[This piece first appeared at Eternity Road on September 4, 2008. Considering the amount of hand-wringing going on about "who is to lead the GOP" in 2013 and beyond -- and the utter lack of reflection about who is really supposed to be sovereign in the United States -- it struck me as pertinent. -- FWP]
There is no greater divide in human society than that between those who think themselves innately superior, and those who do not.
If America suffers from any chronic sociological malady, it would be that an unacceptable number of persons are convinced that politics is the proper and exclusive preserve of professional politicians. The Founding Fathers knew better; indeed, their original design for the executive branch was aimed at thwarting the sort of factionalization that gives rise to a professional political class. Unfortunately, we were barely out of our national embryohood before aspiring power-mongers had undone the greater part of what they had achieved. See the Twelfth Amendment for the details.
In his early Hugo Award-winning novel Double Star, Robert A. Heinlein depicted a solar constitutional monarchy in which, strictly for form's sake, an incoming prime minister was required to submit his cabinet to the Emperor for approval. Of course, the monarch was not permitted to refuse the PM his choices, but it did give that worthy the opportunity to advise the soon-to-be head of state on some of the implications of his selections. A smart PM took the Emperor and his advice seriously; after all, being a hereditary occupant of a powerless throne, he was the only person involved in statecraft who had no inherent axe to grind over the course of the future.
Here we see the sole acceptable role a traditional hereditary aristocracy can play in a free society: as a conservator of well-proven values and virtues empowered to do nothing but talk about them. America, the most aggressively anti-aristocratic nation in the history of the world, has no equivalent to Heinlein's conception, but it might be better if she did. Quite a lot of politicians currently in circulation are unable to grasp their proper relation to the nation they govern. The emergence of a genuine aristocrat, a king by right in contrast to the sort of creature that preens himself for hanging on to public office for a decade or two, would make it plain.
Unfortunately, rightful monarchs -- persons entitled by their intrinsic merit to wield real power -- are very rare. In part, that's because kingship has nothing to do with wielding authority. It's about putting oneself on the line for justice. That's a mindset that can neither be bred nor trained; it arises from inclinations and conditions no one knows how to produce reliably. (See this novel for a fictional depiction of your Curmudgeon's meaning.) Given our inability to find or produce kings as we need them, we fall back on democracy.
Which brings us -- no doubt you were expecting this -- to the ongoing campaign for president and vice-president of these United States.
Three of the four contenders for our two national offices are members of the federal political Establishment, the American analogue to a traditional aristocracy. Consider:
- While in office, a federal politician is entitled to generous, if not limitless, use of federal monies and privileges for his own purposes.
- Once elected to federal office, a politician almost never leaves that status in any other way than death or retirement.
- Federal politicians maintain their stature primarily by "constituent service:" that is, rendering favors, owing to the power of office, to persons in the districts they represent. Those favors might involve money, non-monetary subventions, or permissions that have proved hard to obtain. This is not materially different from "king's grace:" the exertion of a monarch's power to set aside the law for the benefit of a favored subject.
- A federal politician is capable of wielding the power of the State against virtually anyone who dares to oppose him. Not all do, of course, but the possibility is always there, and anyone who thinks to take on a sitting federal executive or legislator has to be braced for the possibility.
- Federal politicians are invariably treated like aristocrats by our modern-day "heralds" and "bards:" the gentlemen of the press, and the enduring national broadcast media.
John McCain, Barack Obama, and Joseph Biden have all evinced the aristocratic attitude, As political insiders of the highest echelon, they could hardly be expected to behave otherwise. The fourth contestant in this year's power lottery, Sarah Palin, is of another kind -- and the national media have been unsparing about her lowly status.
What the media, and Palin's detractors generally, fail to grasp is that her middle-Americanness is what makes her so supremely energizing to the electorate. With every slander, with every rumor, the media and the Left actually increase Governor Palin's appeal to the American voter.
