, Trump positioned himself in the way of the inevitable.

It should be mentioned that both of these stances belie the accusationg of fascism. Given every excuse to find an emergency and accumulate more power to the government and his own decision-making, President Trump declined.

It’s also difficult to say for sure how much these decisions contributed to the eventual loss of the election. My thesis is that Trump’s evident influence with the base would have carried at least the vast majority of his actual voters, while actual leadership in the crisis would have convinced enough of the doubters – again bearing in mind the Democratic candidates and platform. The only other plausible counterfactual I see is that the anti-authoritarian strain among Republican voters is in fact so strong that, if President Trump had done as I suggest and maintained his insistence on the coronavirus being a crisis, the GOP base would have split and we’d have seen an actual contested primary.

Ideas & Stories Part 4 – All Men

Part 0
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

In the previous most recent part of this series, I discussed the groundwork for re-asserting a view that in human fairs family must be the primary consideration and form in which to interpret the legitimacy of human activities and political structures. Yet this seems to conflict with the statement, taken in some form to be dogma by virtually every form of American politics today, “All men are created equal.” But – here we run into the problem that that phrase itself is, to some extent, an equivocation. There were unresolved tensions even as it was written.

While tacitly accepting the theoretical validity of that postulate, almost anyone today finds some shortcomings – at a minimum in its realization, but also in the actions of the men who approved it in the Declaration of Independence, and commonly even in the words it was written in. Without getting too far into the weeds, I am going to list some of the – at times competing – connotations bound up, even at the time of its publishing, with that phrase. This is merely those things that seem evident to my limited knowledge of the period: an expert could no doubt improve the list or even divide it differently.

1. Local Self-Government. The nature of the rest of the Declaration suggests that “all men” should be taken to mean something like “each self-recognizing independent society”. Not in quite those terms Jefferson does write that the colonies desired “to assume… [a] separate and equal station”, that is, the Declaration recognizes a change in status taking place – first claimed, and in the event then proved in war. Government is in the next paragraph claimed to be “the right of the people”, but not individual persons; but “the People” are seen not as all subjects of the British crown but particularly those American people represented by their Congress who authorized the Declaration. The key to this image is the fascination of the Founders with the Mediterranean city-states of antiquity.

2. Each Person. The English tradition of militating for civil rights; the Christian and especially Protestant insistence on individual conversion; the Enlightenment cogito: each of these and likely other influences can be linked to a strong – if often theoretical – insistence on the dignity and independence (ideally) of the individual, not on grounds of family or nation or accomplishment or anything but a common humanity. I think from the modern point of view it is easier to view this as more influential than it in fact appeared at the time but the influence of Locke and others cannot be denied.

3. All Free Men. It is evident historically that the American Founders for the most part would have expected – whether on theoretical, theological, or habitual grounds – some persons to take part in the governing of society and some not to. The ways this division can be represented are numerous, and – I want to emphasize – that it represents injustice inherently is not always clear. The contrast of the free man to a slave is obvious; but I also include in this category property owners compared to renters; recognized citizens compared to non-citizens; and, speaking generally, any rules put in place that state such-and-such a changeable status must be secured to participate in the government.

4. All Males. Because of the natural authority of fathers, monarchies and aristocracies (or if we wish to be less complimentary, oligarches) have generally tended to be male, with women holding a minority of these positions of authority in the historical record. The democratic ideal militates against this: but it is clear enough that few – indeed, hardly clear that any – of the Founders were advocates for pure democracy, however essential it seems to the modern world. In any case – even setting aside active suppressions of female involvment in politics – the mental habits and practical expectation would have been a continuation of a male-dominated, if not male-only political classes Europe would have been most familiar with.

5. All Whites. It is not clear that “race” had developed, at the time of the War for Independence, into the theoretical construct we would recognize today, or which we read defenses of even sixty years later. But the conditions – primarily America’s native tribes or nations being pushed away from land claimed by the colonies, and enslavement and trade mainly in Africans for the benefit of those descended from Europeans – which would harden into the next centuries’ racial theories were already practically in place.

