There’s an old saying back in the States that I just made up and it goes something like this: “If there is a zombie in the well, you probably shouldn’t drink the water.” Apropos of which, for all the buzz in El Norte regarding a civil war brewing within the ranks of the Republican Party, I’m thinking the metaphor is all wrong. It’s not a civil war. It’s a zombie apocalypse of absolutist ideologies. A near-tipping-point percentage of the Republican Party has become like unto a herd of undead intellects unable to alter course and chomping ferociously at everything in their way. I know that’s an inflammatory charge, and I intend to back it up with some ballpark (barroom?) numbers. But it seems to the Surly Bartender that at least half of — and arguably far more — conservative voters in the United States have surrendered their ability to reason based on observable truths.
That deserves comment.
And let’s not get too cute here. I am not saying all Republicans are silly absolutist “zombies.” What I am saying is that the ones who think Barack Obama was born in Kenya, that global climate change is a world-wide conspiracy of evil scientists, and those who believe the Second Amendment should prevent background checks on gun purchases, in fact, are.
Further, it’s my contention that the framing of the intraparty battle by the Beltway media has it all wrong. A civil war, while violent, presumes a rational point of disagreement. But in the current situation, one side in the battle has given up living in a fact-based world — and their influence is spreading despite the claims from D.C. of a resurgence of the Republican establishment.
The remaining rationalist Republicans, rather than trying to put out positive spin on the Sunday morning talk shows, would be better off nailing boards to the windows and grabbing anything that can be used as a blunt instrument. They might need them to survive.
A civil war in the party allows for the possibility of reconstruction in its wake. I do not think that will be possible. My assessment may be wrong, but I’d wager that at some point in the next few years, the Grand Old Party will break apart upon the anvil of history. The establishment and the radicals will be cleaved in twain. The other alternate future is no brighter, wherein the “zombie virus” takes over entirely.
Republicans have drunk deeply from a well they should have avoided, and it has altered them in ways that can’t be reversed. The radical Republicans of today hold political, social and economic views that are absolutist and often just plain nuts. And once staked, absolutist ground is near impossible to surrender.
This is a bad thing for all of us.
Effective government ain’t easy. Effective democracy in a world where corporations are people (my friend), and money is speech (old chum) is more difficult and dangerous than juggling axes in a kindergarten. There are the constant pressures of lobbyists advocating for the self-interests of the already powerful. There is the natural tendency towards faction. And there is the usual incoherence of the uninformed and otherwise occupied.
But the most dangerous times for any representative government are when the ignorant band together in celebration of their folly. At times like these, bullying hordes advance terrible, foolish, provably untrue ideas with missionary arrogance. That is what is going on in the Republican Party today, but by no means is it the first time such a thing has happened in American history. Even the Founding Fathers were aware of these dangers and did what they could to build a ship of state that might withstand a crew of fools, and the voyage has been choppy since the early 19th Century.
With that in mind, let’s consider some events of the early republic. We’ll get back to the zombies later.
On November 29, 1803, Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, received the new British Ambassador to the United States at the White House. The Ambassador, one Anthony Merry, arrived dressed to the nines in Eighteenth Century aristocratic poofery. He was sporting a giant hat with an exaggerated plume. At his side was a long, ceremonial sword with a bejeweled hilt. His knee socks were sparkling white and his shoes were clasped by shiny silver buckles. Merry was a man quite full of himself and his position in society. Rather exactly what President Jefferson couldn’t stand.
Merry was accompanied to the executive residence by Secretary of State James Madison. Madison took little note when they were given entrance by the house staff, but Merry was baffled and offended that they had to make their ways through the rooms and down the hallways calling out for “Mr. President.”
They finally found Jefferson in the small, low-ceilinged anteroom of his study where there wasn’t space for three men, a sword, and a round of handshakes — much less the rhythmic gymnastics of diplomatic greetings common to Europe at the time. Moreover, Jefferson looked a sight.
In his letters to the English Foreign Secretary, Merry described Jefferson’s “indifference to appearances” and his “utter slovenliness.” As it turns out, Jefferson was wearing the early 19th century equivalent of pajamas and a pair of slippers.
Three days later, still smarting from his introduction to the Americas, Merry and his wife were invited to dinner at the White House. Thinking this would be the opportune time for the President to make amends for his disservice to the King’s Ambassador, the couple accepted. What followed was express and intentional.
