Monday, October 25, 2010

14th Nervous Breakdown

My last post noted that the coverage of the Delaware senate debates had unfairly characterized Christine O'Donnell's comments on the First Amendment.  Perhaps even more egregious, however, was the lack of attention given to another of O'Donnell's answers to a constitutional question.

O'Donnell was asked in the same debate if she agrees with calls by other Tea Party candidates to repeal all or part of the 14th, 16th, and 17th Amendments to the Constitution.  O'Donnell was quick to deny any interest in repealing the 17th amendment—which is not a bad idea for someone running for senate, since it is the amendment that gave the voters, rather than state legislators, the right to choose senators. (For an earlier discussion of this issue, see here.)

What is noteworthy is the rest of O'Donnell's response.  She did not know what either the 14th or 16th Amendments were.  Laughing nervously, she said: “I’m sorry, I didn’t bring my Constitution with me.”  Doing her best impression of Sarah Palin, she tried to laugh off her ignorance and quipped: “Fortunately, senators don’t have to memorize the Constitution. Can you remind me of what the other ones are?"

That's true enough, memorizing the Constitution isn't a requirement for office.  But when you premise your candidacy in large part on your superior fidelity to the Constitution, is it too much to ask that you know what is actually in it?

After all, these are hardly the most obscure amendments.  I'll admit that I don't have all the amendments committed to memory either.  I could not tell you off the top of my head what, say, the 8th Amendment says (it bans excessive bail and cruel and unusual punishment).  But these two I know, as should someone like O'Donnell who self-identifies with the Tea Party.

The 16th empowered Congress to levy the income tax, the relevance of which to Tea Partiers is self-evident.  And the 14th Amendment has been much in the news, ever since Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) proposed repealing its provision for birth citizenship.

But the 14th Amendment does far more than that.  It arguably represents the most important single change in the Constitution in American history.  It made clear that the states did not have the power to deny citizens any of the rights guaranteed by the Constitution.  It guarantees all of us due process rights and equal protection of the laws.

It was, in many ways, an answer to the states rights doctrine of the Confederacy, and it created one nation.  As Eric Foner writes in his authoritative account Reconstruction, 1863-1877, some amendments

are broad statements of principle, giving constitutional form to the resolution of national crises, and permanently altering American nationality.  The Fourteenth Amendment was a measure of this kind.  In language that transcended race and region, it challenged legal discrimination throughout the nation and changed and broadened the meaning of freedom for all Americans.

The reason that this amendment is so important, and the reason some radical conservatives might not be entirely comfortable with it, is that in the words of a contemporary observer, "the powers of the States have been limited and the powers of Congress extended."  It meant that the states "could no longer infringe upon the liberties the Bill of Rights has secured against federal violation."

Although it took nearly another one hundred years, the foundation established by the 14th Amendment is what made possible the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (whose constitutionality has been challenged by another Tea Party candidate, Rand Paul).

It is bad enough that a senatorial candidate today could be ignorant of what the 14th Amendment is.  It is even worse that a sitting senator from one of the states whose wholesale disregard of civil rights prompted it in the first place is proposing that we tamper with this essential amendment.  But worst of all is the fact that, in this bizarre election year, neither of these things seems to merit any notice at all (much less outrage) from the electorate.

Friday, October 22, 2010

O'Donnell, the First Amendment, and Constitutional Literalism

I think Christine O'Donnell is getting a bad rap.

I can't believe I'm starting a post with those words, but it's true.  Based on her comments in a recent debate with Chris Coons, her opponent in the general election for U.S. senator from Delaware, many reports and commentators suggested that O'Donnell was unaware that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution deals with religion.  When Coons referred to separation of church and state, O'Donnell asked “Where in the Constitution is separation of church and state?”

