One of America’s top political scientists, Angelo Codevilla, strikes again. The first time you may remember was in 2010 when his long essay on America’s elitist “Ruling Class” was turned into a book and promoted by Rush Limbaugh. You could call that viral. Now, he has spring-boarded off the Kavanaugh hearing/circus to argue the elites are now irreversibly desperate and in full fang and claw.
This new essay has been designated a must-read. It strikes the tone of other essays I’ve seen which indicate this is a turning point much for the worse. It argues that with the Kavanaugh hearings, we have witnessed a point-of-no-return in incivility, desperation, lawless rhetoric, and lawlessness in letting ends justify means—the means being the total solidification of the power of the ruling class. With this event, it is argued, the ruling class shows its utter disdain for the opinion or will of the people, or law, or anything else except its power and agenda.
Again, I have heard others make similar points. This is a time of unprecedented polarization, entrenched demonization of the other side, and a turning point in violating every boundary of civility in achieving ones ends.
This is truly a fine and important essay, but I must check it on a few key points. First, with utmost respect, I think it sounds a bit naïve in places. As a part of this fault, the piece also lacks an important consistency. Second, the turning point he describes is not unparalleled. It is not new. Third, the outlook is not nearly as inevitable or pessimistic as the impression most will glean from the article. It is, however, the prevailing view, I think, among conservatives.
All of this needs to change. Toward making the case for that, I will offer select commentary on Codevilla’s great work.
Inconsistency looks like naivete
Codevilla’s piece begins with nugget for the ages. I mean, this paragraph was to me like the Star Spangled Banner climax at “land of the freeeeeee!” with the fireworks and everything, only in a non-statist, truly bipartisan-critical way. Here:
The 2008 financial crisis sparked an incipient revolution. Previously, Americans dissatisfied with their Progressive rulers had imagined that voting for Republicans might counter them. But then, as three-fourths of Americans opposed bailing out big banks with nearly a trillion dollars, the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates joined; most Republican legislators joined all Democrats; The Wall Street Journal joined The New York Times, and National Review joined The Nation; in telling Americans that doing this was essential, and that their disapproval counted for nothing. And then, just as high-handedly, all these bipartisan rulers dropped that bailout scheme, and adopted another—just as unaccountably. They showed “government by the people, for the people” to be a fable.
This forced the recognition that there exists a remarkably uniform, bipartisan, Progressive ruling class; that it includes, most of the bureaucracies of federal and state governments, the judiciary, the educational establishment, the media, as well as major corporate officials; that it had separated itself socially, morally, and politically from the rest of society, whose commanding heights it monopolized; above all that it has contempt for the rest of America, and that ordinary Americans have no means of persuading this class of anything, because they don’t count.
Wow! Yes, and Amen! Been saying that for a while, a long time. It is the spirit in which I wrote most of what I’ve written. God vs. Socialism and Restoring America are built with this presupposition.
Had Codevilla made this principled critique, cutting across all parties and all their social-institutional expressions, the baseline for the rest of his piece, I would have fallen over myself trying to get the rights to reprint it. But it does not appear to me that he did.
To be fair, he does strike similar notes frequently. Also, however, he more generally moves from critiquing a bi-partisan elitism problem to a system where “elite” refers to leftist Progressives, Democrats, and the leftist media over against Republicans. The rise of Trump is then seen as an expression of the revolt against the ruling class, but there is little analysis of how he in many ways is just as much a part of it and works with the Republican side of it; also, how he has fueled much of the polarized-hostility problem to which Codevilla is reacting. Trump’s a symptom and a cause both.
I see hesitance on Codevilla’s part much to emphasize the causal side. That does not comport with the amazingly insightful paragraphs above. Perhaps Codevilla is unaware that Trump himself supported the 2008 bank bailouts.
This type of inconsistency, which occurs throughout the piece, detracts from this opening insight, and makes the rest of the piece look partisan and best, or even naïve. I don’t think Codevilla is naïve in the least bit. I think there are some other forces at work, but don’t know what they may be.
And again, to be fair, he does highlight Trump’s compliance:
President Trump has found it easier to proclaim victories over middle America’s enemies than to achieve them. Often, he has simply protested the bipartisan ruling class’s continued rule while acquiescing in it, as he did on March 23, 2018 when signing the $1.3 trillion omnibus bill that continued financing every Progressive group, and increased funding for all of the ruling class’s priorities; and as he did on September 17, 2017 when he signed the Joint Congressional Resolution that urged all U.S agencies to combat “hate speech”—and defined it in such a way as to accuse his supporters of it. . . .
Trump’s rousing speeches feed the body politic as empty calories feed the human body. Bluster followed by surrender has political legs both short and shaky. Trump’s tone has lifted his constituencies’ expectations. But tone does not give substance to public opinion, poses but a flimsy barrier to the ruling class’s concerted power, and does not begin to satisfy constituencies threatened by the ruling class machine that came of age in the anti-Kavanaugh campaign.