Where the first two categories I outline here seem to me to illustrate the theoretical tensions, the later three cannot be forgotten as habits of thought. I have left out, but not forgotten, the idea of the head of household or head of a family, not because I think it was truly ignored, but because I think it was to some extent an assumption so used to being taken for granted socially that it seems to me to have been overlooked practically – not that I am an expert on the period. To the extent it had separate political import, that seems to me to have been very little, because of the social or legal assumptions that such a head would be male; but I am not actually familiar with the laws of the period themselves.

One could no doubt break down the possible connotations further. My point here is that the Founders had, to varying degrees of detail, considered these claims: but they had not resolved them, historically speaking, and certainly they were not prepared to treat particular conclusions as absolute principles. The Constitution in fact left citizenry to the states, and pushed even the end of the slave trade out to a convenient-seeming deadline which primarily served to further establish a more or less clearly delineated slave population. American political crises have been created mainly as the country seeks to resolve these conflicts.

President Trump, Part 1: The Democrats’ Failure

No observer of President Trump’s habits and character could be surprised to find him the chief architect of his own political undoing in 2020. More perplexing to most observers would the question how he came to be in a position where he was virtually the only person who could have gotten in his own way. Admittedly it is not necessarily accepted that he was in such a position: but I believe such a case can be made, at least about Trump’s position after surviving the first impeachment against him.

The role of the Republican party in strengthening Trump’s position is obvious and not particularly interesting, as it mostly consisted of doing nothing and letting Trump “lead”. In fact the failure of a Republican-controlled Congress for two years – with the Senate majority maintained longer – to do anything of consequence at all is in my opinion a greater practical failure than virtual anything President Trump did or did not do.

By it is also the case that the Democratic party played a role in strengthening Trump’s hand. The strategic errors made in the 2016 election have been much discussed: primarily the appearance that was created of gaming the party process to ensure Clinton won the nomination, and then the Clinton campaign’s decision to, if not outright ignore, at least not take seriously certain surprise battleground states. Trump’s base of support as a candidate was surprising, but intelligent practice of politics must account for the situation that obtains.

The role of the Democratic platform is difficult to criticize directly, as the casual observer can hardly sort intentional party strategy from media coverage largely favorable to its main tenets. The image of the party, due to those twin influences, however, is calculated to create resentment, because it appears to emphasize social disruption and casting blame – legitimate media roles where social faults exist – over actually addressing problems, which a political party must at least pretend to do.

When that agenda majors on abortion, encouragement of sexual perversion, and vocal if admittedly not much practiced calls for stifling regulation of business – all while letting the major corporations that provide platforms for online discourse roam unsupervised – the more traditional America is horrified. A vague worship of northern Europe’s successful form of democratic socialism that would have no legal ground in the United States’ Constitution without significant amendments – on top of a century of vaguely socialistic programs enacted in defiance of said document and combined with a wilful ignorance of, or failure to repudiate, socialism’s and communism’s disaster stories and fanatical excesses – is hardly better. American history, in contrast, appears to be mentioned by Democrats only in the negative – the occasional appeals to vilify Republican actions as unworthy of the Constitution they generally so blithely ignore is calculated to create no reaction but bitter laughter.

The Democratic-friendly media attempt to make a slogan out of “resist”, unaware that overall media political leanings make the Democrats appear nearly ascendant even when they are out of power, was mostly just funny – especially when their choice not to deal really was a choice. President Trump’s agenda was not entirely in line with recent Republican posturing; support, compromise, would have been rewarded had a few Democrats crossed the line. I don’t say President Trump did any better in making his attempts to deal attractive to Democrats than the Democrats have done making their party attractive to Trump’s supporters. But if the mafia don’s deal is refused, nothing is left but, to save face, humiliating the opposition: and it was quickly apparent Democrats would major on opposition to President Trump far more than they would contest any issue on its merits: a sort of negative of the Republican party’s failure.

