The Devolution of American Politics from Wisdom to Opportunism

The canonization of Ted Kennedy by the American left and its “moderate” dupes — in spite of Kennedy’s tawdry, criminal past — reminds me of the impeachment trial of William Jefferson Clinton. Clinton’s defense attorney Cheryl Mills said this toward the end of her summation:

[T]his president’s record on civil rights, on women’s rights, on all of our rights is unimpeachable.

In other words, Clinton could lie under oath and obstruct justice because his predatory behavior toward particular women and the criminal acts they led to were excused by his being on the “right side” on the general issue of “women’s rights.” That makes as much sense as allowing a murderer to go free because he believes in capital punishment.

The purpose of this post, however, isn’t to explore the depths of leftist hypocrisy. There is plenty of hypocrisy to go around, and it isn’t found only on the left — just mostly, it seems.

What I want to explore here is the question of “character” and its bearing on governance. I begin with the late James David Barber who, in Presidential Character: Predicting Performance in the White House, looks at America’s presidents through the lens of personality. Barber concocts four broad types:

“active-positive” (high self-esteem, flexible, goal-oriented), “active-negative” (compulsive, power-seeking), “passive-positive” (genial and agreeable but easily wounded) and “passive-negative” (dutiful, withdrawing from political fights).

Barber writes engagingly and almost convincingly, until you understand that what he offers is simplistic, rear-view-mirror nonsense that happens to justify his political preferences.

Barber prefers “active-positive” presidents. Which is to say that Barber, like most liberal-arts academicians, favors “active” presidents — presidents who seek to expand the powers of the presidency and the government beyond their constitutional bounds — as long as their temperaments are “positive” (think FDR and Truman), as opposed to “negative” (think Wilson and Nixon).

Calvin Coolidge, on the other hand, is one of Barber’s “passive-negative” presidents, “sullen and withdrawn, viewing the office as a burden.” Coolidge, though taciturn, was not a sullen person, and he viewed the presidency as a constitutional trust, not a license to reshape the nation and its political institutions to his own liking. As I have said (here and here), Coolidge was

Harding’s dignified, reticent successor. Had Coolidge chosen to run for re-election in 1928 he probably would have won. And if he had won, his inbred conservatism probably would have kept him from trying to “cure” the recession that began in 1929. Thus, we might not have had the Great Depression, FDR, the New Deal, etc., etc., etc.

*     *     *

Coolidge was known as “Silent Cal” because he was a man of few words. He said only what was necessary for him to say, and he meant what he said. That was in keeping with his approach to the presidency. He was not the “activist” that reporters and historians like to see in the presidency; he simply did the job required of him by the Constitution, which was to execute the laws of the United States.

The contrast between “active-positive” and “passive-negative” points to the real “character issue” in politics: the distinction between opportunistic politicians and wise ones. (Contrast adj. 1 here with adj. 1 here.)

An opportunistic politician disregards or is ignorant of the wisdom embedded in social norms and the laws that derive from them. An opportunistic politician is enamored of change (for change’s sake) — regardless of its costs or consequences — as long as it yields popularity, votes, and power. An opportunistic politician, all rhetoric to the contrary, cares for and caters to only to those who bestow popularity, votes, and power. An opportunistic politician — with the help of dupes in the media, academia, and “progressive” circles — successfully masks his essential ruthlessness behind a reputation for “compassion” and “service.”

A wise politician understands that the first and only duty of government is to defend the negative rights of citizens:

  • freedom from force and fraud (including the right of self-defense against force)
  • property ownership (including the right of first possession)
  • freedom of contract (including contracting to employ/be employed)
  • freedom of association and movement
  • restitution or compensation for violations of the foregoing rights.

A wise politician understands how easily government intervention can rend the painstakingly woven fabric of custom — without which humans could not coexist in peace and prosperity — and will seek intervention only where custom tramples negative rights.

Among the most opportunistic politicians of our era have been Bill Clinton and Ted Kennedy, but they merely stand out from their peers as being more opportunistic than most. Their spiritual forbears include George Wallace, (who played the race card of a different suit), Huey Long, and the two Roosevelts.

The ranks of wise American politicians (and presidents) are led by George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Is it fair to contrast Clinton, Kennedy, and their ilk with Washington and Lincoln? Why not? Washington and Lincoln were made of flesh and blood; they were not perfect as men or presidents. But they rose above their imperfections instead of succumbing to them. They respected humanity and — instead of trying to dominate it — sought to protect it from the arbitrary actions of government. Thus Washington fought British tyranny and resisted its replication on our shores; Lincoln crushed the evil that was slavery, rather than accommodate it.

Our historical distance from the likes of Washington and Lincoln should not lead us to assume that their kind is no longer to be found. It is just that their kind is far less likely to be found in politics these days, the currency of politics having been debased as America has spiraled downward into statism:

As people become accustomed to a certain level of state action, they take that level as a given. Those who question it are labeled “radical thinkers” and “out of the mainstream.” The “mainstream” — having taken it for granted that the state should “do something” — argues mainly about how much more it should do and how it should do it, with cost as an afterthought.

Perhaps the best metaphor for our quandary is the death spiral. Reliance on the state creates more problems than it solves. But, having become accustomed to relying on the state, the polity relies on the state to deal with the problems caused by its previous decisions to rely on the state. That only makes matters worse, which leads to further reliance on the state, etc., etc. etc.

More specifically, unleashing the power of the state to deal with matters best left to private action diminishes the ability of private actors to deal with problems and to make progress, thereby fostering the false perception that state action is inherently superior. At the same time, the accretion of power by the state creates dependencies and constituencies, leading to support for state action in the service of particular interests. Coalitions of such interests resist efforts to diminish state action and support efforts to increase it. Thus the death spiral.

The opportunistic politician — seeking popularity, votes, and power — hastens our descent; the wise one tries to reverse it. Which brings me back to Calvin Coolidge . . . and to his only (somewhat effective) counterpart in recent history: Ronald Reagan.

Coolidge’s presidency, as noted above, earned us a respite from the depradations of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, but fate intervened, in the form of the Great Depression, panic, and the opportunism of FDR.

Reagan’s presidency was more a glimmer of hope than a respite. And the glimmer of hope has been extinguished by mediocrity (Bush I), opportunism (Clinton), mediocrity (Bush II), and opportunism (BHO).

It is my belief (and fear) that wisdom can be restored to American politics only by a major crisis, one which can be blamed unambiguously on the machinations of opportunistic politicians.