From listening to the exchange, it was immediately clear to me that O'Donnell was referring specifically to that phrase, not doubting that the First Amendment refers to religion.  This is a familiar refrain among conservatives who are opposed to that concept.  And, of course, O'Donnell is correct that that phrase does not appear in the Constitution.  Nor did Coons suggest that it does--he appropriately cited the establishment clause as it is written.

So what's going on here?  I think it is a matter of constitutional literalism. Since the precise words "separation of church and state" do not appear in the Constitution, constitutional literalists argue that there isn't really any such thing.

This mindset has a long pedigree, almost as old as the Constitution itself.  Its first coherent statement is Thomas Jefferson's "Opinion on the Constitutionality of a National Bank" in 1791.  (Ironically, Jefferson is on the opposite side of the church and state argument.)  Relying, as do today's Tea Partiers, on the Tenth Amendment, Jefferson maintained that unless a power were specifically delegated to the Federal government, it remained with the states.  He feared that anything but a strict interpretation of the Constitution would mean "Congress should be authorised to break down the most ancient and fundamental laws of the several States."

(This is the same basic view informing Republican attorneys general in their challenge to the new health insurance law: that the individual mandate is an unconstitutional usurpation of rights by the Federal government.)

The problem with such constitutional literalism is that Jefferson lost that argument with Alexander Hamilton back in 1791.  George Washington sided with Hamilton, Congress approved the national bank, and thereby established the practice of loose rather than strict construction of the Constitution.  When he later served as president, Jefferson himself sometimes invoked loose construction, most famously to justify the Louisiana Purchase.

It is that point that O'Donnell fails to understand: that the actual practice of governance has shaped what the Constitution means.  Coons, to his credit, did understand this and tried to explain it.  He knew that the phrase "separation of church and state" is not in the First Amendment, and noted that the concept has become part of our understanding of the application of the First Amendment via "decisional law by the Supreme Court over many, many decades."  He was correct that her focus on that single phrase showed a "fundamental misunderstanding of what our Constitution is ... and how it evolves."

In a 1947 case, Everson v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court's majority decision embraced the concept: "The First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach."

If O'Donnell had any real understanding of the issue, anything beyond her smug, self-satisfied recitation of a talking point, she could have challenged the Court's reasoning in that decision.  But she has no such understanding. When asked in another debate what recent Court decisions she disagrees with, she could not mention a single one.  She promised to look some up and put them on her web site.

That is the real problem with O'Donnell's debate performance--not a specific case of ignorance of a well-known fact, but rather a incredibly simplistic understanding of the document that she says she will defend in office and have guide her every decision.  Like Sarah Palin before her (who was stumped by the same question about Court decisions in the Katie Couric interview), she is a profoundly unserious person.  And that, even in this strange election year, is a legitimate reason to deem her unqualified to hold public office.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Are We "Capable of Feeling the Force of Reason"?

When doing research, you always have to beware the danger of distraction.  While researching for my dissertation, I waded through years of the New York Times, looking for articles relevant to my topic.  Inevitably I'd stumble on something that looked fascinating, but I had to force myself to move on or I'd never find what I was looking for.

On the other hand, you have to be open to serendipity.  Sometimes the best thing you find is not what you were looking for.

I had one of those serendipitous moments while working on my last piece.  I had the news on in the background, and I heard the story of how Bill O'Reilly prompted a walkout on "The View."  O'Reilly was trying to defend his position that the Islamic community center in downtown Manhattan should not be built, and (not surprisingly) fell back on the idea of collective guilt.  It was insensitive for Muslims to build the center, he said, because "Muslims killed us on 9/11."

While that story played, I was looking through Ben Franklin's writings for material on religion.  What I found was Franklin's answer to O'Reilly.

In 1763, at the end of what Americans call the French and Indian War, Franklin penned an outraged diatribe condemning Pennsylvania whites who had massacred a village of peaceful, friendly native American Indians.  He denounced the perpetrators as "CHRISTIAN WHITE SAVAGES."

