The current political campaign has always looked like a close contest that may remain undecided until the closing days and even hours of the race, but it’s also interesting as a window into the state of American politics. Possibly because I’m so old myself that this is the fourteenth such campaign I remember (when I was seven years old I watched my parents get over their loyalty to Adlai Stevenson to support Kennedy in 1960), I’m increasingly struck by the long term continuities in our politics — and unimpressed by panicky cries about how polarized we are. Also, I’m struck by the way that the language we use to describe our politics often makes politics harder to understand.
The labels we mostly use in American politics have their limits. Words like “liberal” and “conservative” are so broad and poorly defined that they tell us more about tribal affiliation than about actual beliefs. What do Bill Kristol and Ron Paul have in common other than a hope that Barack Obama won’t be elected for a second term? What binds Hillary Clinton together with Code Pink? How did ‘liberal’ come to mean staunch defender of the status quo (Pelosi, Reid) and ‘conservative’ mean wild eyed, radical innovator and axe-swinger (Gingrich, Rand Paul)?
In Special Providence, I wrote about four schools of thought whose ideas, rivalries and interplay have shaped American foreign policy continuously from the 18th century through the 21st and named them after four American leaders who in various ways stood for the values of the schools: Alexander Hamilton, Woodrow Wilson, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. I hoped that a richer and more historically grounded typology would help me analyze American foreign policy debates more usefully than labels like realist, idealist, internationalist and isolationist.
What I did not do but very well could have done is written a book about how those four schools have also shaped American domestic politics and policy. The domestic story is more complicated and the issues are sometimes even more tangled, but our political quarrels about domestic issues have at least as much continuity as our national battles over foreign policy.
If I had written a Special Providence about domestic politics (and I just might do that some day), I’d have made at least one big change. The Wilsonian school of foreign policy believes that America’s destiny and interests compel it to spread democracy and other sound principles around the world. When Wilsonians turn their gaze toward the United States, they become what I think of as the Bostonian school in domestic politics. Like the New England Puritans to whom they owe so much, today’s Bostonians believe that a strong state led by the righteous should use its power to make America a more moral and ethical country. This, I believe, is the tradition in American domestic politics that most profoundly shapes President Obama’s worldview; it inspired many of the abolitionists and prohibitionists who played such large roles in 19th century reform politics, and it continues to influence the country wherever the spirit of Old New England survives. (Not all domestic Bostonians are international Wilsonians, by the way; some believe that America should lead by example rather than by imposing its views on others.)
Bostonians over the years have changed their ideas about morality; few today would agree with Increase Mather and John Winthrop that the state should punish any deviation from Biblical morality as understood by 17th century puritan divines. But when it comes to punishing offenses against righteousness as defined by a congress of humanities professors, multiculturalist activists and foundation grants officers, the liberal morality police are ready to march — and to smite. Today’s neo-puritans would certainly agree that once morality has been re-defined in a suitably feminist, anti-racist, anti-homophobic, anti-tobacco and anti-obesity way, it is the clear duty of the Civil Magistrate to enforce the moral law—and that our governing constitutions and laws must be interpreted—by the godly who alone ought to be seated on the judicial tribunals—to give said magistrates all the power they require for their immense and unending task of moral regulation and uplift.
Wilsonianism abroad is Bostonianism at home. In both cases, the heirs of the Puritans believe that a strong executive must act to enforce the moral law and that a strong and effective state is the moral agent of the community. They only worry about a strong state in ungodly hands: their idea of politics is to build a powerful government and make sure that only the righteous stand at the helm. The foreign and domestic sides of this school merged most fully in Reconstruction, America’s first great failure in the art of nation building, The goals they sought were mostly noble, but their own flaws, rigidity and impracticality combined with the huge practical difficulties inherent in the nature of the problem to frustrate their intentions and force them to abandon their most vital goals.
I am tweaking the Bostonians here a bit as their self-righteous moralism is irresistibly provoking to my inner Mark Twain; in reality I feel about them the same way I do about all the schools in our domestic and foreign policy debates. They all bring important strengths and perspectives to the table; we would be worse off if any of them were to drop out of the contest for power—and we would be almost infinitely worse off if any one of them (perhaps especially the Bostonians) ever won a permanent victory and could govern indefinitely exactly as they wished.
While President Obama owes the most to the New England spirit, both 2012 presidential candidates have a bit of Boston in them. The Mormon apple didn’t fall all that far from the Congregationalist tree. Brigham Young’s Utah was the closest thing to an American theocracy after the puritans lost their hold on New England, and early Mormonism was born in and shaped by the cultural ferment of the New England diaspora in the chaotic aftermath of the Second Great Awakening.
Romney and Obama share a propensity to meddle in the lives of the poor in the effort to uplift them. President Obama would take away their bologna, their Twinkies and their gas guzzlers—not to mention their guns and their right to whop their kids as they see fit; Romney would force them to jump through hoops for their welfare checks and their food stamps. Neither man would have left Huck Finn’s father alone; both would try to figure out how the government could improve him. One might want to put him in the hoosegow for public drunkenness and the other for child neglect, but both would think that Mr. Finn needed his conduct more thoroughly supervised by the powers that be. Neither man would want him to have access to cheap tobacco in any form, and both would tax his alcohol in the hope of persuading him to take less of it. The state, led by the wise, must push the unworthy masses up the mountain toward higher ground.