Ambassador Merry was greeted as a guest, but not a particularly honored one. When the party moved to the dining room, seats were taken “first come, first served.” Merry tried to grab the chair next to the Spanish Ambassador’s wife, but was knocked out of the way by a lowly creature called “a congressman.” In the end, he had to settle for a place of no great position.
This was a practical application of the concept of pell-mell, upon which Jefferson conducted his public affairs. It bespoke his general feelings of equality (black folks and women excluded, of course; that’s an important, but different, story). But, if accounts of other Jeffersonian dinner parties can be used as reference, the conversation was sparkling.
Jefferson was brilliant. He spoke French, Italian, Latin, Ancient Greek, and had some knowledge of Arabic, Spanish, Gaelic and Welsh. At these gatherings the social pretensions of old Europe were cast aside, and all were expected to participate in the flow of ideas. Jefferson could hold forth knowledgeably on Herodotus or horticulture, architecture or manners of human events and was known for his historical narratives, weaving into conversation scientific discoveries and the political changes to which they gave rise.
The Jeffersonian White House was a wholly new thing in the world. It was one-part salon, one-part clubhouse, one-part high-culture (the food and wines were the best in the Americas) and one part a seat of power. It was the epicenter of what came to be known as Jeffersonian Democracy.
For all the battles between the Founding Fathers on the political, economic and social issues prominent in the days of the American Enlightenment, it was the Jeffersonian ideal that gave form to the unique, radical belief in the wisdom of “the common man,” and the value of his opinion at the round table. But it should not be forgotten that Jeffersonian Democracy grew out of an aristocratic world that perceived itself as surrounded by uneducated barbarism. Yes, the common man was welcome at the dinner table, but he was expected to have studied hard and taken a bath before his arrival.
Cut-take to March 4, 1829.
On that day, Andrew Jackson — a brash, aggressive, and marginally literate frontiersman — was inaugurated as the seventh President of the United States of America. In the afternoon following the inauguration, a reception — open to the public — was held at the White House. Even before Jackson arrived, thousands of people had flooded onto the residential lawn and were threatening to break down the front doors. A sizable proportion of the revelers had campaigned for Jackson and were there to land governmental positions in what became known as “the spoils system of governance.”
The spoils system is exactly what you would imagine. People were given government positions, not because of any particular skill or merit, but because they’d played their role getting Jackson elected. It was an entire system geared towards churning out “Heck-of-a-Job Brownies.”
Which it did, in droves.
Anyway, back to the story: Arriving on horseback, and with the assistance of security, the new President was able to enter the building, but as the crowd surged into the mansion and through all of its rooms, the President had to escape the unpredictable scene, quite literally, by way of a back window. In their efforts to catch a glimpse of “Old Hickory,” (as the President was colloquially known) the increasingly drunken mob broke furniture, knocked house staff to the ground and shattered all the china in the presidential palace. The crowd was dispersed only when bowls of spiked punch were placed in the front lawn and the doors locked behind them.
Jackson was forced, for reasons of personal safety, to spend his first night as President of the United States at a hotel in nearby Alexandria, Virginia.
There’s quite a distance between the pell-mell of Jeffersonian dinner parties and the helter-skelter of Inauguration Day, 1829. And that difference speaks to what can happen in one short generation of political ideology.
Although separated by only a quarter century, Jefferson and Jackson were men from different times. Jackson spent his life in the saddle. Jefferson spent his life both in books and on the land. Jefferson understood how the discoveries of the Scientific Revolution were applied to the concepts of the Enlightenment. Through long association with the wisdom of the centuries before him, Jefferson fully conceived the philosophical underpinnings that brought about the potential for a democratic revolution in the late 18th Century. He could lay out seamlessly to his dinner guests the causative line of Galileo who gave rise to Copernicus who gave rise to Kepler. He could take them by the hand and lead them from Kepler to Newton, the invention of calculus to describe planetary motion and the profound realization that falling apples and floating moons rang the death knell for kingdoms around the world.
One can imagine poor Mr. Merry, his sword knocking at the legs of his chair, as Jefferson humored his dinner guests with the story (apocryphal, of course) of young Newton being bonked on the head by an apple — and how in a flash he understood that God’s laws are universal and show neither favoritism nor malice to either kings or common men.
