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Thornton Hall

The Revolution Will Be Kuhnian.

A Tiny Bit of History is All it Takes: The Redcoats have returned!

As far as I can tell, the only writer who is even close to accurately describing the current meltdown of constitutional government being instigated by elements within the GOP is Jonathan Chait. He, at least, is trying to take a step back and think about party politics in a logical space where not every political party functions in the same manner.  But even Jon Chait seems to have missed the answer right under his nose.

Just by chance I happened to look up "political party" in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.[1] There are two or three sentences in the entry that clear up all confusion about what is currently happening. But there is some background to cover, first.

Proto-Parties: England from the Magna Carta to King George III

The early history of American politics is actually relatively recent English history, so that's where we look to find out if our current situation has any precedent. Politics, as we inherited it from England, was not something that most people participated in. At the very beginning of constitutional government in 1215, every single political actor could be captured in a snapshot--it was literally a circle of nobles surrounding King John telling him to sign Magna Carta or else!

By the time we get to the lead up to the American Revolution, participation in the British political system had grown, but not by much. Politics was restricted to two groups of men: the aristocracy--rural landowners with noble titles--and the growing merchant class or "bourgeoisie".

It was the arrival of this second group and their natural desire to acheive the same status as the aristocracy that led to the development of political parties. King George was not about to grant titles to a pack of candlestick-makers and slavery financiers. Instead, this small, fairly elite, rather rich, group of men seized on the the writings of John Locke and the rhetorical power of "equality" in developing an ideology of the "left" suited for their struggle with the titled aristocracy. In context, "equality" referred to the aristocrats and the bourgeois, but the language used was universal.

For the "right", all prior struggles for power had been martial conflicts between the aristocracy and the Crown. Prior to the rise of the bourgeoisie  the only political disputes that had any ideological content were about religious dogma. There is no theory behind the proposition: I want my cousin to be King. Thus, the ideology of English noblemen only came into existence because of the need justify their power vis a vis the bourgeoisie and was not characterized by internal coherence. Instead, the content of "conservative" ideology was generated on an "as needed" basis to refute either the general "equality" rhetoric of the left or the specific attacks on the various bastions of aristocratic privilege ensconced in the law, the church, the system of education, the world of sports, etc.

Taken together, the specific institutions, traditions, structures and hierarchies that conservatives hoped to defend were not obviously connected in an intellectually coherent way. This was a weakness compared to liberal ideology, where specific policy choices could be logically derived--and therefore logically defended--from the starting point of equality. But, with God, all things are possible. The ad hoc philosophy of the right became the ideology of "conservatism" by employing a simple unifying premise: existing institutions, hierarchies, and power structures are the will of God. Conservatives can therefore defend their specific policy preferences resort to a single principle: the divine right of kings. Whereas liberal policy choices follow logically from equality, conservative choices follow historically from God's will.

Ideological Spilt Between Parties in UK: how does that play out here?

That's the background: at the time of the American Revolution, there were two political parties with two different ideologies: conservative aristocrats on the right and liberal bourgeoisie on the left. Did these ideologies transfer to the Federalists and Anti-Federalists? Did the American political system, as envisioned by Hamilton and Madison, and as put into practice by Washington and Marshall (Supreme Court), develop to reconcile two political ideologies into one functioning pluralistic country? No. And that's the problem.

Everything explained: 

The first U.S. form of the struggle between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, between conservative and liberal, was carried out in the form of the Revolutionary War, in which Great Britain embodied the power of the king and the nobility, the insurgents that of the bourgeoisie and liberalism... [T]he United States was from the beginning an essentially bourgeois civilization based on a deep sense of equality and of individual freedom. 

As a result, American political parties represented different interests and often opposed each other, but they, 

all belonged to the same liberal family since all shared the same basic ideology and the same system of fundamental values and differed only in the means by which they would realize their beliefs.

What's wrong with the GOP? Easy. The last sentence is no longer a true description of political parties in the United States because elements of the GOP have taken up the ideology that we defeated in the American Revolution: 18th Century Tory-ism. There are still burn marks in the White House from the last time they were here!


1. Wikipedia is absolutely useless on the subject. Remind me to point out that Wikipedia is a great example of the economic waste created by "non-profits". Meanwhile, the entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica (for which I pay a fee) is authored by the guy who literally wrote the book on political parties, Maurice Duverger. 

John Boehner, Eric Cantor, Mitch McConnell, and others.

John Boehner, Eric Cantor, Mitch McConnell, and others.

Shut up about the private sector vs government for just two seconds, please.

The Emotional Center of Gravity: Another Self Portrait