The problem is that this recognition simply does not connect and form the backbone of his piece the way it should. That backbone instead is formed by that latter note, that this machine just “came of age” in the Kavanaugh debacle. And that note is simply incorrect.
The incivility is nothing new
The sustained idea, repeated by many other conservative writers, that we have somehow reached a major turning point in polarized rhetoric and reckless abandon, simply is not the fact.
Codevilla suggests that the old American Republic is now gone. It is over. As he puts it in his conclusion:
Unattainable, and gone forever, is the whole American Republic that had existed for some 200 years after 1776. The people and the habits of heart and mind that had made it possible are no longer a majority. Progressives made America a different nation by rejecting those habits and those traditions. As of today, they would use all their powers to prevent others from living in the manner of the Republic.
Others have opined similarly, that “every single thing” is now different because leftists want to crush us instead of have any civil discussion. I hear talk on mainstream news that after the Kavanaugh hearings, the Supreme Court will never be seen as “neutral” again, but “political.”
None of this is historically informed. Taking the last point first: the courts (plural) have always been political. Always. Even our most outspoken originalist, strict constructionist justices and judges have all had some political bent and interpreted the law accordingly, and they have always been a minority on the benches.
Our first truly landmark case was Marbury v. Madison. The very cause of that case began with the previous administration trying to stack the courts with justices of the peace favorable to its political point of view, and the incoming administration trying to prevent the confirmation of those justices. Marshall used the case to establish the Supreme Court forever as a political power.
Jefferson, the political opponent, was complaining about the partisanship in that case in his letters twenty years later.
Every landmark case since then, and throughout the whole time has been political. Dred Scott, 1857, was massive political tomfoolery. In that case, the proslavery Democrats were avowed strict constructionists on the Constitution and Republic. They rammed their political views down the throat of all America despite their constitutionalism.
FDR tried to stack the court with additional justices to get his favored legislation passed. Only the retirement of several prevented that, and the result was still the continued politicization of the Court.
People say that there were no major objections to appointees until very recently, say, Clarence Thomas. That’s nonsense. There have been many appointees rejected all through history, and usually for partisan political reasons.
But the court issue is the mild part. We have had the worst of incivility pop up all through American history. You could say the American Revolution was built upon it. Did we not tar and feather British bureaucrats in open daylight in our ports? Was this not political?
Here’s an example portrayed in a very recent film. See if you think the largest hand on our Declaration of Independence, later governor of Massachusetts, joined in civility here:
Acts like these were continued throughout American history, for political reasons.
Alexander Hamilton was bloodied in the head by a flying stone when he gave a public speech in support of the unpopular Jay Treaty.
In The Problem of Slavery, I recount some of the instances of violent intimidation in antebellum Congresses. Congressmen and Senators pulled guns, knives, made threats, ganged up on others with physical threats, and more. Remember the famous instance in which Preston Brooks caned Charles Sumner almost to death on the Senate floor?
That incident truly was unprecedented. Brooks did what was truly unthinkable at the time: he broke the code of Southern “gentleman” in which a gentleman would never aggress upon a peer without a fighting chance and notice. Brooks not only did this in surprise attack on an unarmed Sumner, he did it on the Senate floor—and “honorable gentlemen” either stood by watching or forced back anyone who tried to help. It was all political. It was over slavery.
Even modern Democrats are not so stupid as to think they could get away with that today. We are at no turning point.
Perhaps you think tarring and feathering is an ancient thing? Americans practiced it into the 20th Century. During WWI, a group of Minnesotans broke into the house of a German man they accused of not being loyal enough. The evidence for this was that he refused to buy war bonds.
They beat, and tarred and feathered that poor man, John Meints, in 1918. He sued for damages, but the jury acquitted. The 32 defendants returned home to accolades and marching band.
The report said, “Judge Wilbur F. Booth, in charging the jury, said that the evidence was overwhelming in support of the contention that Meintz [sic] was disloyal and that there was a strong feeling against him in the community.”
In other words, it’s ok to tar and feather people without due process and against any known law if the community strongly dislikes him.
Civil? No. Political? Yes. Due process? Laughable. Turning point? No.
Need we mention the history of American lynchings? Blacks and anyone who helped them were for decades subject to illegal and extrajudicial torture and death penalties at the hands of politically polarized mobs.
Likewise, we seem to have forgotten that not too long ago, conservative activists had no problem burning effigies of their political opponents, including Obama. Suddenly, however, FOX News highlights some group of leftists burning a Trump effigy, and we think we have reached new heights of incivility.
Thus, when Codevilla concludes, “What matters a lot is that our ruling class does not deal and will never again deal with their opponents as fellow citizens. Theirs was a quintessentially revolutionary act, after which there is no stepping back,” I cannot follow him. Hadn’t he just shown that both Democrat and Republican had already crossed that line back in 2008? Indeed, we have crossed it many times. But we rise again above chaos and come back.
The anti-Kavanaugh campaign is not really different than anything before. It is much milder than many of our past incivilities. It will be nothing but a blip in our history eventually.
