Friday, December 16, 2011
Decline of the True Believers
“On the whole, the show has been good, as such things go in the Republic … it has at least brought together a large gang of picturesque characters, and it has given everyone a clear view of (the party’s) candidates and its platform. The former certainly do not emerge from it with anything properly describable as an access of dignity.”
No more spot-on description of this year’s Republican presidential debates has been written, and what makes it all the more impressive is that it wasn’t written about them at all. The quote above was taken from H.L. Mencken’s reporting in the Baltimore Evening Sun of the 1948 Progressive Party convention in Philadelphia, which nominated Henry Wallace for president.
All of which illustrates the way American politics are constantly shifting. The parties themselves undergo complete reversals of policy at periodic intervals. Consider that in the half century from the beginning of Lincoln’s term to the end of Teddy Roosevelt’s, the Republicans were the party of progress and the Democrats were more conservative. Lincoln was a supporter of labor unions and a believer in a strong federal government that used its muscle to promote economic growth and equality. It was during his presidency that the Homestead Act, arguably the most socialistic piece of legislation in America’s history, was passed, giving 160 acres of land to any American willing to settle it and farm it for five years.
Beginning in 1896, with the candidacy of William Jennings Bryan, and culminating with the election of Woodrow Wilson in 1912, the Democrats became the more progressive party, and the Republicans more conservative at the same time. The election of FDR in 1932 drew the line clearly, and on the surface, it would appear to continue so to this day.
I say on the surface, because upon further reflection, it becomes obvious that the Republican Party of today has all but abandoned conservative principles. My Webster’s defines conservatism as “a political philosophy based on tradition and social stability, stressing established institutions and preferring gradual development to abrupt change.” That actually sounds quite a bit like today’s Democrats, whose biggest campaign promise is to protect Social Security and Medicare, which, until about a year ago, were considered established institutions.
Perhaps the biggest change in American party politics in the past two decades is that the True Believers today are more apt to be found in the Republican Party and on the political right, than among the Democrats and on the left. The modern-day equivalent of Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party — one that adheres to clear and consistent policies with no detours for circumstance, exigency or reality — is the Libertarians. The contemporary equivalent of a 1930s leftist panacea, such as Upton Sinclair’s Ham and Eggs campaign, would be Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 tax plan.
The growth of the True Believer mind-set has turned the contemporary Republican Party into a den of orthodoxy. At one debate, the candidates were asked if they would reject a plan that would balance the federal budget 90 percent by making cuts and 10 percent by raising taxes. Ronald Reagan would have jumped at that one. The eight Republican candidates all raised their hands in opposition. Even the Kremlin of old would have had the sense to put a dissenter or two into the mix, if only for appearance’s sake.
What it’s come down to is this: It used to be that the True Believers believed in a workers’ paradise, but somewhere along the way the socialist flame burned out. Today’s True Believers seem to believe in a taxpayers’ paradise and every man for himself. That’s supposed to be progress?