Almost as bad, in his mind, were other colonists who defended the massacre by citing "the Command given Joshua to destroy the Heathen."  This, Franklin thought, was appalling: "Horrid perversion of Scripture and of Religion! to father the worst of Crimes on the God of Peace and Love!"

"We pretend to be Christians," Franklin fumed, and went on to compare the Pennsylvania Christians unfavorably to "Heathens" and (even worse in today's Islamophobic America) Muslims.  He specifically praised Mahomet (Muhammad) and Saladin for humane treatment of prisoners.  The Indians, he said,

would have been safer among the ancient Heathens, with whom the Rites of Hospitality were sacred.  They would have been considered as Guests of the Publick, and the Religion of the Country would have operated in their favor.  But our Frontier People call themselves Christians!—They would have been safer, if they had submitted to the Turks; for ever since Mahomet's Reproof to Khaled, even the cruel Turks, never kill Prisoners in cold Blood.

One of the things that most outraged Franklin was the failure to distinguish between Indian enemies (with whom the colonists were at war) and these victims, who were "Friends." Pennsylvanians had justified the killings by engaging in collective guilt.  Franklin was appalled that some "would extenuate the enormous Wickedness of these Actions, by saying, 'The Inhabitants of the Frontiers are exasperated with the Murder of their Relations, by the Enemy Indians.'"

Franklin had no patience for such nonsense: "If an Indian injures me, does it follow that I may revenge that injury on all Indians?"  He observed that the Indians were not monolithic, and were comprised of "different Tribes, Nations and Languages."  He pointed out the utter absurdity of treating all people who share one characteristic as if they were all the same:

In Europe, if the French, who are White People, should injure the Dutch, are they to revenge it on the English, because they too are White People?  The only Crime of these poor Wretches seems to have been, that they had a reddish brown skin, and black Hair; and some people of that sort, it seems, had murdered some of our Relations.

"Indians killed us!"  "Muslims killed us!"  Not much difference, is there?

The proper response to such foolishness, Franklin thought, was a recommitment to government and law:

Let all good Men join heartily and unanimously in Support of the Laws, and in strengthening the Hands of Government; that JUSTICE may be done, the Wicked punished, and the Innocent protected. … it belongs to brave men to spare, and to protect; for, as the Poet says,
---Mercy still sways the Brave.

Amen, Brother Franklin, Amen.

Franklin's piece is a rousing call for the triumph of reason in the face of unreason.  Franklin believed that "even the most brutal" of people "are capable of feeling the force of Reason."  But listening to O'Reilly and Fox's Brian Kilmeade, who in defending O'Reilly stupidly asserted that "all terrorists are Muslims," it is hard to have much faith in reason's power these days.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Ben Franklin and the "Virtue" of the Founders

One of the stranger aspects of the contemporary attempt to argue that the Founders created a "Christian nation" is its use of Benjamin Franklin.  For example, as I noted in a recent post, Glenn Beck has appropriated Franklin's image for his own purposes.

I was reminded of this tendency by a letter to the editor in yesterday's Spartanburg Herald-Journal.  The writer insists that "our nation was founded by Christians, on Christian principles."  She then quotes Franklin as evidence for the "Christian nation" case: "Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom."

Franklin was a great man, but he was a hardly a Christian in any sense this letter writer would understand.  Late in life, in 1790, Franklin was asked about his religion, and he stated forthrightly his views: "I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe.  That … the most acceptable Service we render him is doing good to his other Children."  Asked specifically about "Jesus of Nazareth," he said that while he valued Christ's "System of Morals" as the "best the World ever saw," he also had "some Doubts about his Divinity."  I doubt that most modern-day Christians would consider that the view of a good Christian.

He also thought Christ's divinity was an unimportant matter—the important thing, he thought, was that people follow the moral teachings, and if people believing in a divine Jesus aided that end, Franklin saw no harm and much good in that.  When it came to religion, Franklin felt it was best to "let others enjoy their religious sentiments, without reflecting on them for those that appeared to me unsupportable and even absurd."