To call them "clueless" would be an insult to the honestly dimwitted. Consider the following whine from Sam Harris, a deep-dyed snob who disdains the 90% of the human race whose unverifiable, unfalsifiable convictions about the supernatural diverge from his unverifiable, unfalsifiable convictions about the supernatural:
Americans have an unhealthy desire to see average people promoted to positions of great authority. No one wants an average neurosurgeon or even an average carpenter, but when it comes time to vest a man or woman with more power and responsibility than any person has held in human history, Americans say they want a regular guy, someone just like themselves. President Bush kept his edge on the “Who would you like to have a beer with?” poll question in 2004, and won re-election.
This is one of the many points at which narcissism becomes indistinguishable from masochism. Let me put it plainly: If you want someone just like you to be president of the United States, or even vice president, you deserve whatever dysfunctional society you get. You deserve to be poor, to see the environment despoiled, to watch your children receive a fourth-rate education and to suffer as this country wages — and loses — both necessary and unnecessary wars.
McCain has so little respect for the presidency of the United States that he is willing to put the girl next door (soon, too, to be a grandma) into office beside him. He has so little respect for the average American voter that he thinks this reckless and cynical ploy will work.
(Your Curmudgeon was certain from his incredibly contemptuous books, The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, that Harris was a left-liberal. It's nice to know that some giveaways really can be relied upon.)
The crux of the 2008 presidential campaign was at one point thought to be about credible distance from the policies of the Bush Administration. While that conceit reigned, it appeared that Barack Obama held an indefeasible edge. But recently, the fulcrum was revealed to be elsewhere. Where, exactly, was unclear, but it had become plain Obama's substanceless harping upon generic "change" wasn't strumming voters' heartstrings as effectively as he'd hoped. John McCain, the most liberal Republican sitting in the United States Senate, didn't appear to be a significant obstacle to Obama's quest for the presidency; yet, Obama could not achieve a decisive-looking lead against the Old Guard Republican from Arizona.
With the emergence of Sarah Palin -- the "girl next door" Sam Harris has derided -- the entire picture has changed. Republican conservatives are energized, and the preponderance of non-aligned voters are leaning in the GOP's direction.
Your Curmudgeon is heartened, too -- not because he has a high opinion of John McCain's record, but because McCain's selection of Palin suggests that he realizes where his own political shortcomings lie. Still, there are a number of things to bear in mind about this new correlation of political forces:
- Many a voter who goes to the polls this November will be voting against -- and an "against" voter is seldom concerned with the lower half of the ticket.
- The national offices, while important, can be rendered impotent by voters' decisions about the Senate and the House of Representatives.
- Should the McCain / Palin ticket carry the day, liberal-centrist John McCain, not conservative Sarah Palin, will be President of the United States. The vice-presidency is a Constitutionally weak office. Only if McCain decides, out of internal impulses or good counsel, to take heed of his VP's opinions will she exert a conservative force on the new Administration.
In other words, there's a lot more to keep one's eye on than just the presidential race.
Your Curmudgeon would like to believe that McCain will be at the least attentive to his VP's opinions. But then, he'd like to believe that posterity will be agog over his software achievements and his political writing for many generations to come, too. Conservatives' tasks are to get the McCain / Palin ticket elected, to reverse recent Republican fortunes in our federal legislature, and then to make certain elected Republicans behave like Republicans, rather than like indifferently honest persons who find themselves unattended in a high-line jewelry store when the lights go out...with the safe open.
Like it or not, in these latter days of the Republic, when we vote a man into federal office we gift him with powers unchecked by any other agency. We manufacture elected aristocrats. You can ruin a man by giving him that sort of power and privilege, and many have been ruined by it in the scope of your Curmudgeon's recollection. It will fall to us to ensure that whoever attains power in Washington remains conscious of his subservience to Us the People, regardless of the airs he will assume, or the plaudits and kowtows our Old Media will surely shower upon them all.