All of this could be excused. All of this could even, ignoring my own views, be considered a moral stand of sorts. What is most difficult to explain is the ineptness of the Democratic opposition. To highlight that ineptness, consider the impeachments against Trump.

Yes, impeachments, because President Trump was eventually impeached, twice. He was not convicted the first time, and I have significant doubts whether enough senators will prove comfortable with the idea of convicting a person no longer in office for it to happen on the second try. But what were the charges? Well, first of all, here are some of the things Trump was not impeached for:

  • President Trump was not impeached for attempting to create a “Space Force” on his own initiative – which reportedly got the Pentagon to start drafting plans for such a thing. The organization of the military is the responsibility of Congress: this could easily be construed as a usurpation. Perhaps most people were thought unlikely to care, and articles of impeachment would have been thought too transparently motivated; but then, the eventual impeachment hardly scores better on those criteria. It is not entirely clear to me whether Congress eventually giving the thing some sort of formal backing makes the situation better or worse.
  • President Trump was not impeached for abusing a national emergency order to access military funds which were reappropriated to build his pet border wall. There is little doubt that the handling of immigration at the southern border could be considered an emergency, even if President Biden has decided to retract the order rather than take advantage of it to promulgate his own solutions, and even if a swath of judges seemed at times more interested in rulings that would create problems and frustrate Trump than they did in meeting demands of either law or justice, not that President Trump seemed to care that much about the conditions suffered by those enduring his emergency either. The emergency may have been legitimate: the transparent abuse of process, hardly. But then, securing conviction seems impossible: Trump’s defense would certainly – if he could have kept his temper – have been that he was pursuing the means he thought best to address the situation, and a precedent of impeachment for bad judgment seems like it would find little favor.
  • President Trump was not impeached for pardoning convicted and alleged war criminals. This received about two days’ worth of media attention, is indefensible, and is certainly an abuse of authority. But perhaps it broke no laws – beyond making a joke of the military’s own due process, which could hardly endear him to anyone who takes our military virtue seriously – and the case would be too hard to argue.

It’s entirely possible there are other instances I missed, but any of these seems at least of worthy of condemination than what actually happened. The articles of impeachment that were eventually brought against Trump a little over a year ago had, nominally, to do with attempting to pressure a foreign power to investigate a connection of a political opponent; which is disreputable, but – and here is what the Democrats missed – “everybody knows” politics is a load of dirty money and dirty laundry. If there was a misdeed less likely to turn opinion against Trump, I can’t think of it – especially when circumstantial evidence suggests Hunter Biden’s connections wouldn’t stand scrutiny themselves, the Democrat-led process was hardly squeaky-clean, and Trump’s threat to withhold aid was never followed through on.

Now, had President Trump made enough enemies in the Senate that conviction could be secured, the case would have been a good one for the Democrats to pursue: the conviction would publicly throw the “swamp” back in Trump’s face, implicitly secure Biden’s reputation from public derrogation, and, of course, remove President Trump from office. But the combination of Republican stonewalling and Democratic attacks – sometimes verging on slander – had made that impracticable. It’s not that Trump seems likely to actually have been innocent, mind: merely that the case was neither chosen nor handled in such a manner as to create certainty of guilt and stain senators irrevocably should they demur from conviction.

The second impeachment is in some ways more appalling still. President Trump certainly ought to have been impeached after the election, when he was discovered, on a recorded phone call, soliciting for a fraudulent election count. He was even recorded giving a specific number of votes to be found! After all the hyperbolic warnings about possible fraud by others, the public relations gain the Democrats could have made by parading this hypocrisy around dwarfs anything they might have gotten from success last year and a one-year Pence presidency. What, after all, could the Senate say in defence? And what could the Republicans in the Senate do the stonewall on a charge that obvious? And, reputation after standing behind Trump for four years and then having to convict being what it would be, how likely is it the GOP would stand up to really resist any but the most far-fetched Democratic proposals, for quite a while at least?