A puzzled look from a congressman might have led the President further into the tale. While casting his gaze at Ambassador Merry, he might have explained that when Newton saw that apple fall, he wondered why the moon did not fall — and then his insight! That it does. The moon is always falling towards the earth, only it has a horizontal velocity that is equal to its vertical velocity. For every foot it falls towards the Earth, it proceeds forward a foot, thus “falling into orbit,” due to its inertial momentum — a rule that applied to all bodies in the cosmos.
I imagine Jefferson breaking his stare with Ambassador Merry and looking around the room as he reminds his guests that Voltaire and Montesquieu well understood that Newton had metaphorically stolen canon from God’s own rule book, which said: “If there is a God, He treats all things the same.”
If the King of England trips while walking down the highroad with his hands in his pockets, then he will fall and break his nose, just like a commoner. Divine right would suggest that the angels might intervene to prevent the chosen one from bloodying his face upon a rock, but Newton had discovered, by the rule book of the Creator, that kings are men and nothing more.
I belabor the point for a reason. Jeffersonian Democracy was based on the supposition that all human beings were created equal and — given the opportunity to study, the tenacity to do so with vigor, and a lifelong flexibility of mind — they could rise to an intellectual greatness that would allow democratic government to survive in this bafflingly complex universe. Jacksonian Democracy, on the other hand, was of a different form altogether. It took the Jeffersonian ideal that a nation can be wise enough for self-government to the simpler and altogether foolish conclusion that any society is capable of self-government.
Metaphorically speaking, Jeffersonian Democracy required a citizenry that aspired to the elegance of da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man; Jacksonian Democracy was fine with a folks as they are. Jefferson argued that the people can aspire to great wisdom; Jacksonian-thought suggested, Screw it. One fella is as good as any other fella.
This happily ignorant faction of the American public — represented in the horde that descended upon Jackson’s Inaugural reception in 1829 — declared their allegiance not to the hard Jeffersonian road of forbearance and study, but to prideful anti-intellectualism, linear thought and the general small-mindedness of their era. And their influence has been with us ever since.
It should come as no surprise to regular readers of this column that The Surly Bartender is no big fan of conservative ideology of any stripe. But it’s the absolutist, anti-intellectualism that most gets his goat. And it is my contention that such folks, the “zombies” of an earlier few paragraphs, are once again ascendant on the conservative side of the political divide.
And I think that is supportable by the numbers. Consider these absolutist positions observed in recent polling. According to Gallup, in 2012, after the release of President Obama’s long-form birth certificate, 17 percent of the American public STILL believed he was born in Kenya. Remarkably, that number has climbed again to over 20 percent in the past year. Gallup, again, in a 2009 study discovered that 25 percent of Americas do not believe in evolution. And another Gallup poll revealed that 19 percent of the nation believe that the effects of global warming will “never happen.” Which may be understandable if they are the same folks who find it likely that Jesus will arrive with a flaming sword in their lifetimes to begin the final battle of Armageddon (22 percent; Reuters Poll, 2012).
Further, Gallup reports that 30 percent of Americans feel that the Second Amendment should allow citizens the right to possess armor-piercing ammunition, while 23 percent disagree with background checks to discover if people buying guns are violent felons. In 2009, another Gallup poll revealed that 22 percent of Americans believe that abortion should be illegal under all circumstances, even in cases of rape or incest.
That’s absolutist thinking. Clear and true. And not to put too fine a point on it: almost all of these folks are Republican voters.
So there is a follow-up question that arises naturally in my mind: How much of the Republican voting bloc do these numbers represent? Well, Gallup reports that 44 percent of Americans “lean Republican” in general elections. If we average all the beliefs above, we find that somewhere around 22 percent of Americans are absolutist conservatives when it comes to their politics.
At that point, the math is pretty straightforward, and it means that roughly half of Republican-leaning voters are people who whole-heartedly believe absolutist and often provably untrue things. Then, if you reasonably assume that these folks are more likely to be involved in party politics — as they are very energized and highly motivated political players — the numbers get real bleak, real fast. Only twenty-nine percent of American voters are registered Republicans, which means, given an assumption of intensity of belief, probably even more than half of Republican voters in primary season are out to lunch and not coming back for supper.
I know that’s tough to swallow, but to me it seems pretty cut and dried. The math, while admittedly sketchy, tells a compelling story.