The key to understanding Franklin, and I would argue most of the Founders, is the word "virtue."  Today's "Christian nation" advocates assume that since most Americans in the late 18th century were in fact Christians, that they therefore must have equated Christianity with virtue.  Thus every use of the word "virtue" in connection with the government they set up means that American government is based on "Christian principles."  But the Founders meant something quite different by that word. 

In his classic work Creation of the American Republic, the renowned historian of the American Revolution and Constitution Gordon Wood explains it well.  The Founders did indeed believe that self-government "cannot be supported without Virtue."  But what did they mean by "Virtue"?

This willingness of the individual to sacrifice his private interests for the good of the community—such patriotism or love of country—the eighteenth century termed "public virtue."

In short, it was not an explicitly religious, much less Christian, notion.  Their "virtue" referred to "social behavior," not a particular religious faith.  It was related to one's "sense of connection with the general system—his benevolence—his desire and freedom of doing good."

No one better exemplifies that attitude than Franklin.  In 1735, Franklin wrote "Dialogue Between Two Presbyterians," in which he argued that it was not necessary to be a Christian to be moral or virtuous: "Morality or Virtue is the End, Faith only a Means to obtain that End: And if the End be obtained, it is no matter by what Means."  Just in case that wasn't clear enough, Franklin added: "A virtuous Heretick shall be saved before a wicked Christian."

This was Franklin's "virtue"—it was, above all else, a matter of how one treated other members of the community.  It was not a matter of religious faith, Christian or otherwise.  Franklin did not care what people believed—he cared how they acted, their charity, their social behavior.

In 1738, Franklin wrote a letter to his parents, who were concerned that their son had "imbib'd some erroneous Opinions" and strayed from their strongly held religious beliefs: "I think vital Religion has always suffer'd, when Orthodoxy is more regarded than Virtue. … at the last day, we shall not be examin'd what we thought, but what we did; and our Recommendation will not be that we said Lord, Lord, but that we did GOOD to our Fellow Creatures."

That is the "virtue" of the Founders.  If today's "Christian nation" zealots truly wanted to honor the Founders, they would stop trying to impose a dogmatic political version of their own religion on others, and would devote that energy instead to doing GOOD to their Fellow Creatures.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Senator John C. DeMint

My first exposure to South Carolina politics came from academic study rather than personal experience. While a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, I became fascinated with the southern states rights movement before the Civil War, and in particular its foremost proponent, South Carolina's John C. Calhoun.

Calhoun was a fascinating figure.  He was an active politician for his entire adult life: he served as Secretary of War, Secretary of State, Vice-President (for two different presidents—the only person to have ever done that) and Senator from South Carolina.  But he was also a serious political philosopher, perhaps the most original political thinker of the Jacksonian era.  He dedicated his formidable intellect to the problem of securing the rights of the slaveholding minority in the South, and is responsible of the doctrine of nullification: the idea that a state can veto a federal law it finds unconstitutional.

I've found myself thinking a lot about Calhoun recently, due to the antics of current South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint.

You have to hand it to DeMint.  He knows how to call attention to himself.  Last week, it was his reiteration of his belief, first stated six years ago when he was first running for senate, that gays and sexually active unmarried women should not be allowed to teach in public schools (he was silent on the subject of sexually active unmarried straight men, so it would seem they are not subject to the same standard).

That wasn't the only strange statement DeMint made here in Spartanburg that day.  There was also this bizarre mixture of deficit reduction and religion:

People are beginning to see that there's no way we can pay the interest on our debt and every week, we're borrowing money to pay the debt we have and are creating new programs that are costing more money.  Hopefully in 2012, we'll make headway to repeal some of the things we've done, because politics only works when we're realigned with our Savior.

I understand the concern about the deficit.  I understand the desire to get right with God.  I cannot understand how DeMint comes to the conclusion that the two are in any way connected.