Instead, the second impeachment depended on taking the most negative view of a couple tweets. A precedent that implies politicians should refrain from encouraging protests of perceived injustice, or that implies politicians who do so will be held personally accountable for any rioting that ensues, is chilling – and would condemn a huge number of politicians over the unrest last year, if the principle were carried out consistently.

It is also telling that the reaction to President Trump’s alleged encouragement of insurrection was first to threaten, not impeachment, but instead abuse of a constitutional amendment meant to provide for conduct of the presidency’s business in case of illness. This impeachment was the results of Democrats being unable to bully others into doing Congress’s work for them. The impeachment process certainly takes longer, but it suggests an agenda more interested in trying to implicate Vice-President Pence in removing President Trump – and thus get Pence out of favor with Trump’s base – than one interested in seeing the law followed or justice done.

The Democrats agenda, while at least openly proclaimed, is not carryingly popular. This calls for a scrupulous honesty to win further support and deflect criticism, or successful villification of opponents: but they failed to put a dent in President Trump’s support by attacking him directly, because their motivations appeared to be those of resentment rather than principle; and their methods seem as venal as his.

In a country plagued by non-participation in elections, Democratic efforts did eventually create enough interest to remove Trump from office by election; but it can hardly be said that the number of those willing to support Trump was diminished in any way. Of the support that did fall away, much of it was surely motivated by Republican inaction, as sketched above – and by Trump’s own failures of character and control, which I will discuss in part two.

Two Notes in Response to Today’s Rioting

America

In my American history textbooks, and I assume still today, it was noted with some pride that John Adams’ inauguration marked a peaceful transition of non-hereditary power in a context which made that – leaving aside the technically inaccurate superlatives these things accumulate – truly remarkable. Although I doubt President Trump quite anticipated the protests today would take the turn they did, his encouragement of the protestors and refusal even now to be more conciliatory than a request to withdraw from the Capitol makes it hard to say that tradition continues – arguably for the first time: even the Southern secessionists, as far as I am aware, let the Union states’ governmental functions continue uninterrupted. That’s an historical event and stain that will attach – whatever the other circumstances – to President Trump and his supporters, not his opponents.

The Church

The Reformed churches – I am speaking here as a Reformed layman – have generally taught the doctrine of the “lesser magistrate”, both in eccelsiastical and civil affairs. Although it’s most often invoked – at least in American circles – to justify defiance of wicked or tyrannical orders, it has its second edge, which is that there is no right of the private person to defy the magistracy as a whole. The layperson is not entitled to form his own church or to fight the civil authorities: the conscientious objector must accept civil penalties imposed or at most flee. No responsible authority appealed to has deigned to object to the election results as counted; no authority I am aware of, even those who supported the right of protestors to continue to appeal for further investigations, supports the attack on the US Capitol building and the Congress’s certification session – including the President who continues to cast doubt on those results. No reporting I am seeing indicates that any civil officials have orchestrated or helped organize – let alone regulate – the incident. Reformed theology is generous to a certain class of rebels, but theologically, today’s proceedings must be considered unlawful.* The exact term can be sorted out by the lawyers.

Commentary

In my quest to read the books I own that I haven’t read yet, I’ve made my way to Will Durant’s 1939 The Life of Greece, a tome of the history of ancient Greece. I’m unsure how some of his details – nevermind his inclination to give the Greeks’ own classical historians as much creedence as possible – hold up to more modern scholarship, but the outline looks familiar enough. Durant clearly holds to the dictum that historical events are there to learn from: the following selections come from his account of the rise of Athens’ democracy.

Hesiod

“Hesiod, with rough candor, shows us the ugly farmers upon whose toil rested all the splendor and war [and?] sport of the aristocracy and the kings. Homer sang of heroes and princes for lords and ladies; Hesiod knew no princes, but sang his lays of common men, and pitched his tune accordingly. In his verses we hear the rumblings of those peasant revolts that would produce in Attica the reforms of Solon and the dictatorship of Peisistratus.”

