Saturday, March 14, 2009


Every Friday morning before work I get together with three friends for coffee, talk (usually about politics), and a short Bible study. Friday before last the subject came up of how polarized the country is in comparison to the period, say, under Eisenhower. I put forth a thesis as to why this is, which I'll now repeat here. Some of these ideas were in response to an earlier discussion I had had with my wife--more about which later.

Our little group of four friends is made up of three Republicans and one Democrat; it was our Democrat friend who had made the point, in a somewhat lamenting tone, about the partisanship and polarization that defines the political character of the nation today. So with some equivocation (namely that I have not extensively researched my claim), my thesis goes something like this:

The popular depiction of the Republican party as comprised of rich white men who belong to country clubs hasn't been true for many decades, but in the Eisenhower period at least bore some resemblance to reality. At that point in American history the Democrat and Republican parties were ordered around class, Republican representing the investment class, Democrat representing the working class. But class has always been a fluid thing in America, defined more by income than lineage: one need not be born to higher class in America, but can transition to it through the acquisition of wealth, something most of us aspire to do. It's called the American dream. So Eisenhower's rise from the humble Quaker farm boy to Republican president through the vehicle of a brilliant military career wasn't held against him.

But something happened in the 1964 presidential campaign between Barry Goldwater and Lyndon Johnson. Goldwater became the focus around which a new American conservative movement would coalesce that would eventually lead to the transformation of the Republican party. William F. Buckley Jr. wrote brilliantly about this in a fictionalized account (which nevertheless featured all the real people involved) called Getting It Right.

Here's where my prior discussion with my wife comes in. Some months ago I began to attend a once-a-month gathering of listeners of Dennis Prager. After the latest of these gatherings my wife seemed to express some exasperation, after asking me what we had talked about, at my recount of our mourning over the nascent presidency of Barak Obama.

"Well, the majority voted for him, and that's just the way it is," she said.

"You've said the same sort of thing about other issues I'm upset about," I said. "Are you advocating that we just acquiesce--just shut up and take it?"

"No, but I'd like to know what you think you can do about it." she said.

So I told her this story of the origins of the American conservative movement as we know it today. Even though Goldwater failed miserably in his bid for the presidency, he did succeed in gathering together many disparate, and sometime mutually hostile, groups who had loosely fallen under the banner of "conservative." Among these were intellectuals and writers, some of whom wrote for Buckley's newly started magazine, National Review. These men and women, whether at cocktail parties held regularly in Buckley's New York apartment, or political meetings, began to talk to one another, to debate their ideas. They read each other's writing. And in that reading and writing and arguing they managed to redefine American conservatism as a centrist movement based on ideals of first principles, Judeo-Christian ethics, and the founding documents of the country. They managed to purge the movement of its most radical and toxic elements: The John Birchers, the isolationists, the Randian libertarians. By and large locked out of university academia, they started think tanks in which they could nurture a new generation of conservative intellectuals. Other conservative magazines were started, such as American Spectator, and the business of disseminating the ideas of conservatism in popular forms began.

An aside: there is nothing new about this pattern. The Protestant Reformation started the same way. Martin Luther's ideas were first confined to his students and other theologians. His 95 theses that he tacked to the door of the Wittenberg church were written in Latin. It was his students who became so exited by his ideas that they, without his permission, translated the theses into German, printed them by the thousands, and spread them all over the country.

This new American conservatism engendered tectonic changes in the two parties, the first, and the real focus of my premise, being that they became ordered around ideology rather than class. Ideology, being more rigid than class, I propose this lead to the more stringent and adversarial partisanship we now see.

But oddly enough, the ideology itself that had defined the parties began to change. Norman Podhoretz and Irving Kristol, both long time notorious liberal thinkers and writers, when they gradually became disillusioned with the failures of liberal foreign policy, emerged as two of the fathers of the neoconservative contingent and began to write for conservative publications. They and their cohorts had an important influence in moving the Republican party away from the isolationist foreign policy stance that had characterized it for so long. The Democrat party saw its own transformation in ideology perhaps beginning with the party convention in Chicago in 1968 and the nomination of George McGovern as presidential candidate, which from this point on, seemed to lead to a sharp leftward turn.

Another factor in the intense partisanship of today lies in the two parties aligning themselves on opposite sides of the most divisive issues in our culture today: abortion, marriage, immigration, and a number of other issues in which compromise is difficult if not impossible without abandoning personal core beliefs. It was not that long ago that pro-life Democratic politicians were common, yet now the pro-choice stance is a virtual litmus test for participation, even at the lowest level, in the Democrat party. I know personally a man who lost his seat as a precinct committee person (the absolute bottom level of elected office), a position he had held for years, simply because he was a pro-life Catholic and would not endorse the party line on abortion.

As for me, I am unapologetically partisan. If I am correct that partisanship is a function of ideology, then I hope that we always remain so divided, for the day we are willing to compromise our convictions for the sake of consensus will be a tragedy for this country, will perhaps spell the beginning of the end of the American enterprise.

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