The Worst of Both Worlds — America the Monarchical Democracy

This is my second piece following up on some thoughts I had after reading Grant S. Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution. His thesis is, essentially, that the leaders of the American Revolution were rebelling against an aristocratic world where birth and personal connections counted more than personal merit, a world of patronage and complex hierarchies which frustrated men of the wrong birth or occupation.

The world they hoped to build was a republic ruled by any men of the right qualities regardless of birth. (It was not, incidentally, thought to be inherently incompatible with a monarchy.) Their dream, after the battlefield and political successes of the Revolution, proved unattainable. America moved to a mass democracy which remade society in all kinds of ways. Wood doesn’t necessarily think that was a bad thing, but he certainly convinces that it was not what the Revolutionaries intended.

But that aristocratic world had its own virtues, the democratic world its own problems, and I think we are moving to an American society where we are seeing the worst aspects of both, a world monarchical in important aspects but reputedly democratic.

Here are some of the ways. (Listed page numbers are from the Knopf 1991 version of Wood’s book.)

The Cult of the President.

Benjamin Rush visited London in 1768 and viewed the throne as if it was “on sacred ground”. Later, Revolutionary Rush came to criticize the way the people’s affection had been “absorbed by kings and nobles” (p.15). Colonial newspapers covered royal occasions in detail. Royal arms and emblems were displayed in public buildings. William Henry Drayton said no people were as “wrapped up in a king” as colonial Americans with their king.

Americans have come to love their presidents in also sorts of monarchical ways since the days of Harry Truman.

Where now vast security cordons exist around the President, shooing entire  crowds into “free speech zones”. And, no, it can’t be put down to terrorism. The day after Puerto Rican terrorists came very close to killing him, Harry Truman, took his usual daily walk around the White House grounds and neighborhood.

The personal staff of the president has grown to gargantuan proportions. Frank Delano Roosevelt managed to wage economic warfare on the Depression (however ineffectually) and an actual war (to say nothing of extramarital affairs and covering up his affliction with polio) with a staff of a mere 140. Barack Obama, evidently not much of a beneficiary of Information Age efficiencies, needs from 2,000 to 2,500. This being America, our royal entourage costs more to maintain than the most famous de jure royal family in the world, the British monarchy.

The royal pardon to free criminals was preserved in our own Constitution. But there were more arbitrary manifestations of royal power. And now even a modern liberal legal scholar Jonathan Turley has noted that Obama commands and dictates more and more without the sanction of law or precedence.

Presidents, especially the current one, are often thought to have unusual, often magical powers to change the world. They even have access to strange sources of wealth.

Political Dynasties

Well, obviously we have “America’s royal family” in the Kennedys. Before them, just off the top of my head, I can name several dynasties where immediate family members and their descendants held political office in American politics at various levels: the Longs, the Humphreys, the Bushes, the Browns, the Clintons, the Cumos, the Romneys, the Rands, and the Daleys. No notion here that the “Custom of the Better Bred and Quality” is to be found in families (p. 21) or that I serve you because my father served your father. Of course, early American history had already produced a dynasty with father and son presidents in the Adamses, but the 20th century saw a marked acceleration in that direction.

Enriching Governmental Connections

One of the Revolutionaries’ complaints was the mixing of the personal and public in political office. In fairness, in went in both directions. Sometimes political officeholders were expected to pay for government operations out of their pockets. But the idea that office holding should be a burden shouldered by the financially disinterested gave way to the spoilage system of Jacksonian democracy.

We like to think our politicians (at least those in our party) are truly dedicated to the public good. That ignores, of course, all those wealth enhancing opportunities as lobbyists and memoir writers and consultants, to say nothing of the pensions, that office holding, especially at the presidential level, is a prerequisite for. Again, we go back to Truman who had to borrow money to have time to write his memoirs. Do we think any modern president will have to do that?  We politely pretend that our presidential candidates have extraordinary financial acumen (and their aides and spouses are really smart too), no doubt the result of their better breeding and innately superior wisdom and not payoffs disguised as sinecures or bribes for legislative action (or inaction).

The modern heirs of a bureaucratic state that began with Andrew Jackson and the promise of impartial, paid civil servants have become corrupt. More and more, in the executive and legislative branches, public duty and private enrichment mix almost as much as in the monarchy days. Actually, because they rarely subsidize government operations out of their own pocket or pay a career or financial price for failure, perhaps senior bureaucrats are even more dysfunctional and corrupt now. As examples, I’ll just note the financial corruption of Congress and the regulators at the Security and Exchange Commission. There is also evidence of a new type of aristocrat in government now, one that always has a job regardless of past failures. One Victoria Nuland can be an example here.

The Modern Welfare State of Patronage

If you needed a loan (sometimes a thinly disguised subsidy) as a laborer or artisan, charity when down on your luck, a recommendation to another potential customer in the pre-Revolutionary days of America, you went to your patron. When John Adams said, “Friendship, I take it, is one of those distinguishing Glorys of man. And the Creature that is insensible of its Charms, tho he may wear the shape of Man, is unworthy of the character,” he was actually using the word “friendship” in a way that included patronage.

“Friendships” were what a person’s age and rank would lead him to form — they were euphemisms for all sorts of dependencies. Sons were the friends of their fathers, wives were the friends of their husbands, and sons and daughters called their mother their “best friend”. Even a common soldier might talk about “the Friendship of my officers” or a servant refer to his master as his “principal friend.” (p. 58)

It was a world without credit reports and, for that matter, little credit and little paper money. One did not, however, have to look to central records or a third-party reporting agency to know a great deal about character and criminal pasts and intelligence. In a world of little mobility, people in your neighborhood, your patron and those dependent on you, knew your business and your past.

The mobility of American citizens that was unleashed after the Revolutionary War and the opening of western lands ended that. Lenders became less liberal. Business relationships based on personal connections were broken. And the bonds of village charity were broken. Up sprang various benevolent associations to tend to civic matters that used to be coordinated on an informal basis, often by the local aristocracy. Reform movements tried to urge people to regulate themselves as a substitute for the tight social and legal sanctions of the old and set village ways.

Eventually, the process evolved into the modern welfare state. It has completely put government charity in the hands of alleged professionals — who must rely on imperfect information about their “clients”. The whole relationship, in fact, is cast as a bogus business relationship. It is, however, a peculiar business whose “customers” can not pay for the services by definition. Parties and mass suffrage eventually developed into an unthinking patronage where the ignorant swapped their votes for promises of public benefits by their party of choice. And, as Yuval Levin has argued, American welfare has deliberately chosen to cloak itself in the language of independence, that those receiving public charity should not have to approach the government as a client approaches a patron — though that is what is happening. And the patron in this relationship now has a fairly shaky idea of whom is deserving of their help.

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