Quirks of Language

“In [southern Boeotia] once lived an insignificant tribe, the Graii, who joined the Euboeans in sending a colony to Cumae, near Naples; from them the Romans gave to all the Hellenes… the name Graici, Greeks; and from that circumstance all the world came to know Hellas by a term which its own inhabitants never applied to themselves.”

Tourism Old and New

“The traveler entering Attica from eastern Boeotia would come first to Oropus… a frontier town as terrifying to the tourist as any such today. ‘Oropus,’ says Dicaearchus about 300 B.C., ‘is a nest of hucksters. The greed of the customhouse officials here is unsurpassed… Most of the people are coarse and truculent in their manners, for the have knocked the decent members of the community on the head.'”

Motives

“As in Sparta and Rome, so in Athens the overthrow of the monarchy represented not a victory for the commons, or any intentional advance towards democracy, but a recapture of mastery by a feudal aristocracy…”

Draco

“…[Draco] attached to his laws penalties so drastic that after most of his legislation had been superseded by Solon’s he was remembered for his punishments rather than his laws. Draco’s code congealed the cruel customs of an unregulated feudalism: it did nothing to relieve debtors [sold into] slavery, or to mitigate the exploitation of the weak by the strong; and… it left to the Eupatrid [aristocratic] class full control of the courts, and the power to interpret… all laws…

“The poor, finding their situation worse with each year… began to talk of a violent revolt, and a thoroughgoing redistribution of wealth. The rich, unable any longer to collect the debts legally due them… prepared to defend themselves by force against a mob that seemed to threaten not only property but all established… civilization.”

Solon

“[Solon] disappointed the extreme radicals by making no move to redivide the land… But by his famous Seisachtheia, or Removal of Burdens, Solon canceled, says Aristotle, ‘all existing debts…’ …and cleared Attic lands of all mortgages. All persons enslaved or [enserfed] for debt were released…

“Solon [began] with an act of amnesty freeing or restoring all persons who had been jailed or banished for political offenses short of trying to usurp the government. … It was in itself a revolution that the laws of Solon were applied without distinction to all freemen…

“Invited to make himself a permanent dictator he refused, saying that dictatorship was ‘a very fair spot, but the was no way down from it.’ Radicals criticized him for failing to establish equality of possessions and power; conservatives denounced him for admitting the commons to the franchise and the courts… He [had] followed the mean and preserved the state…

“Legally his work marks… the beginning of government [in Greece] by written and permanent law. Asked what made an orderly and well-constituted state, he replied, ‘When the people obey the rulers, and the rulers obey the laws.'” …[T]he establishment of a peasant proprietor class [in] ownership of the soil made the little armies of Athens suffice to preserve her liberties for many generations.”

Aside

Durant, recounting the legend of Solon’s advice to Croesus, translates the Greek hubris – in his transliteration “hybris” – with the remarkable turn of phrase “insolent prosperity”. The phenomenon – whether it properly accounts for the Greek term – is undeniable; conclusions are here left as an exercise for the reader.

Peisistratus

“…[T]he Assembly voted that Peisistratus should be allowed a force of fifty men. Peisistratus collected four hundred men instead of fifty, seized the Acropolis, and declared a dictatorship. Solon [] published to the Athenians his opinion that ‘each man of you, individually, walketh with the tread of a fox, but collectively ye are geese,’ … [and] resign[ed] his interest in politics…

“The wealthy [factions] of the Shore and the Plain… expelled the dictator. But Peisistratus… re-entered Athens under circumstances that seemed to corroborate Solon’s judgment of the collective intelligence. A tall and beautful woman…. costume[d as] Athena… led the forces of Peisistratus into the city, while heralds announced that the patron deity of Athens was herself restoring him to power.”

