Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Henry Clay on the War of 1812 and the Restoration of America’s National Character

by Michael Kaplan


On September 15, 1815, at New York City’s Tammany Hall, the leading lights of the city’s political establishment, from both parties (Jeffersonian Republican and Hamiltonian Federalist), gathered to honor tw0 of the returning peacemakers of 1814. Albert Gallatin and Henry Clay, along with John Quincy Adams who remained in Europe, had negotiated the Treaty of Ghent which ended the War of 1812 without forcing America to make any humiliating concessions to Great Britain. After listening to toasts in tribute to the nation, himself, Galatin, the military heroes of the war, Clay rose to offer his toast: “The eighth of January 1815!”

Clay’s toast to Andrew Jackson’s victory at New Orleans was not unexpected that day. It only seems surprising in historical hindsight. For Henry Clay, Jackson’s triumph over the British, and the War of 1812 in full, had vindicated America’s national character. Clay, who would soon become Jackson’s bitter rival, had, like Jackson, been an outspoken advocate for war in 1812. Clay and Jackson shared a belief in America’s manifest destiny to expand across the continent, and of war as a means to assert national honor and vindicate the national character. The war, capped by Jackson’s victory, fulfilled Clay’s hopes for a revitalization of America’s republican institutions and character. Despite numerous errors, hardships, and setbacks—American victories were few and far between—the federal government had shown that it could defend the nation and lead it to victory, which was the main purpose for which it had been established. “The effects of the war” Clay told a banquet audience in Lexington, Kentucky in October 1815,

are highly satisfactory. Abroad, our character, which at the time of its declaration was in the lowest state of degradation, is raised to the highest point of elevation. It is impossible for any American to visit Europe, without being sensible of this agreeable change, in the personal attentions which he receives, in the praises which are bestowed on our past exertions, and the predictions which are made as to our future prospects.
Well, everyone does love a winner.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Sarah Palin and Barack Obama: Has Premature Fame Sabotaged Them?

by Michael Kaplan

“Two years ago, two superstars lit up a dazzled political universe—young, stunning, lissome, and bursting with talent—and were propelled ahead of their time into prominence, after a minimal time on the national scene. Two years later, it seems as if this has done them no favors: President Obama is widely seen as ‘overwhelmed’ by his office, and Sarah Palin is meeting resistance establishing her credentials as a possible candidate against rivals with rather more seasoning.”

Noemie Emery wrote this in the Washington Examiner, raising the one issue that I believe can prevent Sarah Palin from becoming this generation’s Andrew Jackson or Ronald Reagan. I wrote in an earlier post that Palin had eschewed the traditional routes to political power, choosing instead to use the new media to become the face and voice of Jacksonian America, make a lot of money, and remain ever present in the public eye. But as Emery points out, mastery of the media is no substitute for the solid nuts and bolts experience of policy making, the give-and-take of practical politics, and governing. Palin was getting this experience and developing her leadership skills as governor of Alaska, until fate, and John McCain, intervened to throw her into the national spotlight.

This is the same problem that President Obama has had to contend with. Walter Russell Mead recently wrote that what Obama really needed was to have finished his term in the Senate and then serve at least one term as governor of Illinois before running for president. The lessons he would have learned in Springfield might have spared him subsequent embarrassment on the national and international stages. Hailed as a transformational leader in 2008, Obama, after two years as president, has taken a hard fall back down to earth. Eloquence and charisma alone cannot take the place of hard won experience.

America’s greatest leaders served long apprenticeships in both public service and the private sector before making bids for the presidency. Washington, of course, made his name as a military leader, but he also served more than a decade in Virginia’s House of Burgesses as well as managing his Mount Vernon plantation. Jackson, likewise, won national renown as a victorious general and also managed his Hermitage plantation, a law practice, and a number of business ventures (including slave trading) as well being actively engaged in Tennessee state politics. By the time he re-entered national politics in the 1850s, Lincoln had spent many years as an Illinois state legislator and built a thriving legal practice, serving as a corporate counsel and lobbyist for the Illinois Central Railway, one of the nation’s largest corporations at the time. More recently, Reagan, besides being an actor, was president of the Screen Actors Guild, a corporate spokesman for GE, a leader and thinker in the conservative movement, and finally two-term governor of the nation’s most populous state. Of course these men operated in a media environment very different from the 24/7 media saturation of the twenty-first century. When they did get recognition, it was for solid achievements both in and out of government.