Then there was this largely unnoticed story from a couple of weeks ago.  DeMint announced that he would bring the Senate to a standstill.  He would personally block any of the normal, unanimous consent business that had not been cleared with his office, he said.  He was basically asserting his right to personally veto bills.

DeMint does not seem to have followed through on his threat, but he does seem intent on using the expected Republican gains in Congress in the coming elections to shut down the federal government.  DeMint simply does not believe in government action.  In an interview with the despicable Bryan Fischer, he said this:

So this idea that government has to do something is not a good idea. So I think the less we do, the better except maybe to dismantle some of the federal programs that are making it harder for America to be competitive.

So what does this have to do with Calhoun?  Consider this description of Calhoun by his biographer, John Niven:

Calhoun had been driven by what he believed was the growing weakness of his state and his section in an industrializing society.  Uncertain about a future in which the slave-plantation system seemed to be increasingly on the defensive, Calhoun, with his speculative mind and his latent insecurity, tended toward rationalizing a potential minority position as the only proper logic that was blessed by Jeffersonian precedent and confirmed by historical fact.

Although his simple-mindedness bears no resemblance to Calhoun's intellectual complexity, I think DeMint is in some sense Calhoun's heir in insecurity.  Like Calhoun, DeMint considers himself the defender of an imperiled way of life.  Every change seems to be hastening the end of his group's political dominance, and so in our national politics he becomes the living embodiment of "no."

DeMint represents a demographic that is increasingly an endangered species nationally, even while it remains dominant locally in South Carolina.  The narrow-minded bigotry of his statement about school teachers (and in particular the absurd double-standard that applies no moral standard to straight men) is a throwback to an intolerant America that is rapidly disappearing.  His obsequious devotion to business interests and knee-jerk laissez-faire economic policy is straight out of Herbert Hoover's long-discredited playbook.  His mindless political nihilism that rejects any compromise offers no real solutions to the problems that face us as a nation.

In his final address to the Senate, too weak to actually read the speech himself, Calhoun abjured the very idea of political compromise.  Instead he overtly threatened secession if his political enemies failed to surrender to the South's every demand.  Having led the nation to the brink of disaster by insistently defending a doomed institution, Calhoun granted himself absolution: "I shall have the consolation, let what will come, that I am free from all responsibility."

But we cannot absolve ourselves, and history has not absolved Calhoun.  Political leaders are responsible for the choices they make and the consequences of those choices.

Like Calhoun before him, DeMint will be returned to the Senate this year, and in all likelihood again in 2016.  Like Calhoun, DeMint will rail against the forces of progress and champion the forces of reaction, all the while pretending that he is championing the Constitution.  And lastly, like Calhoun, DeMint will end his career knowing that the world he defended is ending too, and he will not escape responsibility for standing in the way of progress.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Burning Down the House

The Cranick family didn't pay a $75 fire surcharge required by their community in Tennessee. Last week, their house caught fire. The fire department came, but since the owner hadn't paid the fee, they allowed the house to burn. They did so despite the owner's pleas, even as he told them he would write them a check for any amount if they would just save his house. The house burned to the ground. Fortunately no people died, but family pets, three dogs and a cat, were killed in the fire.

Here is what Glenn Beck had to say about this event: "If you don't pay your $75, then that hurts the fire department. They can't use those resources, and you would be sponging off of your neighbor's $75 dollars." He called what happened "equal justice." It was a lesson, he seems to think.

This may be the only time I ever say this, but Beck has a point. When some people pay into a system that supplies a public service and others don't, it is unfair to those who pay in if everyone who does not also receives those services.

The problem is that, as usual, he fails to see the all the ramifications of that point of view. This awful event is, in fact, the logical consequence of a vision of government that turns what should be basic public services into a pay-for-service function. If you make the services of firefighters into a privilege one must pay for, then Beck is right—you logically have to let the house burn down, with the animals inside (and, one supposes, any people too).

