I’ve been a member of the Modern Whig Party for only a few weeks, but I’ve been thinking like a Whig for many decades, long before the MWP was formed. And one of the reasons comes down to my unstinting admiration for Henry Clay, both as a Congressman and as a Secretary of State.
I admired Clay many years ago when I served briefly as an aide to Senator Henry M. Jackson (D, WA) and I still admired him more than twenty years later when I worked for Colin Powell when he served as a Republican Secretary of State.
And the reason was the same: Both in the Legislative and in the Executive Branch, Clay put outcomes before theory, results before abstractions, just as my boss-mentors did in comparable positions of authority. Clay knew that the way to better outcomes was a willingness to compromise, and to act in a civil manner as part of persuading others to do the same.
Now, the standard line today goes that politics in Washington is dysfunctional because politicians are too ideologically minded—Tea Party, market-fundamentalist “small government” types on the Right, and identity politics, statist-prone social authoritarians on the Left—and refuse to compromise. So because of the outsized power of ideologized party activists in raising money and dominating primaries, we end up with a political class more interested in posturing than governing, and so have debilitating gridlock as a result.
There’s some truth in this depiction but, alas, things are not as simple as the standard line suggests: Ideological conviction is not always a bad thing; ideological politics do not necessarily cause gridlock; and gridlock isn’t the only or even the main source of our dysfunctional politics. If we Whigs are going to argue for a practical as against an ideological style of governance, we had better do it from a more rather than less informed and sophisticated point of view.
First of all, let’s remember that the man who once said, on February 7, 1839 to be specific, “I had rather be right than be President,” was none other than Henry Clay—and you can search high and low for a more ideological statement than that and never find it. What was the subject on which he insisted he was right? Slavery. Clay was for gradual abolition, this despite the fact that he owned slaves himself, and a fellow Kentucky politician told him as he would never be elected President if he stuck to his abolitionist stance. That man turned out to be correct; otherwise Clay probably would have won the very close election of 1844.
Clay understood moral ambiguity and being stuck in a hard place because of it. We can learn two important insights from Clay’s circumstances and his statement: There is nothing contradictory about pragmatism in the service of a high and unshakable principle; and true ideological politics is not about policy divergences so much as rigid personalities. Let’s look a little closer at these points.
It is possible (indeed, it happens all the time) that a politician feels too strongly to compromise over a particular issue—say immigration, or healthcare reform, or any of the culture war issues—but he (or she) will logroll and horsetrade on a range issues still important but less dear in order to get his way on what he cares about most. So being ideologically committed to some cause does not by itself prevent compromise.
Clay is the best example of the point. He knew slavery was wrong and he refused to compromise on it as a matter of principle. But he also knew that polarization over the issue, embedded so deeply in the country’s history and economy, might cause a catastrophic civil war, and so he tried as hard as he could to wheel and deal on a whole range of policy areas to head it off. He did that successfully for a good long while, but the maneuvering he had to do toward that end got nearly everyone so upset at him that he failed to win the 1840 Whig Party nomination for President. He put outcomes for the public good ahead of his own personal ambitions. He was, in other words, patriotic in the very best and essential meaning of the word, and he paid a price for it.
Clay died in 1852 at the age of 75, and it was later said by many that had there been someone as skillful and determined as Clay in the Senate in 1859-60 the Civil War might have been averted. That’s a counterfactual so we’ll never know, but I doubt it’s true because by 1859-60 policies had stopped being the real bones of contention as American politics descended into the hell of moral umbrage. Real ideological politics—then and now—is about personal animosity harnessed to political gamesmanship. And it’s an animosity that usually grows out of the casual importation of religious categories and logic into politics, where they don’t belong—of which more below.
When that happens it’s not that the “other guy” is wrong on such and such an issue; it’s that the other guy is evil, and his party is evil, too. An ideological politician opposes others not because of policy differences but because of intrinsic moral judgments, and when politics takes on that ugly hue any tactic to gain political advantage and deny it to the other side becomes permissible, no matter how harmful to the public weal or how uncivil it is.
We’ve reached the point in the United States now where this sort of polarization is having massive social implications: Some highly ideologized people won’t let their kids even date, let alone marry, someone of the opposite political persuasion; and many insist on living around and socializing only with people of their own political school of what passes for thought. This is dangerously neurotic in a way that transcends politics thought of as policy-centered. Indeed, the one good thing about the present, slightly deranged presidential campaign is that the pocketbook populism of Left and Right is putting a well-deserved dent in this elitist nuttiness.
On the other hand, flipping the standard complaint on its head, it’s just not true that ideological politics necessarily causes gridlock. Looking at the data, it turns out that passing legislation on many issues depends mainly on there being enough safe seats in the House of Representatives to allow for some effective triangulation. Congressmen with safe seats, for whatever reasons good or bad—from gerrymandering to earned popularity—can stray from a narrow party line to do business across the aisle without undue fear of being thrown out of office. And it doesn’t matter how polarized politics are in general for that dynamic to work, particularly on issues with a relatively low moral unction profile.
Now, maybe we don’t like the fact that there are too many safe seats and too many essentially one-party districts, where whoever wins the primary is assured of winning election. Maybe we don’t like the lack of party discipline that allows such triangulating freelancing. And maybe we don’t like the unfair advantages of tenure, especially in raising money for campaigns, in Congressmen keeping their seats. Be all that as it may, it’s those safe seats in large enough numbers that fob off acute gridlock.