Bobby Jindal, another up and coming leader who’s been talked about as a “new Reagan” has wisely chosen to avoid premature celebrity and a premature run for the presidency. Instead, he has focused on his work as governor, rebuilding Louisiana from the ruins of Katrina. Jindal demonstrated outstanding leadership dealing with the BP oil spill, even coming to blows with President Obama on the logistics of getting federal aid to the beleaguered Gulf coast.

Jacob Heilbrunn, a liberal internationalist and a fierce critic of Palin and all Jacksonian conservatives, argues that she is deliberately crafting an image of provinciality in order to strengthen her street cred with . . . boobus americanus. “The truth is that Palin’s very ignorance serves as her vital badge of credibility with the right. The less she knows about foreign countries, the purer she appears. . . . She doesn't want seasoning. She wants to be unseasoned.” Heilbrunn believes that Palin is indeed the ideal standard bearer for Jacksonian America, “God-fearing folk carrying the mantle of American exceptionalism.” Of course, Heilbruun does not mean this as a compliment. Like most elite internationalists, liberal or conservative, he has nothing but contempt for Jacksonian America and those who embody its passion for liberty, honor, and American exceptionalism. And so he “misunderestimates” Mama Grizzily’s ability to rise to the challenges of leadership with knowledge and decisiveness, and rally her Jacksonian supporters into a force to be reckoned with.

Palinand ObamaNoemie Emery concludes, needed at least six more years outside the national spotlight to grow into their leadership roles. “Instead, their growth was checked at a critical moment, and, as it seems now, won’t be resumed quickly—not in the presidency as Obama is learning, or in a media frenzy, as Palin has found.” My guess is that Emery (like Heilbrunn) underestimates Palin’s ability to navigate a learning curve. A Sarah Palin properly tempered on the forge of experience could become one of the outstanding leaders in American history. She has an intuitive understanding of Jacksonian America and its aspirations; she is eloquent in articulating the Jacksonian faith in American exceptionalism. But if she is to reach beyond her conservative base and convince the broader American public that she has what it takes to lead the nation in these perilous times, she must, as Charles Krauthammer insists, demonstrate a mastery of public policy. This will not be easy for Palin to do in the glare of an often hostile media. If she plays her cards right, Americans may one day look back on “Mama Grizzly” as an iconic figure in the mold of Old Hickory. I hope she hasn’t missed her opportunity.

Here is Sarah’s take-no-prisoners response to some of her critics on a December 16 segment of The O’Reilly Factor.



© 2010 Michael Kaplan

Thursday, December 9, 2010

American Intellectuals: Trapped in the Blue Model

by Michael Kaplan

This is from Walter Russell Mead’s follow up to his post on the looming blue state fiscal meltdown. America’s current crisis, Mead argues, is ultimately a failure of creative thinking. American intellectuals are trapped in servitude to the blue beast. They just can’t think outside the blue box to find an alternative model for organizing society suitable for the twenty-first century. Ideology and class interests are to blame for this intellectual lethargy. As Mead explains:

First, there’s ideology. Since the late nineteenth century most intellectuals have identified progress with the advance of the bureaucratic, redistributionist and administrative state. The government, guided by credentialed intellectuals with scientific training and values, would lead society through the economic and political perils of the day. An ever more powerful state would play an ever larger role in achieving ever greater degrees of affluence and stability for the population at large, redistributing wealth to provide basic sustenance and justice to the poor. The social mission of intellectuals was to build political support for the development of the new order, to provide enlightened guidance based on rational and scientific thought to policymakers, to administer the state through a merit based civil service, and to train new generations of managers and administrators. The modern corporation was supposed to evolve in a similar way, with business becoming more stable, more predictable and more bureaucratic.
Most American intellectuals today are still shaped by this worldview and genuinely cannot imagine an alternative vision of progress. It is extremely difficult for such people to understand the economic forces that are making this model unsustainable and to see why so many Americans are in rebellion against this kind of state and society – but if our society is going to develop we have to move beyond the ideas and the institutions of twentieth century progressivism. The promises of the administrative state can no longer be kept and its premises no longer hold. The bureaucratic state is too inefficient to provide the needed services at a sustainable cost – and bureaucratic, administrative governments are by nature committed to maintain the status quo at a time when change is needed. For America to move forward, power is going to have to shift from bureaucrats to entrepreneurs, from the state to society and from qualified experts and licensed professionals to the population at large.
Academia, as it now exists, is an inflexible guild that rewards politically correct thinking—that is liberal progressive rationales for maintaining the blue model—and denouncing any market-oriented alternatives as oppressive and unfair, even racist. The publish or perish mandate in academia, far from nurturing innovative thinking, has forced young academics to tow the line, jump through hoops, and write what senior faculty want them to write. To do otherwise would put at risk their chances of winning tenure—the blue model’s ultimate reward of lifetime job security. Young scholars, struggling to survive in academic institutions, have had to suppress their passion for the unfettered pursuit of knowledge and turn themselves into clones of their elders.

This is a concern raised by Patricia Nelson Limerick, a leading historian of the American West. Limerick observes that for intellectuals to influence the public beyond academia, they must develop “practices far more strenuous than the comfortable custom of reminding audiences of fellow academics of the virtue and validity of left-wing principles.” Among these practices is the ability to write and speak in clear jargon-free language. Unfortunately, conventional academics see such clarity as a sign “of a lack of sophistication and a questionable level of expertise.” Young scholars who want to think and work outside the box as public intellectuals, Limerick cautions, have to, in effect, become stealth operatives for the first fifteen to twenty years of their careers.

To become university-based public scholars, young people may well have to put their ambition into cold storage for a decade and a half. Go to graduate school, write a conventional dissertation, get a tenure-track job, publish in academic journals and in university presses, give papers at professional conferences to small groups of fellow specialists, and comply with all the requirements of deference, conformity, and hoop-jumping that narrow the road to tenure while also narrowing the travelers on that road. Then, once tenured, you can take up the applied work that appealed to you in the first place.
Assuming of course that you still have that passion for learning and teaching in the broadest sense that originally led you into the academic life. Again, as Mead also points out, there are many intellectuals, inside and outside of the Academy, who are swimming against the tide and thinking creatively, outside the box, about history, politics, economics, and how to move American society forward.

One of the most important points Mead raises is the desperate need for generalists as opposed to specialists: writers and teachers who can synthesize the many different specialized strands of knowledge, and communicate them effectively to the American public. Academia excels at the production of specialized and highly technical knowledge, published in journals and monographs. The importance of this endeavor—expanding the bounds of human knowledge in all fields of liberal arts and science—cannot be emphasized enough; especially at a time when increasingly vocal critics (many of them Jacksonian conservatives) are questioning the very legitimacy of academia’s raison d’être. But the Academy has disconnected from the public. Even in a field like history, scholars more often write for each other than for a larger audience.

I see my mission as a historian to be a generalist who can bring together the past and the present. This is what I aim for in my teaching, though I have to admit my success has been mixed. I’m attempting in my work on the influence of Jacksonian nationalism in American history and culture, to synthesize the many specialized monographs on a variety of related topics into a compelling narrative. This will, I hope, present the type of big picture interpretation of America’s emergence as a nation that I (like Mead) believe is needed in the twenty-first century. This blog will be a testing ground for developing my thinking on history and the human condition. These posts are works-in-progress, where I’ll experiment with the most engaging and compelling ways to share my evolving understanding of history (and politics, and everything else) with my fellow citizens.

© 2010 Michael Kaplan

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A Blue State Apocalypse?

by Michael Kaplan

“The global financial crisis could be heading to a blue state near you: that is the latest grim news from the New York Times: ‘Mounting Debts by States Stoke Fears of Crisis.’ Normally a cheerleader for the free spending (in bluespeak, compassionate) policies of the public sector union dominated, high tax, high cost states like California, Illinois and New York, the Times now warns that fiscal ruin could be at hand.”