The morally correct conclusion to reach, however, is that something that can be literally a life-and-death matter therefore should never be relegated to pay-for-service status.  Fire protection should be a public service, available to all, and supported by taxes. As the owner's son has said, "To stand and watch a man's house burn is morally and ethically wrong." One might expect Beck to come to that conclusion too (after all, he claims that Americans must, as says he has, "turn back to God"). But he hasn't. Why not?

This is probably giving Beck too much credit, but perhaps somewhere deep down he realizes that the system of fire prevention that resulted in the Cranick home burning down is essentially the same system we have until recently had for health care, the same system that conservatives campaigning this fall are pledging to restore, the same system that Beck defends.

Before the new health insurance law was passed last spring, our ad hoc health care system was basically a pay-for-service system. There was no legal requirement to have health insurance. Those who had insurance, when they got sick, could go to the doctor. But the uninsured individual in need of emergency medical care was in the same position as the Cranicks. The difference, of course, is that a civilized society does not turn away a sick person in the emergency room because the person has no health insurance (of course, up until this week, I thought the same was true of every fire department).

Such people, in Beck's words, have been "sponging off" their neighbor's health insurance premiums. That essential problem with the old system is why the new health care law includes the requirement that people buy health insurance (government subsidized, if necessary), precisely the element of the law that Republican attorneys general all across the country are challenging in court.

Without that requirement, the logic that Beck applied to the Cranicks would kick in. When the uninsured person showed up in the emergency room, the doctors and nurses should do what those firefighters did: stand by and let nature take its course. If Beck thinks it is acceptable for government to require people to pay a fire protection surcharge or face the consequences, why not apply that same logic to the individual mandate? Given the Republican contempt for those who "sponge off" the system, you would think that they would be all for the individual mandate. Instead, they denounce it as unconstitutional socialist tyranny. So much for consistency.

One final note: obviously oblivious to the tremendous irony of it, when Beck spoke those callous words, there was a poster of Benjamin Franklin hanging on the wall behind him, and beneath Ben's face, the word "Charity." Part of Beck's schtick is that he presumes to be teaching the rest of us about American history, especially restoring to the American people the "real" founders. But if he really knew the first thing about Franklin, Beck would know that fire prevention was one of his favorite causes.

In 1734, Franklin recommended a system composed of a "Club or Society of active Men belonging to each Fire Engine; whose Business is to attend to all Fires with it whenever they happen." All fires, not some. And their compensation was "an Abatement or Exemption in the taxes." In other words, they were paid from public funds. Supplying the firefighters with "Buckets and Ladders" Franklin considered "a Duty incumbent upon all who can afford it." Putting out fires, he believed, was a public good, one that all should contribute to in some fashion, and one that those with greater means should support economically for the greater good.

If only Beck would take to heart this piece of advice offered by Franklin: "But such as can neither advise nor labour, should not stand in the Way of those who can, and are willing."

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Tax Debate

Below is a letter of mine that the Spartanburg Herald-Journal published today.  It captures my concerns about some of the subtle sleight of hand used in the current debate over extending current tax rates:

I agree with the Herald-Journal’s point that the failure of Congress to take a vote on extending the current tax rates was an example of political cowardice (“Votes not taken” editorial, Friday’s edition). But the rest of your presentation of the issue is misleading, at best.

First, you raise the specter of a tax increase for everyone and the prospect that an average family could see their taxes go up. You fail to note that no one — not Democrats in Congress, not Republicans in Congress, not President Barack Obama — is proposing that. In fact, the only way that outcome could possibly come about is if Republicans in the Senate filibuster to prevent the passage of any bill.

You also misrepresent the president’s proposal. You say it would allow tax cuts to “expire for those who make more” than $250,000. In fact, the first $250,000 of every single family’s income would continue to be taxed at the current rate. For those who make over that amount, the increased rate would apply only to the income over $250,000. In other words, if a family made $251,000, only $1,000 would be taxed at the new, higher rate. That means that this family’s tax bill would increase by perhaps $70 a year.