“…[T]he wisdom of [Peisistratus’] policies almost redeemed the [] unscrupulousness of his means. … He made few reprisals… He improved the army and built up the fleet… but he kept Athens out of war…

“Archons were elected as usual, and the Assembly and the popular courts, the Council of Four Hundred and the Senate of the Areopagus met and functioned as before, except that the suggestions of Peisistratus found a very favorable hearing. … When… the dictatorship was removed, these habits of order and the framework of Solon’s constitution remained as a heritage for democracy. …

“He gave employment to the needy by undertaking extensive public works… To finance these undertakings he laid [a new] tax… The poor were made less poor, the rich not less rich. The concentration of wealth which had nearly torn the city into civil war was brought under control…

“[N]ew buildings of stone and marble reflected the radiance of the day… By establishing the Panathenaic games… Peisistratus brought to his city not honor only, but the stimulus of foreign faces, competition, and ways… A committee appointed by him gave to the Iliad and the Odyssey the form in which we know them.”

In Context

“The ‘tyranny’ of Peisistratus was part of a general movement… to replace [] feudal rule… with the political dominance of the middle class in temporary alliance with the poor. Such dictatorships were brought on by the pathological concentration of wealth, and the inability of the wealthy to agree on a compromise. …[T]he only political freedom capable of enduring is one that is so pruned as to keep the rich from denuding the poor by ability or subtlely and the poor from robbing the rich by violence or votes.”

Cleisthenaic Coda

“The Athenians were not quite pleased to see the leadership of the state pass down without their consent to the young Peisistratids, and began to realize that the dictatorship had give them everything but the stimulus of freedom. …Harmodius and Aristogeiton, who had conspired [against Peisistratus’ son Hippias] for [] passion rather than for democracy, were transformed by popular imagination into the martyrs of liberty. …

“The [banished] Alcmaeonid [aristocrats], led by [] Cleisthenes, entered Athens in triumph… Cleisthenes.. set up a popular dictatorship… [then] proceeded to establish democracy. …

“The democracy was not complete; it applied only to freemen, and still placed a modest property limitation upon eligibility to individual office. But it gave all legislative, executive, and judicial power to an Assembly and a Court composed of the citizens, to magistrat[es] appointed by and responsible to the Assembly, and to a Council for whose members all citizens might vote, and… by the operation of the lot, [in which] at least one third of them actually [participated] for at least a year of their lives.”

Ideas & Stories Part 2 – Political Detour

When I began this project, I suggested that part of the conservative-versus-liberal dynamic stems from misunderstanding what is at stake.  In the next installment, I mentioned some key ideas and thinkers I would identify as forming my early worldview in ways which I still maintain.

I could sum up the previous post by saying that my foundation leaves me firmly convinced that the life of a society should be open to everyone, and that good social structure will reward good behaviors – and punish bad ones.

I do not want to get too political – yet.  In the first place, I haven’t yet gotten around to finishing the structure of my own later thoughts built on this foundation.  In the second, this is a roughly chronological account at least in these introductory parts, and when younger my political inclinations were formed more or less by default by what I saw around me.  For the sake of openness – and to make a point here that I will come back to – that was a sort of cynical conservatism which acknowledged the lackluster performance, standards, and morals of the Republican party, but given the Democratic agenda didn’t quite see who else to vote for.

(A drawback of this we’d-like-a-third-party conservative environment is that I grew up relatively unfamiliar with the Reagan-was-awesome fanbase but also distrustful of the GOP-party-line voting bloc, and as a result often feel that I don’t have a firm grasp on the relative size of these groups in American politics.  Which, however, has nothing to do with my topic today.)

What I did find from my first interest in politics is that relatively few people had much interest – or at any rate, much practical belief in the two things – if they’re really separate – I’ve always most valued.  Because I believed merit should be rewarded, I found honesty absolutely necessary.  I am inclined anyway to find it the most fundamental virtue – as the first temptation to evil was carried out by deceit, and as Christ would call Himself, among other epithets, the Word and the Truth.

I have said half-seriously for years that if I could establish a political party it would be the Honesty Party, and all that its candidates would have to do to remain in good standing would be to declare the principles they believed in and vote for them as they declared.  Unfortunately it is somewhat needless to point out that there are precious few actual politicians – or, apparently, constituencies – who appear to think this way seriously (although the reception Sanders gained, including, of all places, his speech at Liberty University, suggests it’s not an ideal entirely without support).