“The problem is state debt. New York, California and Illinois look more like Greece to their bondholders every day. Since the November elections, investors have been dumping their bonds, and hedge funds are betting against them, perhaps realizing that a Republican House is not going to offer generous, condition free bailouts.”

This, from Walter Russell Mead’s most recent blog post, is not pleasant reading. And he’s not alone in his concern. Pat Buchanan issued the same warning on Sean Hannity’s radio show (December 7, 2010). How the federal government and our politicians—Democrats and Republicans both—respond to this looming debt crisis in the blue states will determine whether the American economy can move forward into a prosperous twenty-first century. The wrong choices could plunge us back into the economic meltdown of 2008, or worse. Will Jacksonian Tea Party Republicans get locked in mortal combat with progressive blue state Democrats over federal bailouts to California, Illinois, and New York? Will these states be forced to shut down their public services, including police and fire departments and their state university systems? (As I teach at a state college, this is of some importance to me.) Will the blue state debt crisis and federal dithering lead to a collapse of the stock and bond markets? It’s hard to imagine Jacksonian conservatives voting to give bailouts to the hated public sector unions. Sean Hannity insists that when forced to the wall, the blue states will be compelled to restructure their finances and renegotiate their public sector union contracts, if the federal government refuses to bail them out. The blue states simply can’t afford their generous public sector pensions and health benefits. On the other hand, Jacksonians do make up the bulk of police, fire, and emergency service personnel. Jacksonian conservatives have always insisted on the necessity of these public services, even if they are willing to defund education. If there was ever a time that America needed wisdom to guide it, Mead says, this is it!

Interestingly, the U. K. publisher of Mead’s book God and Gold, used a colorized detail from America Guided by Wisdom, as the cover design. Is Mead, or his publisher, trying to send America a message?


Mead has argued over a number of blog posts that the collapse of the blue social model, and figuring out what should replace it, is the major challenge America now faces. “The fiscal meltdown of the big blue states, if financial Armageddon actually arrives, will be the biggest domestic crisis for the American people since the Depression, and the biggest crisis for the Democratic Party since the Civil War.” The blue social model—the “blue beast” or “Fordism” as Mead also calls it—is a social and economic system of managed capitalism, based on cooperation between big government, big business, and big labor. We also know this model as the progressive welfare state. This model, first conceived in the Progressive Era at the start of the twentieth century, emerged triumphant with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s; it provided needed social and economic stability, smoothing the rough edges of capitalism, in the middle years of the twentieth century. “The anarchic, cutthroat capitalism of earlier American eras” Mead writes, “gave way to a more stable system in which a handful of large companies with large labor unions peaceably divided the mass market.”

(Mead, Power, Terror, Peace, and War: America’s Grand Strategy in a World at Risk [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004], p. 45.)

Sunday, December 5, 2010

America Guided by Wisdom: A Neoclassical Allegory of American Exceptionalism

by Michael Kaplan

America Guided by Wisdom.  Benjamin Tanner after John James Barralet, Philadelphia, 1815-1820.

On the fore ground, Minerva, the goddess of Wisdom, is pointing to a shield, supported by the Genius of America, bearing the arms of the United States, with the motto UNION AND INDEPENDENCE, by which the country enjoys the prosperity signified by the horn of plenty at the feet of America. The second ground is occupied by a Triumphal Arch with the Equestrian Statue of WASHINGTON placed in front, indicating the progress of the liberal arts. On the third ground, Commerce is represented by the figure of Mercury, with one foot resting on bales of American manufactures, pointing out the advantages of encouraging and protecting Navigation, signified by an armed vessel under sail, to Ceres, who is seated with emplements of Agriculture near her. The Bee Hive is emblematic of industry; and the female spinning at the cottage door, shews the first and most useful of domestic manufactures.

—Benjamin Tanner’s descriptive text.