Lastly, you give a distorted presentation of the estate tax. “Should you be able to leave your money to your children ... ?” you ask. You do not note that in 2009, the first $3.5 million of any estate was exempted from any tax. How many of your readers will leave fortunes of more than that? A few, perhaps, but you suggest everyone would pay the estate tax, and that is simply not true.

I expect the Herald-Journal to champion the interests of the wealthiest Americans. But I also expect it to honestly present the facts when doing so.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Whigging Out? Christine O'Donnell v. Rand Paul

In my last post, I noted the similarities between the rhetoric of today's Tea Party and the Jacksonian Democrats of the 1830s and 1840s, while noting that some recent nominees claiming the Tea Party mantle, like Christine O'Donnell, complicate that picture. Many of the people who cast themselves in that role of Tea Party candidate don't always conform to the primarily fiscally conservative, small government positions of a Rand Paul. Candidates like O'Donnell who also adopt religiously informed policies not only break with the Jacksonian model, they expose the potential difficulty in turning the Tea Party into a coherent political force, and the problem that poses for the Republicans.

The Democratic Party's opposition in the 1830s and 1840s was the Whig Party.  Where the Democrats wanted small government, the Whigs favored an active federal government.   In their 1844 platform, they stated forthrightly their position: "The Whig party have always been distinguished from their opponents by the attribution of a beneficent and protective power to government."  Mostly, that meant their programs of a national bank and internal improvements (what we would call infrastructure).

There was another side to the Whigs, however.  They were also the party of religious evangelicals and moral reformers, and the followers of Jackson objected as much to that as to their economic program. Jackson biographer Robert Remini writes: "Democrats portrayed Whigs as bigoted and self-righteous religious fanatics intent on imposing their ethical values on others."

The Democrats, by contrast, were the party of what passed for "diversity" in those days. In the words of Daniel Walker Howe, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in History for What God Hath Wrought,  the Oxford History of the United States for the period 1815-1848 (who will also be the Lewis P. Jones Visiting Professor of History at Wofford College this coming spring), the Democrats "hoped America would remain culturally (that is, morally) heterogeneous, so that a variety of religious options could be exercised."

So a candidate like Christine O'Donnell, who made her name in religiously inspired organizations such as the Concerned Women for America, whose goal is to "bring Biblical principles into all levels of public policy" and SALT, the Savior's Alliance for Lifting the Truth, on some level more resembles a Whig than a Jacksonian.  O'Donnell has claimed that she has "heard the audible voice of God" guiding her politically, and she has a simple, black and white view of morality: "There's only truth and not truth.  You're either very good or evil."

Compare O'Donnell's record to Rand Paul's college exploits, involving marijuana use and worshipping the "Aqua Buddha."  While attending Baylor University, Paul allegedly belonged to a "'secret society' called the NoZe Brotherhood. The society was 'a refuge for atypical Baylor students' and enjoyed needling the school's administration and its piousness."  Can you get more pious than Christine O'Donnell?

Can we really call both of these people Tea Party candidates? Does the label mean anything coherent if it applies to both? Social and religious conservatives like O'Donnell dilute the economic message that Tea Party front men like Dick Armey want to emphasize in this election cycle, when the most important issue is the weak economy.  And libertarians like Rand Paul threaten to alienate the religious conservatives within the Republican Party.

The problem for the Republican Party is that it cannot afford to disown or alienate the religious wing that has been a key to its electoral successes at least since Ronald Reagan.  Reagan's two landslide victories in 1980 and 1984 forged a coalition of fiscal and religious conservatives which has never been entirely reconcilable since the Great Communicator left the political stage.  In the years since, the Republicans have been most successful when they have managed to bridge the gap between the two.  But that means tempering the extremes, and the Tea Party's greatest success this primary season has been to accentuate the extremes, giving us candidates such as O'Donnell and Paul.  The establishment did not choose either O'Donnell in Delaware and Paul in Kentucky, but the party is stuck with them.  If by chance they both wind up in the Senate, those unresolved tensions in the Republican Party may burst forth like never before.

