The Whig Interpretation of Recent History

It is said that the earth’s magnetic field is about 10 percent weaker than it was when Carl Friedrich Gauss first measured it in 1845. At some point, the field will reverse poles and regenerate itself. Compasses will then point south.

This process, which will no doubt confuse migratory birds, may or may not be an example of intelligent design. But as a metaphor for the life of political parties, the magnetic field theory has some merit. As the issues and controversies which motivate the formation of a party inevitably fade, the party’s platform becomes hollow rodomontade, full of sound and fury signifying only jobs for the boys.

Once the causes which formed the party pass out of human memory, the rituals weaken to the point where, at some unrecorded instant, the ideological platform may actually reverse, with no one understanding why. Unlike the earth’s magnetic field, however, the party process is not necessarily a perpetuum mobile. Should the party no longer hold the allegiance of its followers, it collapses.

Examples of this tendency litter the detritus bin of history. The Whig Party of late 17th and early 18th century England consisted of a few score wealthy oligarchs and the commercial interests that supported them. Its central tenets were an unquenchable hatred of popery, Frenchmen, and Spaniards, and a seething inimicality towards its hapless Celtic wards in Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. So averse was the Whig Ascendancy to anything that smacked of Romanism that it imported an entire royal line from Hanover rather than take a chance on the Pope-addicted Stuarts.

Yet in time the Whigs became a more-or-less legitimate vehicle for expansion of the franchise, abolition of slavery and religious tests, home rule in Ireland, and do-goodism generally. By the early 20th century, English Whiggery (or the Liberal Party, as it then styled itself) had a radical strain which would appear positively Bolshevik today. Its Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George (a Welsh Methodist leading the successor party to the Whig Ascendancy was in itself a novel reversal) offered a budget whose confiscatory inheritance taxes would probably strike the Hon. Cynthia McKinney as too radical.

Yet the contradictions between its platform and its lingering cultural inheritance of confessional politics doomed Liberal Whiggery during the great crisis of World War I. Caught between an authentic, blood-and-guts nationalist Conservative Party and a Labour Party that seemed (then) to more genuinely represent the interests of the working man, the Liberals shrank into a debating society of 19th century holdovers.

Let us move to a more contemporary example of platform reversal in the form of the Republican Party of the United States. Born amid the uproar of abolitionism, Transcendental kookery, and industrial expansion, the Republican Party had a definite and comprehensible platform.

Whatever the humanitarian motivation of some of its early abolitionist adherents, the Republicans were driven by a far more practical appreciation of the slavery issue. Lincoln understood that the spread of chattel slavery was a dagger pointed at the heart of free labor, of commercial development, and of the prospect that the United States would ever shed its industrial and financial dependence on Great Britain. Keep Britain (or proto-fascist France under Louis Napoleon) out of the Western Hemisphere, was Lincoln’s strategy both to end the slavocracy and to avert a Balkanized United States.

Slavery meant a debt-service economy; the Southern planters were as beholden to the City of London as Argentina is to Wall Street today. While the North and the South had similar per capita wealth, south of the Mason-Dixon Line it was overwhelmingly concentrated in the planter class. Non-slaveholding Southern whites had only half the income of their Northern counterparts. Antebellum travelers such as de Tocqueville noted that to cross the Ohio River was to regress in time. Common schools, funded by the community as a sensible measure of human improvement, were as rare in Dixie as shoes.

The twin planks in the Republican platform, the tariff and exclusion of slavery from the territories, were two sides of the same coin. Strangling the slavocracy meant opposition to British finance imperialism. On the other hand, had the South maintained control of the executive, Congress, and the Supreme Court, territorial expansion would likely have moved south, into Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America, rather than west. By 1890, America might have more nearly resembled King Leopold’s Congo or Queen Vicky’s India than an industrial power.

The blue-coated line held at Little Round Top, and the reader knows the rest of the story. But what became of the party that professed to believe in internal development, constitutional liberties, the protective tariff, suspicion of international power politics, and support for the yeoman farmer and independent businessman?

The magnetic field appears to have reversed. The Grand Old Party is now the premier exponent of “free trade” (actually a kind of reverse mercantilism whereby financiers profit from gutting industry) [1]. Like their polar opposites of 1860, the Republicans have fervently embraced equatorial imperialism, substituting the oil-bearing strata of the Middle East for the Sugar Islands of the Caribbean.