I first saw this print many years ago in Samuel Eliot Morrison’s The Oxford History of the American People. Engraved by Benjamin Tanner after a design by John James Barralet, America Guided by Wisdom is an evocative visual allegory of what American exceptionalism meant to the post-Revolutionary generation. The print draws on the Neoclassical tradition of the Enlightenment, where the United States was often portrayed as an idealized Roman Republic reborn. Issued in Philadelphia between 1815 and 1820, in the wake of Andrew Jackson’s victory at New Orleans, the print expressed the heady nationalistic optimism that the republic had been reborn in the forge of the War of 1812, a second war of independence against Great Britain. Barralet used classical imagery and the symbolism of Greco-Roman mythology to vindicate the triumph of America’s exceptional republican liberty. America, guided by the wisdom of the benevolent deities while engaged in the pursuits of commerce, would now enjoy a golden age of peace and prosperity.

Educated Americans, in the years during and after the American Revolution, were far more familiar with the language of classical iconography and symbolism than we are today. They would understand the print’s allegorical themes without much difficulty. But by 1815 American society was democratizing; middle- and working-class white people were exercising more influence in the cultural marketplace. So the publisher thought it wise to provide a descriptive text (above) for the benefit of those not privileged to have had a classical education.

John James Barralet (ca. 1747-1815) was an Irish artist of French descent. He studied at the Dublin Society’s school and later taught art, first in Dublin, and in the 1770s in London. Most of the drawings that he exhibited in his London years focused on neoclassical themes then in vogue at the Royal Academy. Barralet returned to Ireland in 1776 and remained there until emigrating to Philadelphia in 1795. Though Barralet had been considered an artist of some promise in Ireland, in America he attained only marginal success. He took whatever commercial art work came his way to keep body and soul together; on more than one occasion, Baralett and his two motherless children had to scrounge for food, firewood, and clothing.

William Dunlap, writing a history of American art and design in the 1830s, described Barralet as “having all the volatility of France united with Hibernian prodigality and eccentricity. . . . He was a man of talent without discretion or any thing like common prudence; prodigally generous, and graspingly poor. As represented to me, he had the wildest portions of the French and Irish characters whimsically united in him.” On one occasion Barralet locked his children in a closet while a French general sat to have his portrait painted. Barralet’s erratic temperament sabotaged his partnerships with other artists. Shortly after arriving in Philadelphia, Barralet had been engaged by Alexander Lawson to design pictures which Lawson would then engrave. The most famous of these was General Washington’s Resignation, published in 1799 (see below). But, as Dunlap wrote, “the union of the Scotchman, a downright matter-of fact, industrious and warm-hearted man, with this flighty genius, was that of oil and vinegar.” The partnership broke up amidst mutual accusations. Despite his poverty Barralet persevered with his art. Eccentric in his personal behavior, Barralet nonetheless insisted on sticking to the artistic conventions in which he had been trained. His importance lay in his ability to interpret American exceptionalism to a public that wanted to see it expressed in the language of neoclassical allegory. America Guided by Wisdom was one of Barralet’s last works, and one of his most compelling.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Tom Friedman: Is American Exceptionalism Just Empty Rhetoric?

by Michael Kaplan


But Friedman does make an important point about how the idea of American exceptionalism can be abused. Too often today American exceptionalism had been reduced to empty rhetoric; boasting that America is number one, even as we are in real danger of decline. American exceptionalism does not, and never did, mean that Americans are superior as human beings to people of other nations. The average American is just as selfish, greedy, and lazy as the average Chinese, Russian, Iranian, or European. It is not a license for empty and vulgar narcissism. American exceptionalism is the concept that America is a culture uniquely devoted to liberty and the empowerment of the average citizen, who can make the most of his God-given talents and abilities, take charge of his destiny, and live his life without kowtowing to his supposed social superiors. This commitment to liberty and the rule of law was enshrined in our founding documents and institutionalized in our constitutional republic. The unique circumstances of how America came into being, on a continent without mortal enemies and free from many of the burdens of the history of the Old World, made this exceptional libertarian culture possible.