Friday, October 1, 2010

New Hickory?

Look to the city of Washington and let the virtuous patriots of the country weep at the spectacle.  There corruption is springing into existence, and fast flourishing…. We are not as we once were; the people are slumbering at their posts; virtue is on the wane; and the republican principles with which we set out, are fast declining.

Sounds like Glenn Beck, doesn't it?  It's not.  It's a plea by John Eaton, a supporter of Andrew Jackson, urging voters to elevate the general to the presidency in 1824.

I've been thinking a lot about the proper historical analogy for the Tea Party, and I've been leaning lately toward the Jacksonian Democrats of the early to mid 19th century. (Though, as I plan to explore in a future post, the candidacy of Christine O'Donnell throws a monkey wrench into the comparison.  Previous posts on the Tea Party are here and here. )

The Tea Party, to the extent that it represents any coherent political philosophy, seems to be about a return to an idealized past, when Americans held to original constitutional principles, government was small, taxes were low, and freedom was unfettered.  They claim the Revolutionary generation as their inspiration.  That's quite similar to the ideology of the Democratic Party from the 1820s through the 1840s.

Compare the Tea Party to one Jacksonian's description of Democratic ideology: "[It] may be summed up in this brief formula.  As little government as possible; that little emanating from, and controlled by, the people."

The Jacksonian Democrats opposed both big government and big business, because they believed that any government action created privilege, and the wealthiest and most powerful would be the beneficiaries of all such government action. Thus, they thought, the government could best serve the cause of equality by doing as little as possible.

The Jacksonians championed, as every student of American history knows, "the common man."  They portrayed themselves as the regular people, rising up to regain control of their government from corrupt elites, and Jackson was their man:

He has drawn the just distinction between those classes of society that labor and those that do not; those that earn their living by the sweat of their brow and constitute the bone and muscle of the country, defending it in war and supporting it in peace, and those who live by interest in their stocks.

Supporters praised Jackson for his "devotion to the cause of liberty," for "stand[ing] aloof from all the contemptible intrigue … of the day."  He was the one who would reverse the "dangerous trends of the modern age" and "restore the cherished values of old."

But that isn't the only similarity to today's Tea Party.  Jackson and his supporters shared the conspiratorial, even paranoid, mindset of today's Tea Partiers.  As Jackson's biographer Robert Remini writes, Jackson spoke "incessantly about intrigue and corruption and fraud … he expressed the conspiracy in terms of an aristocracy seeking power to pursue their own selfish ends."

The irony is that while most Tea Partiers likely share that fear of wealthy elites (the opposition to "bailouts" is evidence enough of that), many of the organizations that are seizing the Tea Party brand are in fact funded by those same wealthy elites, people like the Koch brothers.  Candidates like Rand Paul may speak the libertarian lingo of the early 19th century, but in a modern economy, that 19th century ideology actual serves the economic elite, not the common man.

The late 19th century proved the inadequacy of the Jacksonian approach.  Left unregulated, big business amassed unparalleled, unchecked economic power.  Progressives like Theodore Roosevelt understood that only by using democratic government as a check on that economic power could liberty be preserved.

The New York State Democratic platform in 1844 stated: "It is the aristocracy of wealth we have to fear, and that is the only aristocracy from which danger is to be apprehended." In that pre-industrial age, the economic elites were pikers compared to today's billionaires, but the point remains.

Today it is only the regulatory structure and social safety net that progressives have built over the last century that keeps the aristocracy of wealth in check.  By supporting candidates who would undo that structure, candidates funded secretively by today's aristocracy of wealth, today's Tea Party supporters may well empower the very forces that the Jacksonians so adamantly opposed.