A reasonable question to ask at the beginning of any zombie apocalypse is: How the hell did this happen? My answer is that it came to pass very much in the same way as the Jacksonian mob descended from the Jeffersonian ideal. The originators of the philosophy of self-governance knew it was hard, and that it required deep thought, constant attention and compromise. Their lazy inheritors dumped all the inconvenient and difficult stuff and kept the easy-to-remember, one-brain-cell-to-operate central message: “We’re all equal!!! So why should I trust you, any more than I trust my own darn self?”
And today? Same thing.
Not that long ago, the conservative movement in the United States had a rational, thoughtful core. The Jefferson of the movement was a man named William F. Buckley. Buckley, an erudite scholar and political thinker of the mid-to-late 20th Century, battled long and hard with the exigencies of his day. I never agreed with much that he said, but he wasn’t an absolutist and I’ll concede that he deserves respect for his willingness to do the hard work of defining a political philosophy.
Buckley, like Jefferson, was brought up in a world of ideas. He had access to centuries’ worth of philosophical and political learning. He was able to see some of the patterns in the grand scope of history, and while often terribly wrong, he thought deeply and had insights of value.
One of those insights was to warn of the dangers of a too-powerful federal government. This nuanced thought of the 1960s was reduced to a famous quote by Ronald Reagan in his first Inaugural Address of 1981: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government IS the problem.”
But still Reagan, for all the frustration with him on the left, didn’t set out to systematically dismantle the federal government. Nowadays, however, prominent national politicians are trying to privatize Social Security and Medicare and warn that the President wants to kill your grandmother with his “death panels.” That actually is systematically trying to dismantle the federal government and undermine the nation’s faith in it as an institution. When the Republican Speaker of the House actually refers in a press conference to the federal government’s taxing authority as stealing from the American people, that’s ideology run wild. It’s catering to the absolutists.
And when somewhere near a million people sign petitions to secede from the Union and millions more are burying ammo for the final battle with a tyrannical Obama Corps, that’s the full-on-crazy horde massing in the front lawn of the White House and threatening to knock down the doors.
Buckley would be spinning in his grave if he knew what had become of his philosophy.
Looking back: In short historical order, the Jacksonian mob splintered and nearly took the Democratic Party with it. By the 1850s the rump-end of the anti-intellectuals of the Jacksonian Era were proudly calling themselves Know Nothings. They are no longer with us in that form, though their allegiance to reductionist beliefs, xenophobia and general intolerance are — in the form of the absolutist “zombie” wing of the Republican Party.
No matter what the talking heads on the Sunday shows are saying, this is not a manageable civil war in the party. Out there in the states, very near to a majority of Republicans have staked-out absolutist policies and are scornful of compromise and critical thought. And while those inside the Beltway talk about re-branding and Hispanic outreach, Republican state representatives are passing laws requiring trans-vaginal ultrasounds, talking about legitimate-rape babies, referring to undocumented workers as “illegals,” proposing legislation to protect us from a non-existent threat of Sharia law and threatening to have federal agents arrested for enforcing national gun regulations.
Absolutism infects the public with an inability to recognize the difference between true and untrue things and fosters a rigidity of thought that prevents actual governance. And their ranks are still growing.
Fortunately, progressives and non-linear thinkers seem largely immune to this strain of the “zombie virus.” We’ll take some hits here and there, as we did in the 2010 midterm elections. If they get hold of you, they do pack a mean bite. But if my predictions are correct, the Republican Party will tear itself apart in fairly short order.
So shake that Jiffy Pop and pass me a beer. It’s time to sit back and watch this “zombie apocalypse,” while keeping a back window open, just in case.
2 thoughts on “Absolutists In Context”
Come on… somebody out there pick a fight!
That’s a great analysis Mike! Funny (sadly), an interesting comparison of our Presidents J & J, and a hopeful prediction. How has it come about? It’s the tightening private control of the media, ex. Rupert Murdock, better known as “The Alien” by Mike Royko, famed Chicago columnist of the ’70’s. When the explosion of electronic media: TV, radio, Internet, can be controlled by a handful of fabulously wealthy people, then simplistic solutions to complex issues can be spoon fed to an increasingly lazy or ‘too busy to think’ population. And I don’t know what the hell the answer to that is!