However, if regular honesty seems to have a very small support group, I’ve found even fewer people alarmed by what has perhaps been my most consistent worry: debt.  As in, debt is a risk.  Debt is quite often a bad idea – in fact, when there’s no plausible way to pay it off, debt is essentially dishonest.  I recognize the argument that carrying some token amount of debt as a sort of way to establish ones bona fides in a system dependent on credit makes a certain amount of sense, though what it really does is make me wonder about the system.

Of course personal debt all too easily becomes difficult to manage; while it’s harder to call a government to account, debt eventually becomes a problem even there.  Which traditionally America has been well aware of, but after paying down the majority of the debts incurred during the Great Depression and World War II, subsequent crises have seen deficit spending reach entirely new levels.  I don’t entirely trust the judgment as to the severity of those crises: so I wonder if the deficits are justified or merely contributing to the problem.  On the other hand, if the debt incurred really is justified, this is hardly better as it suggests we’ve endured sixty years of crisis – apparently without most people realizing it.

And we’ll come back to that idea in a while.  As a sort of spoiler for the next installments, having sketched some of my early idealism, I’m going to be sketching some of the questions that developed about meeting them – and some of the discoveries I’ve made about how they were and are, in fact, not being met.

Ideas & Stories Part 0 – Introduction

There is a saying, or perhaps a joke, attributed in various forms to various statesmen or their critics but probably in substance as old as the first disagreement between movers and shakers of the first political regime, in which it is maintained that a conservative is someone who refuses to fix the problems that already exist, while a progressive is someone who is intent on creating new ones.  Beginning with this post, I plan to explore, based on my own upbringing, principles, and experiences, what it might mean – what at the moment I believe it should mean – to be a conservative who does want to make repairs to the political structure; or alternatively, a progressive dedicated to maintaining the integrity of the system.

Here we face the problem directly.  It is common today for political and social conservatives to speak as if the situation, as it is, is somehow the best that could be expected as a product of our ideals and legal principles, when it evidently is not, and which assumption serves as an excuse to pass over problems and belittle solutions.  It is equally common for political and social progressives today to speak as though improvements to the situation as it is can only be made by discarding the system and its ideals – even though their own ideas have grown within the system they so distrust, and their solutions on the whole aim to further its ideals, and become confused or impossible when they depart too radically from them.

I write here in extremely general – not to say vague – terms because in introducing this project I do not wish to demonstrate particular conclusions before illustrating the foundational analysis.  However, it is part of the purpose of this post to state in general terms the project I am undertaking.  I will therefore say that I have three essential theses I plan to demonstrate and defend.

Practically, social and political solutions to problems must be found, but must be found within an acknowledged system.  I do not believe it possible to discard the governmental machinery of particular political systems without actual revolution.  If reforms are attempted which ignore or abuse a system’s own regulations, the eventual result is traditionalist revolt, by those who were harmed – unintentionally or otherwise – and perceive the illegitimacy of the supposed reforms.  Unresolved injustices, on the other hand, result in the end in revolutions which at least begin intending liberalizations, although I am not convinced those experiences are in fact any more pleasant than the other kind.

It is also necessary to recognize that perceived problems are actual problems, especially in a democratic or representative form of government.  A perceived problem which actually exists is of course a real problem.  But a perceived problem, when the perception does not reflect reality, is at least an equal challenge to resolve.  A real problem can be addressed openly, and the solution can be judged effective or not, and a new method tried if the problem is not resolved.  A perception of injustice where there is none cannot be addressed except by education or rhetoric: any greater solution will only introduce new and actual injustices in satisfying those who wrongly believed themselves harmed, and even the effort of education diverts attention that ideally might be spent elsewhere.  It is perhaps most common for social problems to contain both elements, and rare that a real grievance even properly addressed will completely satisfy all concerned.