Similarly long gone are the old nativist-isolationist suspicions of foreign entanglement. Perfidious Albion of yore receives far more solicitude from the Presidential Palace than, say, large tracts of the United States proper. [2]

The voter base of the GOP has likewise inverted. Formerly a party of the middling sort of Mainline Protestant shopkeepers, farmers, clerks, and Rotarians in the Northeast and Midwest (the latter being the infamous Jell-O Salad Belt), the Republicans have latterly made their greatest electoral gains in the Old Confederacy, the territory of their old mortal slavocratic nemesis. Find a vocal exponent of the Lost Cause, and nine chances in ten he votes for the party of Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman. The military of the former Yankee invader is now the object of considerable reverence by the denizens of the South, as well as a popular career track. Robert LaFollette, make way for NASCAR, the Reverend Moon, and the Baghdad airport road.

The United States under Republican control is now the world’s leading example of a debt-service economy. It is as if the nostrums of John C. Calhoun and Jefferson Davis took possession of the GOP in the manner of demons possessing a soul. During the last five years’ reign of the incumbent president, the national debt has almost doubled.

The dignity of free labor, once a pillar of Lincoln’s program, has given way to a more sophisticated version of the plantation system: a rootless, global system of downward wage arbitrage. Just as the shoeless antebellum Poor White Trash was conditioned to hate the slave rather than the slave system which reduced him to penury, so has the modern equivalent been propagandized by talk radio to blame foreign labor, or immigrant labor, or homosexual marriage, or stem cell research, or evolution, or the next bugaboo, rather than the system which arbitrages labor. The capacity for abstract thought is not a defining mark of the present age.

When Elisha Hunt Rhodes and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain tramped over the country whose constitutional principles they defended, theirs was an inward-looking, defensive patriotism. Patriotism, an attachment to a locality and its folkways, and a desire that one’s children be brought up in the same mental atmosphere, has given way, particularly under the Republican Party, to aggressive nationalism, which is the opposite of patriotism.

Nationalists, who seem to have found a home in the Republican Party, have very little knowledge or appreciation of the country, its traditions, or the essential inwardness of most of its people. For that very reason the most hyperbolic form of nationalism, neoconservatism, typically infects persons, like the Wall Street Journal’s Max Boot, who have only the most tenuous connections to the physical United States. In their rootless, cosmopolitan way, these vagabonds have battened onto the United States in the same manner that foreign communists once made their hajj to Moscow. They may even be the same people as those moldering communists, or their offspring. Where an American’s eye might glimpse the Adirondacks, or Sioux Falls, or Oshkosh, or the Father of Waters flowing unvexed to the sea, the neoconservative sees only the shimmering mirage of Imperial Rome.

Thus the Republican Party, anno 2005. In line with the manufactured Zeitgeist, the party elders have introduced a new catechism to snare the booboisie. Who would have thought the party of Charles Francis Adams and Thomas Alva Edison would declare war on science? Yet from stem cell research to evolution, from climate change to sociology, the Grand Old Party shows a cast of mind more appropriate to sour Wahhabite fanatics of the Arabian Peninsula than enlightened adults.

But this catechism, given the natural human tropism to regress to the level of the lower phyla, is undeniably popular. Similarly popular in the dark areas off the state highways is the idea of torture. Since the abolition of the Star Chamber, Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence has uniformly condemned torture, and with good reason. It is a reversion to the Stone Age. Its practitioners, and those who authorize it, are, without exception, sadistic scoundrels unfit for civilized company. Its absolute prohibition is the firewall between decent society and savagery.

Yet somehow, the GOP has tapped into the growing vicarious sadism of a large segment of the TV-addicted public. Perhaps it is the softness of modern life, with few thrills and little danger or physical strain, that allows people to imagine torture as yet another television play where the good guys win. A little assistance from Rupert Murdoch’s thinly disguised advocacy pieces for torture, like 24, is all it takes.

It is hardly coincidental that a political organization which shuns science would embrace torture. Ultimately, the contradictions may prove fatal: at some point, no one will be able to build the atomic bombs necessary to keeping an angry world sufficiently intimidated. But we would not bet that the Republican Party, having reversed all its founding tenets, will collapse anytime soon: after all, une idée fausse, mais claire et précise, aura toujours plus de puissance dans le monde qu’une idée vraie, mais complexe. This brings us to the other stooge in the great American dumb-show, the Democratic Party.