Friedman is right is arguing that American exceptionalism is not an excuse for complacency. We do have to work at being exceptional, at maximizing the potential of the American people for creativity and innovation. Especially now that other nations, like China, are learning to play our game and are ready to do what it takes to beat us at it. But it was a Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, who first called America exceptional and qualitatively different from other nations. As he wrote in Democracy in America:

I consider the people of the United States as that portion of the English people who are commissioned to explore the forests of the New World, while the rest of the nation, enjoying more leisure and less harassed by the drudgery of life, may devote their energies to thought and enlarge in all directions the empire of mind.
The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one. Their strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts, the proximity of Europe, which allows them to neglect these pursuits without relapsing into barbarism, a thousand special causes, of which I have only been able to point out the most important, have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects. His passions, his wants, his education, and everything about him seem to unite in drawing the native of the United States earthward; his religion alone bids him turn, from time to time, a transient and distracted glance to heaven. Let us cease, then, to view all democratic nations under the example of the American people, and attempt to survey them at length with their own features. . . .
When men living in a democratic state of society are enlightened, they readily discover that they are not confined and fixed by any limits which force them to accept their present fortune. They all, therefore, conceive the idea of increasing it. If they are free, they all attempt it, but all do not succeed in the same manner. The legislature, it is true, no longer grants privileges, but nature grants them. As natural inequality is very great, fortunes become unequal as soon as every man exerts all his faculties to get rich.
(Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. 2, Part 1, Chapter 9.)

Fifty years earlier, another Frenchman, Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, made a similar point. “What then is the American, this new man?. . . He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds.” Tocqueville believed that America was exceptional for being a newly formed settler society that lacked a feudal past, discouraged social deference, and so emphasized democratic equality, opportunity, pluralism, and individualism. British Dissenting Protestantism and America’s continental size were also critical in the formation of an exceptional society.

Friedman is correct in warning that Americans can’t take exceptionalism for granted. We have to work as a nation to continually renew it, to prevent it from becoming empty rhetoric. We have to get the American economy back up to speed to meet the challenges of globalization in the twenty-first century. Where I think Friedman errs is in looking to the government and a mandarin elite of technocrats to lead the way in reviving America. Wise government technocrats would guide the private sector through a national policy of targeted incentives and punishments. Friedman would like the government to promote the development green energy and technology and punish fossil fuel use through increased gasoline taxes. I believe it would be better if the government and the technocratic elites stayed out of the way and let the American people in the private sector, especially those in small businesses, take the lead to do what they do best: innovate, create wealth, and pursue happiness.

© 2010 Michael Kaplan

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Breast Cancer in 1811: Fanny Burney’s Account of Her Mastectomy

Introduction by Michael Kaplan

Fanny Burney at age 32. Painted by her cousin Edward Francesco Burney, 1784-85.


In this harrowing passage, novelist Fanny Burney, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer, recounted the opening incision of her mastectomy. As the year was 1811, Burney’s breast was removed without benefit of anesthesia. Surgery of any type in the days before anesthesia was a horrific experience. Author Sharon Batt, who wrote about her own ordeal with breast cancer, calls Burney’s “the most riveting account of a mastectomy on record.”

* * * * * * * * * *


Separated as I have now so long—long been from my dearest Father—Brothers—Sisters—Nieces, and Native Friends, I would spare, at least, their kind hearts any grief for me but what they must inevitably feel in reflecting upon the sorrow of such absence to one so tenderly attached to all her first and for-ever so dear and regretted ties—nevertheless, if they should hear that I have been dangerously ill from any hand but my own, they might have doubts of my perfect recovery which my own alone can obviate. And how can I hope they will escape hearing what has reached Seville to the South, and Constantinople to the East? from both I have had messages—yet nothing could urge me to this communication till I heard that M. Boinville had written it to his Wife, without any precaution, because in ignorance of my plan of silence. Still I must hope it may never travel to my dearest Father—But to You, my beloved Esther, who, living more in the World, will surely hear it ere long, to you I will write the whole history, certain that, from the moment you know any evil has befallen me your kind kind heart will be constantly anxious to learn its extent and its circumstances, as well as its termination.