Finally, I will be exploring this last point: how currently perceived problems are the result, not just of failures to address previous abuses or of efforts to avoid social difficulties when they were first raised, but of misconceptions about details of certain principles we tend to speak of as universal, and about social structures we either assume or ignore without serious thought.  To the extent I have a unifying thesis in this project, it is that the heart of any solution which would resolve current political and social difficulties will lie in beginning specifically to attend to these misconceptions as they have distorted the middle things.  Grand political and social structures and ideals have been conceived, and thousands of personal improvements suggested, but everything in scale between the two has largely been left to muddle along somehow, and it is not surprising that the result is – a muddle.

The Seat of the Pharisees

From within the American tradition, perhaps the strangest of Jesus’ teachings is found in passing in the final discourse recorded in the Gospel of Matthew before Jesus would go up to Jerusalem for the last time: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you”. (Matthew 23:2,3a ESV)

This text is remarkable because the Pharisees are known best to us from the gospels as the hypocritical opponents of Jesus.  Even here Matthew’s record immediately passes back to further warnings against the Pharisees – “but [do] not [do] the works they do.” (Matt. 23:3b)  The rest of the chapter is taken up with various warnings against those works, and condemnation of the Pharisees for corrupting the Law of Moses.

This is surprising as well because Jesus had often invoked His superior authority as the Christ to correct Pharisaic teaching or justify His deviation from their illegitimate standards.  Further, this instruction is recorded as happening shortly before the Resurrection and Ascension, briefly after which the Church would be declared free of the Mosaic regulations.  Still, that could be explained: Jesus reminding His disciples to maintain deference to a legitimate authority until its rule passed away.  We are, after all, not ourselves the Christ.

I still find it difficult to face, because Christ here commands obedience to authorities who immediately are identified as evil.  Duty to authorities is hardly an uncommon theme in Scripture.  But the difficulties are not always framed so starkly.  Where David respects the kingship of Saul, he is still a fugitive and we know from long familiarity David’s story ends, as we judge these things, happily.  Christ and the Apostles teach respect for all authority, but usually somewhat separated from condemnations of that authority or even warnings of suffering inflicted by evil rulers.  Here we have the immediate contrast, which leaves no doubt about the Christian principle of submission to authority.

There is one clearly Scriptural remedy against rulers who abuse their authority: flight.  From the Exodus to David’s adventures mentioned above to Elijah’s sojurn in Phoenicia to Mary and Joseph’s flight back to Egypt, and then in Jesus’ instructions to flee the seige of Jerusalem, Peter’s supernaturally-aided escape from prison, and various escapades of Paul, running away from evil is always seen as legitimate.  (Almost always: Jeremiah records a prophetic warning not to flee from – or fight – the conquering Babylonians but rather surrender.)

In contrast, the favored American arguments, of throwing up law and legitimacy against usurping acts of the authorities, stands Scripturally on shakier ground.  In Biblical terms, the authority of a position seems to be personal and to come from having been put in a position of authority.  The odd rebellion is instigated at divine command, but the framing is that God is judging the ruler.  Allowing for a nation to have formally endorsed a rule “by the people”, it would seem that their representatives would still retain even abused authority until removed.

However, it is also the case that what the Reformed often call lesser magistrates are not bound to enforce unjust or unlawful commands from superiors.  Jonathan defended David against Saul; Ahab’s minister Obadiah protected the prophets; Agrippa would have freed Paul except for Paul’s own appeal to Caesar’s court itself.  In more modern terms, we might recognize this as the principle which has declared “just following orders” an insufficient excuse for immoral conduct.

In many areas there is growing concern about abuse of authority, and thus how we are to respond.  We may find ourselves faced with a necessity to refuse unjust requirements – and then to flee or accept unjust retribution, which is persecution for righteousness’ sake that Christ says is a sign of promised blessing.  But the elements outlined above suggest active resistance – in contrast to this non-violent witness – is not the role of the private citizen acting on his own.  It is of course possible for subordinate authorities to fail to act; it is possible for subordinate authorities to resist improperly what are in fact just commands.  But I conclude that to identify legitimate resistance to tyranny, the Christian should look for movements being led by or at the very least cooperating with those other authorities which are given for our good in this world.