The Democracy began, as the GOP has presently evolved, with une idée fausse, mais claire et précis. That idea was the defense of slavery, wrapped up in mumbo-jumbo of States’ rights. [3] So strong were the Democrats that even being on the losing end of a bloody civil war did not extinguish the party; indeed, the party was competitive in the North during the Civil War, and even picked up Congressional seats in the “butternut” regions of the Ohio Valley in 1862.

Despite the charges of “rum, Romanism, and rebellion,” the party of Jefferson managed to avoid oblivion in the post-bellum years. As early as the 1870s, it could return a majority to Congress, and in the turbulent 1880s, even a president in the massive form of Grover Cleveland (who, in H.L. Mencken’s words, “sailed through American history like a steel ship loaded with monoliths of granite”–a journey made undoubtedly easier by the Gold Democrat Cleveland’s fealty to the House of Morgan).

After an ill-fated flirtation with the populism of William Jennings Bryan [4] The Democratic Party reverted to upstanding corporate lawyers of the stamp of Alton B. Parker and John W. Davis. The Democrats actually grasped the brass ring in the constipated form of Princeton pedagogue Thomas Woodrow Wilson. His interpretation of “The New Freedom” consisted of segregating the federal workforce, debuting Birth of a Nation in a White House screening, piling up 115,000 Yank corpses on the Western Front, imposing prohibition, and imprisoning his political opponents for terms of up to ten years. [5]

How was it, then, that a collection of reactionary Bourbons later came, during the Great Depression, to represent (even if in dream more than in reality) the aspirations of the Common Man? Perhaps it is once again the mystery of force field flipping. Similarly, it is one of the supreme ironies of history that the party of slavocracy forced the most comprehensive civil rights laws since Reconstruction through the legislative meat grinder in 1964 and 1965.

Did the Democrats become a radical egalitarian party? Not exactly. The party has reversed force fields again, becoming a creature of the Democratic Leadership Council. This organization apparently aspires to be junior partners with the Republican Ascendancy, and for good and sufficient reason. It’s not about America, it’s about Israel, the Great Britain of the 21st century.

The DLC was–and is–a creature of New York high roller Michael Steinhardt, son of Sol Steinhardt, a jewel fence for the Meyer Lansky mob. Like most of organized crime, Steinhardt fils decided to go upmarket and merge with Wall Street. His millions created the Hon. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT).

Steinhardt is also notable for his loose interpretation of the law of possession. In the early 1990s, he attempted to corner the market on Treasury securities, an audacious strategy which resulted in his having to pay $70 million in civil penalties to the Securities and Exchange Commission–a record fine at the time. Weep not for Steinhardt, though: he made $600 million from the scam.

Steinhardt, a certifiable pro-Israel fanatic, guarantees that the Democrats will not offer a genuine political alternative to the neoconservative-dominated Republicans. Should anyone wonder why the putatively limp-wristed Democrats vote for war in Iraq and for fiscally irresponsible military budgets, Steinhardt (and his AIPAC-connected confreres) offer a rationale: should Democratic Backbencher X vote against the next war in the Middle East or against the next Pentagon boondoggle, he will have shown himself insufficiently ready to protect Israel. Such transgressions must not go unpunished.

Hence the tortuous fakery of the current proceedings in Washington. The alleged opposition party’s candidate in 2004 declared that Iraq was a mistake that required 30,000 more troops. Hence the Hon. Joseph Biden’s aneurystic outbursts at the administration’s incompetent manner of prosecuting a war he voted to wage. Hence Madame Hillary’s cosponsorship of a bill to increase the size of the army. Hence the party’s decision to run away from the Hon. John Murtha, a Marine veteran who said enough is enough.

Hence the asinine charade of the vote of 18 November in relation to H. Res. 571, expressing the sense of the House of Representatives “that the deployment of United States forces in Iraq [should] be terminated immediately.” The Democrats had the strategic option of voting “present” if they thought the question was rigged. But under the leadership of the Hon. Nancy Pelosi, who is terrified of the Lobby, the overwhelming majority of Democrats joined Republicans in voting no. [6]

What does this remind us of? The Democrats’ pirouettes and tergiversations harken back to another failed party, the Whigs. No, not the English Whigs, who enjoyed a two-century run. A model for failure fully equal to the Democratic Party is the short, unhappy life of the American Whig Party. Formed in reaction to the exuberant (not to say unconstitutional) policies of Andrew Jackson, the Whigs met all issues by straddling them.