Moreover, insofar as we have gridlock it’s not caused just by ideological polariztion. It’s also caused by a deficit of effective leadership, both in the Executive Branch and in Congress. An example of the former: After the recent revelations of the Panama Papers about the outrages of the offshore tax-evading “shell” economy, the Obama Administration snapped into highly inadequate action, but action just the same. Yet it did so seven years too late. Obama had co-sponsored legislation on this subject as a Senator with Norm Coleman, and Carl Levin championed this cause consistently after Obama entered the White House….where he promptly forgot about it. If we’d had adequate leadership during the first seven years of the Obama presidency on this issue, we’d be way further ahead in dealing with it than we are now. Here we suffered not from gridlock in the Congress so much as obliviousness in the Oval Office.
And to complicate matters just a bit more—but usefully so—the problems we have are not just on account of gridlock, whatever its sources. Many of our problems turn on the fact that we don’t plan well anymore as a political culture. That’s partly a generational phenomenon, and the addiction to short-termism of course affects more than politics. But it also has a lot to do with the fact that the structure of government has become significantly misaligned with a changing reality driven by innovations in science and technology. Infrastructure deficiencies serve as a good example.
We have underinvested in infrastructure for many years, true. But the real reason things are so screwed up is that we have no convening platform at any level of government to take advantage of potential new synergies in different infrastructure systems. Information technology makes it possible now to get smart infrastructure solutions by combining energy, transportation, sanitation, and communications elements into a better integrated system that is more than the sum of its parts, but instead we are trying to patch together stovepiped legacy systems at ever-diminishing returns on the dollar. A lack of leadership in government design has left us with no way to bring together the various constituencies and experts to get the job done right. Most regrettably, we’ve not had a President who has really understood the relationship between government design and policy outcomes since Dwight Eisenhower—and that, folks, was a long time ago. But this has nothing to do with ideological politics.
We do have highly ideological and polarized politics in the United States right now, and some amount of policy stasis can be attributed to it even though the sources of our problems go far beyond that. But it’s not for the first time that American politics have been uncivil and seemingly dysfunctional on account of it. Go back and look at the situation between the Federalists and the Democrats over the Alien and Sedition Act and the election of 1800; those were very nasty political times. And of course we can also look at the highly ideologized and polarized situation over slavery and related economic disagreements that led to the Civil War—and that destroyed the original American Whig Party. The fact that these periods come and go in our history ought to make us curious as to why that is, so that maybe we Whigs can get a leg up on understanding the situation better than our competitors.
A blog post is no place for a long analysis, to be sure. But consider that the period leading up to the Civil War was one that saw both the democratization of religious authority thanks in part to the Methodist circuit riders, and sharp increases in literacy, particular female literacy. The capacity and penchant for abstract moral reasoning moved from the pulpit to the pew and thence to politics via, for example, both the abolitionist and the temperance movements, which were both dominated by women.
The combination infused political rhetoric with highly moralistic and abstract language that had been far scarcer in earlier times. It ended up precipitating a war, in which the Northern anthem contained this truly terrifying, telltale line written by Julia Ward Howe: “As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free; His truth is marching on.” Clay, the son of a Baptist minister, was very religious too, but he disparaged zealots of all kind and would have been appalled by such language. He knew how to keep his faith and his politics separate, but a decade after the Compromise of 1850 that kind of prudence was no longer much in evidence.
Similarly today we have a vastly more educated population, just measured by the percentage of the electorate with a four-year college degree, and we also have a new insinuation of religious energies into policies. I refer not to Evangelicals only or even mainly, but to voters who are devoutly dedicated to various causes—radical undifferentiated egalitarianism, especially expressed as a gender proposition; environmentalism, especially focused on climate change; and a few others we can all think of—without realizing that the energies they are summoning are basically religious in character. Americans are a very religious people, always have been; the fact that so many people think that lacking an established church makes us secular is really quite hilarious when you think about it. It turns out that many of our ideological faultlines today are really holdover theological faultlines in drag.
When a new dollop of education, however half-baked it may be, meets the intrusion of religious modes of thought into politics, we get the sort of passion-play politics we are seeing today. I’ve long believed that this is what Mark Twain really meant when he wrote in "The Facts Concerning My Recent Resignation" that “soap and education are not as sudden as a massacre, but they are more deadly in the long run,” because both have the capacity to obscure common sense in a fog of high-minded stupidity. A little education can indeed be a dangerous thing.
The lesson for Whigs who esteem Henry Clay is clear, and it’s a lesson the Founders understood very well indeed: Democratic politics in a nation that is heterogeneous in creed requires segregating the obligations of faith—however defined, traditional or postmodern—from the quotidian obligations of citizenship. We need to turn down the abstraction volume that is deafening our public discourse so that we may tend to the critical business that a process-oriented liberalism is capable of handling. If instead we festoon our politics with the rigid but opposing moral demands of true believers, such as those characteristic of our culture wars at their shrieking worst, we will not necessarily have all-encompassing gridlock, but we will further deplete our nation’s reservoir of social trust and thus invite a corrosive cynicism into our public life. In the long run, that is far more dangerous to the American future than policy gridlock.
Adam Garfinkle is Editor of The American Interest magazine.