About August, in the year 1810, I began to by annoyed by a small pain in my breast, which went on augmenting from week to week, yet, being rather heavy than acute, without causing me any uneasiness with respect to consequences: Alas, “what was ignorance?” The most sympathising of Partners, however, was more disturbed: not a start, not a wry face, not a movement that indicated pain was unobserved, and he early conceived apprehensions to which I was a stranger. He pressed me to see some Surgeon; I revolted from the idea, and hoped, by care and warmth, to make all succour unnecessary. Thus passed some months, during which Madame de Maisonneuve, my particularly intimate friend, joined with M. d’Arblay to press me to consent to an examination. I thought their fears groundless, and could not make so great a conquest over my repugnance. I relate this false confidence, now, as a warning to my dear Esther—my Sisters and Nieces, should any similar sensations excite similar alarm.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

David Frum on the “Post-Tea-Party Nation”

by Michael Kaplan

David Frum wrote this critical piece on the challenge facing Republicans and the Tea Party after their victory in the 2010 elections. Frum, who is credited with writing the “Axis of Evil” speech for George W. Bush, has made a name for himself in recent years by leading, along with David Brooks, an insurgency to “reform” the conservative movement. This has earned Frum the enmity of Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin who accuse him of betraying core conservative principles to ingratiate himself with the liberal progressive elite. It may explain why the New York Times published this article.

Jacksonian populists are the main target of Frum’s critique. Frum sounds a lot like liberal progressives in his denunciation of Tea Party Jacksonians as anti-intellectual know-nothings—boobus americanus. And it is true, as I have pointed out in these posts, that anti-intellectualism is a major weakness of Jacksonian populist nationalism. But Frum goes too far with this. Sarah Palin and Bill O’Reilly, whom Frum points to as examples of Jacksonian ignorance, have developed thoughtful conservative critiques of Obama administration policies.

Frum’s Lesson 5 speaks to this: “Listen to the people — but beware of populism. Listen to the people and politicians who gather under the label ‘the Tea Party,’ and you are overwhelmed by the militant egalitarianism of their message, the distrust of elites, the assertion that the Tea Party speaks for ordinary Americans against a privileged ruling class.” Frum continues:

Non-Tea Party Americans may marvel that any group can think of itself as egalitarian when its main political goals are to cut off government assistance to the poorest and reduce taxes for the richest. But American populism has almost always concentrated its anger against the educated rather than the wealthy. So much so that you might describe contemporary American politics as a class struggle between those with more education than money against those with more money than education: Jon Stewart’s America versus Bill O’Reilly’s, Barack Obama versus Sarah Palin.
Frum is right about that. Barack Obama embodies liberal, progressive, secular, cosmo-politan, elite, internationalist, “Bobo”America; while Sarah Palin embodies conservative, traditional, religious, provinical, populist, nationalist, Jacksonian America. This cultural polarization of two Americas has prevailed since the 1920s; think of Prohibition, flappers, and the Scopes Trial. “For that reason,” Frum concludes, “conservatives in recent years have ridden populist waves more successfully than liberals have done. Yet conservatives will not find it much easier than liberals to govern a society where so many people feel themselves cheated — and where so many refuse to believe that the so-called experts care for the interests of anyone beyond their narrow coterie and class.” What Frum refuses to concede is that Jacksonians have good reason to be suspicious of the motives of the political and cultural elites who have maligned and denigrated them.

The liberal progressive welfare state—Walter Russell Mead’s “blue beast”—did play a valuable role in taming the rough edges of American capitalism and stabilizing American society in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Frum is right to point this out (Lesson 4). Yet by 1980 this model had clearly reached it sell-by date. Liberal progressives, and maybe Frum, argue that the Reagan laissez-faire model had reached its sell-by date in 2008. Conservatives deny this, insisting that the administration of George W. Bush moved away from Reagan’s policies and capitulated to the likes of Barney Frank. Where we should go from here will drive an ever more heated political confrontation between liberal progressives and Jacksonian populist conservatives. Whatever either side comes up with will, in the end, come down to Americans having to work harder for less money and fewer benefits, until the productive capacities of the American capitalist wealth-creation machine are restored.

© 2010 Michael Kaplan