Faced with the Mexican War which many of them viscerally opposed, the Whigs reacted by nominating generals like William Henry Harrison and Winfield Scott. Does this remind us of the candidacy of Wesley Clark and the absurdly militaristic display of the 2004 convention?

Faced with the slavery issue, the Whigs resolutely decided not to decide. Some Northern Whigs opposed slavery, while other Northern “Cotton Whigs” attempted to profit from the South’s agricultural output. Southern Whigs pretended not to notice the Peculiar Institution existed at all.

And so, caught between Democratic pro-slavery fire-eaters and the Free Soil insurgency (soon to become the Republican Party), the Whigs faded into oblivion. They were not bad people: the Philadelphia industrialists and border state centrists who constituted its base sought compromise and conciliation. Slavery was an embarrassment that one might ignore out of existence.

War and slavery are great evils. The Whig Party attempted to compromise on a matter of utmost principle, and paid the price. The Democratic Party of 2005, as bereft of principles as it is of strategy, could suffer an even worse fate: it will not disappear, but linger on for decades, playing its assigned role as a tolerated opposition party so as to maintain the illusion of democratic participation.

WERTHER is the pen name of a Northern Virginia-based defense analyst.

[1] The author’s recent tour of the Midwest, once the boast and pride of industrial America, uncovered a landscape of squalor unequalled except in the more putrid parts of post-industrial England and asset-stripped Russia.

[2] American Dynasty, Kevin Phillips’s perceptive laparotomy of the Bush clan, posits that Bush pere et fils, themselves distantly related to English monarchs, have attempted to construct an English-style oligarchy on the erstwhile constitutional republican soil of the United States.

[3] The fact that the Supreme Court’s ruling in DRED SCOTT, PLAINTIFF IN ERROR, v. JOHN FA SANDFORD. December Term, 1856, and the various fugitive slave statutes derived therefrom, completely invalidated States’ rights principles did not trouble the Old Democracy.

[4] As a point of personal privilege, it is now in order to respond to Counterpunch editor Alexander Cockburn’s broadside against an earlier discussion of Bryan’s personal qualities . Perhaps reader Fahey and editor Cockburn overreacted in objecting to our inclusion of William Jennings Bryan in an omnium gatherum of political evangelicals. First, we previously gave respectful consideration to Bryan’s populist tendencies in an earlier piece, “The Peckerwood Pericles,” a fricasseeing of the Hon. Zell Miller, wherein the author stated, “as candidate for president [Bryan] held economic views that today, a century later, Sean Hannity would denounce as socialist.”

That said, it is far from clear whether Bryan opposed evolution based on a progressive ethical revulsion against Social Darwinism (including the eugenics movement, which itself was “progressive,” at the time, cf., Margaret Sanger); or, more likely, he was simply reacting on the basis of his evangelical religious dogma.

The late, great Walter Karp has suggested that Bryan was less a progressive leader than something of a red herring. The Democrats chose him in the 1896 convention more for his ability to split (and destroy) the burgeoning Progressive Party than for his potential to beat the heavily-funded McKinley, according to Karp. Bryan’s free-silver platform made a riveting nomination speech, but was just one in a long American tradition of monetary panaceas proposed by cranks.

It also bears mentioning that it was Southern and Midwestern-based Bryanite Methodism and Baptism which battened on the American people the all-time worst Constitutional amendment and the worst law since the Fugitive Slave Act. Those readers of Counterpunch who wonder at the manifest imbecility of the Federal government’s “war” on drugs can hardly be fans of the Volstead Act. That is one of the legacies of the movement Bryan brought into being.

Accordingly, Bryan’s role in American politics is far more muddled and ambiguous than Ms.Fahey and Mr. Cockburn suggested. WERTHER would stipulate that Bryan had redeeming qualities. To say that it is inappropriate to compare him to the current crop of politico-religious demagogues (a reasonable point if properly qualified), only shows how far the republic has slid.

[5] Pursuant to the Espionage Act of 1917 (18 U.S.C., Secs. 793, 794). While Wilson’s Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer, has been saddled with the dubious credit for the governmental 18 Brumaire, Wilson was in fact the guiding light and inspirer of the oppression.

[6] The Republicans only scheduled the vote because some alert staffer noticed that Ms. Pelosi had cancelled a press conference in support of Mr. Murtha earlier the same day. Someone had apparently sensed that the Democratic leadership was not supporting Murtha, and accordingly put a resolution on the House calendar designed to drive a wedge between Murtha and Democrats beholden to Israel.