Again, none of this is new. There has hardly ever been a more hateful and demonizing presidential campaign than Jefferson versus Adams. The insults were rarified, ugly, and personal. The alarm for today is simply uninformed.
Outlook / Pessimism
Codevilla has a lot to say about the outlook from here. Of course, from his pessimistic perch, he cannot have much good to see. It is colored by the unprecedented evil of which he has convinced himself.
Thus, he thinks it is a possibility that “the 2020 elections would . . . make the 2016 ones appear to have been for low stakes.”
His musings here are interesting:
Trump had reacted to the post 2016 “resistance”—mainly by Tweets. Were the Left returned to power after 2020, it would not tweet about resistance—it would crush it, officially and by inciting unofficial violence. How would the crush-ees react? At what points would clashes occur? With how much violence? Sooner or later, somebody is going to get killed. Then what?
Even this, however, is biased. You think Trump or his followers haven’t “crushed” any of his opponents? You think political retribution is beneath his admin? It is a little disingenuous also to pretend Trump’s tweets themselves do not have the same crushing effect, or even the potential for causing unofficial violence.
Were the Republicans to win in 2020 led by Trump or by whomever, the revolution’s logic would flow along lines parallel but different, opening the possibility of ending up in something other than war. There would be no doubts about brooking delays or major modifications to the conservatives’ agenda. The difference would lie in that agenda’s character and on the consequent possibility of a peace. A potential peace might be obtained based on the sorting out of populations and defusing conflict between them by means of loosening relations between the states such that these become looser than existed prior to the Civil War.
Is he really saying here that if Democrats lose in 2020, they will become more moderate and cooperative? Is he really suggesting that the guy who just called himself a “Nationalist” would decentralize and nix some federal power, and that leftists would go along with that?
He himself does not seem to agree with this, or at best cannot make up his mind whether the left (or either side for that matter) can moderate itself, or whether they can and will, and thus bring about a new federalism:
Nor does any side in our time truly believe in and practice self-restraint. For the Progressive side, it is anathema in principle as well as in practice. The conservatives, among whom the zealot’s taste for taking the speck out of the neighbor’s eye is not widespread, revere self-restraint in principle, but are learning to transgress against it in practice.
Were a conservative to win the 2020 presidential election, dealing with the Progressives’ renewed resistance would be his administration’s most pressing problem. But had the Left’s resistance failed utterly during the previous four years, it may be possible to convince it to switch from its present offensive mode to a defensive one. Were this to be the happy case, the conservative side of American life, operating from a dominant position, might be able to obtain agreement to some form of true federalism.
One side of this view is fed by his pessimism, the other side is the type of fanciful hope spawned only by pessimism. In both cases, pessimism wins. This is how he ends:
Unattainable, and gone forever, is the whole American Republic that had existed for some 200 years after 1776. The people and the habits of heart and mind that had made it possible are no longer a majority. Progressives made America a different nation by rejecting those habits and those traditions. As of today, they would use all their powers to prevent others from living in the manner of the Republic. But, perhaps, after their offensive resistance’s failure, they might be reconciled to govern themselves as they wish in states where they command a majority, while not interfering with other Americans governing themselves in their way in the states where they are a majority.
Just as the “turning point” idea itself was misguided, however, so is this pessimism built on it. The outlook is in no way as inevitable or as bad as it sounds. Yet this is the standard strain among so many conservatives. Nevertheless, loss, decay, and increasing chaos are not inevitable.
The remedy for this is to stop thinking and speaking this way. When we keep repeating pessimism and “turning point” language, we are acting like it is inevitable. Acting like it is so will certainly increase the likelihood of it becoming so. The pessimism inherent in conservatism in general, and much of conservative Christian prophetic outlook, are powerful forces of self-fulfilling prophecy. We lose when we believe we are losers, expect to lose, and act like losers.
This itself is part of the rhetoric we need to dump, right along with all that intemperate and hateful stuff we are most at effort to condemn already. Be clear: the pessimism and inevitability rhetoric is every bit as dangerous as the demonizing rhetoric we have rightly targeted.
We need to return to the spirit of those amazing two paragraphs from Codevilla that I quoted at the outset. This is what we need. It is based on principle, so it does not take sides. It does not give a pass to favorites or exaggerate the power or evil of the opposition. It cuts across party lines with the same strict and powerful standard. It is no respecter of persons, and it does not give quarter.
It gives the same standard of analysis today as yesterday. It informs itself of past evils and does not limit its sample size to contemporary events as told by partisan news outlets. As a result, it does not exaggerate modern infractions as unprecedented because it knows the precedents and the true depth of their repeated evils.
Finally, it upholds the standard as the key to the future. It does not fall into reactionism based on current events, and certainly not based on the sensationalized samples of today. While we must be realists in outlook, we must not let our realism be so limited only by our immediate environment.
Principle must be the standard of measurement. History is a guide and counselor. Hope is found in what is right and worth fighting and dying for, not in our fleeting perceptions within the dust clouds of the immediate battle.