Back in the 1950s, some southern senator, Strom Thurmond if memory serves, said at a party that Eisenhower was a communist (a popular charge at the time). He was immediately corrected by a colleague, who objected that Ike was an anti-communist.
“I don’t care what kind of communist he is,” said the indomitable senator, thereby unwittingly uttering an exemplar of deep philosophical thought.
I remembered that episode a few hours ago when watching the public response to Trump’s announcement of his candidature in the 2024 presidential elections. His speech contained the usual anaphoric litany of making America safe again, rich again, beautiful again and consequently great again (I don’t remember the exact words except the last ones).
The announcement was met with predictable revulsion by the Democrats and equally predictable exultation by the Republicans, those of the MAGA variety. The latter are tangentially closer to me than the former, at least in some respects.
Hence, if I wished to vote in US elections (I still have a dusty, long overdue American passport in the back of my sock drawer), I’d plump for Trump rather than any Democratic candidate. Such are the demands of our binary world: one or the other, black or white, no nuances need apply.
That’s how the game is set up and one must either sit it out or play it by the established rules. This pragmatic consideration, however, doesn’t alleviate my ennui whenever the subject of political tug-of-war comes up. “A plague on both your houses,” I think, while trying to keep my yawning jaw in joint.
And then I recall Strom Thurmond’s unwitting maxim, how it applies to today’s situation. Both the Democratic socialists and the Trumpist anti-socialists believe that the seminal problems of modern life have a political solution. Like Orwell’s animals, they reduce everything to a single issue. They just can’t agree on the number of legs.
Republicans accuse Democrats of being socialist, with ample justification. Yet socialism is, to use Marxist terminology, only a superstructure erected on the base of statism, a purely modern, post-Enlightenment phenomenon of endowing the state with omnipotent power.
If you divest socialism of its mendacious ‘share, care, be aware’ cant lifted from Christianity and then ripped off its roots, perverted and vulgarised, then that’s all it is: statism run riot.
The state assumes the function of a family, reducing the real one to a quaint irrelevance. It becomes a provider to millions, thereby performing the role of a father, with us as potentially wayward children. It looks after our health. It educates our children. It decides on the size of our allowance, the money we are allowed to keep after taxes. It teaches us what to say and even what to think, punishing us if we go wrong and rewarding us for obedience.
It does all those wonderful things for us – but acquiring in return the licence to do awful things to us. In both parts it’s dramatically different from the traditional state of Western polity, which did little for the people, but then neither did it possess the power to do much to them.
The transition from Western to modern state was effected by a frenzied assault on the very concept of man that was unique to Christendom. That concept was reflected in the explicit or implicit charter of the dominant Western institutions: the church and the state.
Western Man was a creature combining a wholehearted commitment to individual autonomy with a communal spirit springing from the defining concept of Christianity: love.
Reflecting that understanding, the ecclesiastical structure combined two complementary principles: subsidiarity and solidarity. Parishes all over the world enjoyed a great deal of autonomy (subsidiarity) while remaining in communion with all other parishes and submitting to the doctrinal authority of the papacy (solidarity).
The state functioned according to the same understanding. Localism trumped centralism, with local government being the only kind people knew, and local mores the only ones they saw as inviolable (subsidiarity). What brought them together was a shared faith and, usually but far from always, a common language. They only came together in a large group when uniting under the banners of the central state against a common enemy (solidarity).
Every aspect of that arrangement was made possible by the ultimate humility of faith, a realisation that, though man wasn’t nothing, it was God, loving and loved, who was everything. Such was the background against which man judged and measured himself, defined his worth, understood his essence.
The Enlightenment then barged in and turned things upside down. The humility of faith in a supreme being was replaced by the arrogance of belief in man as the be all and end all of existence. If before people knew they were all equal before God, now they were taught they were equal before one another.
That understanding destroyed both subsidiarity and solidarity. Local, parochial government couldn’t be sustained in a country where everyone was presumed to be created self-evidently equal, in the puzzling words of the founding document of political modernity. Equal people might have been, but only under a new entity: the political state, supposedly deriving its power from what Locke disingenuously called ‘consent of the governed’.
That consent was presumed, not actually given. And it was supposed to be given for an eternity: no legal means of revoking it were ever envisaged.
People, in steadily decreasing proportions, would vote for one of two (or sometimes three or four) candidates every few years. The winning candidate, often supported by no more than a third of the population, would then take that vote as a mandate to do anything he wished for the duration of his tenure – with practically no accountability to the people at large until the next election.
Such is the nature of modern politics, such are its systemic problems. The systemic problems may manifest themselves in more or less virulent symptoms. Various politicians promise to alleviate this or that symptom, but without ever diagnosing the underlying disease, much less trying to treat it.
People, arrogantly certain that they are equal to one another in the crude post-Enlightenment sense, look hopefully up to the candidates on offer, hoping their chosen one will relieve the more bothersome symptoms. And he may do just that – until his successor removes the palliative medicine to usher the pain back in.
Both Republicans and Democrats, worshippers of Trump, Biden or any other putative knight in shining armour, believe that their man will ride in on his steed and save the day, like St James Matamoros saving Castilians from the Moors in the Battle of Clavijo.
He won’t, not in the long run. I appreciate that this is how the game is played, but only children take games seriously. This particular one is especially infantile, with the players fiddling with toys while society burns.
3 thoughts on “Mr Republican, meet Mr Democrat”
“Both Republicans and Democrats… believe that their man will ride in on his steed and save the day.” I just want either man to leave me alone. I do not need to be told whom to play with, what to think, how to run my business, whom to hire, what light bulb or showerhead to buy.
I too, am a radical centrist. I’m thoroughly enjoying the political equivalent of agnosticism.
Both sides demand I untangle myself from the fence….no, I don’t think I will.
I, on the other hand, am not a centrist of any kind. I see myself outside the whole political spectrum, as it is today. I remember a few years ago a Socialist activist at out local market in Burgundy tried to give me a campaign leaflet, which I refused to accept. “So who are going to vote for then?” she asked. “Sarkozy?” “No,” I replied. “The Bourbons.” She looked me with an expression of genuine concern for my mental health.