The core differences between the two candidates here are about the relationship of state power and individual moral uplift. President Obama tends to think that the problems of the poor have less to do with their own fallenness than with the collective fallenness of man as embodied in our imperfect and unjust social institutions. Huck Finn’s father may be a worthless drunk, a racist, a woman beater and a child abuser, but he didn’t build his pickle by himself. Society helped build that, and the state can and should help fix it. Give poor, put upon Mr. Finn some health care, food stamps, subsidized housing, a welfare allowance (without being too tough on the work requirements) and some counseling from a properly trained and certified social worker, and he’ll start to do right. Ban hate speech on the internet and he will be less likely to embrace groups like the Klan. Give him access to vocational training and a community college and change will occur. (And if it doesn’t, he’ll be caught breaking the law sooner or later and be confined in the secular hells we call prison where he will be knifed, raped and exploited by prison gangs until he understands just how benevolent society is and how counterproductive it is to challenge righteous authority.) In the meantime, we need to get some trained, certified and tenured professional schoolmarms with some properly vetted textbooks in town to make sure the next generation of kids turns out a little better. Also, more public TV bringing inspiring messages of uplift; perhaps if Pap Finn had seen more of Big Bird when he was a kid, he’d be a less hopeless racist drunk now.
Governor Romney agrees with President Obama that people like Huck Finn’s Pap are living wrong and that a Christian country like the United States has a moral and social obligation to “do something” about his self-destructive behavior. And while he would also agree with President Obama that public institutions and practices are part of the problem, he has a different approach to how government can help the black sheep. Romney thinks that too much coddling of Mr. Finn will simply enable his lifestyle. If society supports him in his idleness it becomes entangled in a codependent and counterproductive relationship that won’t help Mr. Finn do what he must to find any hope: realize what road he is on, get right with his Higher Power, and take it from there. The Romney camp would agree that there are social failures that make Finn’s plight worse, but that might have more to do by allowing him unrestricted access to internet porn than to internet hate speech and in any case a Romney spokesman would also presumably say that no social reforms will help Mr. Finn much until he takes the First Step on his personal recovery plan. Making poverty too comfortable will tempt the weak-willed Finn to lounge in it. A dose of tough love might get him up on his feet.
Both men think that society should set up a system that will gradually compel Mr. Finn to straighten up and fly right. They differ about the architectural rules by which government should be used in the task of social reform, and President Obama is far more optimistic than Governor Romney about how much can be done, but both are political moralists. Talleyrand would have rolled his eyes at both of them, and unregenerate, anti-Bostonians like Mark Twain and H.L. Menken would have seen both men as pompous, bloviating windbags and delighted in cutting them down to size.
I am not saying that the Bostonians are all wrong; sometimes Nurse Ratchet is right. The blue nosed puritans of the late 19th and early 20th centuries might have gone too far with their long campaigns against masturbation (believed to be a leading cause of insanity and therefore to be vigilantly guarded against when it came to teen aged boys), liquor and low IQ people having children, but abolition was a good thing and so were women’s suffrage and the city manager form of government. I’m even glad about the anti-smoking campaigns and the whole seat belt thing. However, pity the people of a country where the Bostonians get the full weight of government and the Educated Class on their side; Bostonians need to be checked by countervailing power or they go much too far.
For the half hearted worldling like myself, who can never quite summon up all the moral fiber necessary for a grimly earnest New England crusade, all forms of Puritanism are suspect. But unlike the “Christianists under the bed” crowd over at the Daily Dish, I’m less worried about the puritanism of the right than the puritanism of the left these days. First, because American society is so firmly set against old fashioned right-wing prudishness, Romney’s “conservative” puritanism is probably a lesser threat to the freedoms of the people than the secular puritanism of the enlightened left. Public acceptance of homosexuality is likely to increase, for example, no matter who takes office next January; even after eight grim years of two Romney terms, you are still going to be able to see bare breasted women on “Boardwalk Empire” and “Game of Thrones.” Romney and the right are fighting the tide on many of these issues, so any efforts on their part to force more moral conformity on the population are unlikely to go all that far.
The other reason I worry less about the right’s tendency toward moralist dictatorship is federalism: the left likes its regulation at the national level and thinks the Federal government should set the tone for the whole country. The right on the other hand makes more room for the states. If we must be governed by meddling nanny state puritans, I would rather live in a country that had fifty petty moralistic dictatorships rather than one big one; I’d at least have a chance of finding a place where my favorite foods and amusements wouldn’t be banned by law. Surely there will be one state somewhere in this republic that will let me put some extra salt on my freedom fries.
In that sense, Obama is a better and more consistent Bostonian than Romney. Boston wants a strong federal government with Bostonians in charge. There is, after all, only one truth and one moral way, so there is no point in allowing a bunch of backward states to muck around in the dark.
President Obama is going to get the neo-Puritan vote this fall, and he deserves it. The half-Kenyan candidate from Hawaii is the heir of old New England for better and for worse.