Before There were Conservatives and Liberals
Partisan polarization, they say, is producing an “existential crisis”–pundit language for “disturbing situation suggesting the end of life as we know it.” Partisanship has a history, and I must define the nature of partisan difference in order to discuss its increasing morbidity.
Parties are built into a constitutional system which negotiates difference towards mutual consent, so that each side gives the other a green light. The green lights are becoming harder to get. “Mutual consent” may only mean that deals are made, and one side is willing to lose some piece of an agenda this time, until next time. It’s not “consensus.” That would mean something deeper: agreement on premises and goals. “Polarization,” as a worsening condition, means a disintegration of common belief, a process of migration in opposite directions. Under this condition of polarization, in back of the parties, there exist separated mentalities or cultures.
We have names today for these mentalities, “conservative” and “liberal,” apart from the names of the partisan groupings, “Republican” and “Democrat.” When I reach into the past for comparison, I have only names of parties, no separate names for mentalities. And yet, for readers of the political literature of these historic eras, the names suggest mentalities with some richness and complexity and concrete associations that the contemporary terms lack.
Pundits complain that parties have become “ideological,” and this is pundit language for “doctrinally rigid.” Readers of the non-pundit Eric Voegelin know that the term “ideology” can mean a programmatic politics, based in pseudo-science, with a deformed view of the human person and the society in which he is supposed to live.
Conservative and liberal mentalities are indeed quasi-ideological responses in American partisanship to a process of ideologization throughout the West. Evidently these terms have been added to our language of partisanship to express this ideologization that has been added to the partisan field. But my topic is something else: an ingredient missing from the field as far back as the American founding.
The Tories and the Whigs
Well before Americans called themselves conservatives and liberals, they called themselves Federalists and Democratic Republicans. And before that, Englishmen called each other Tories and Whigs. I will talk about “Tory” and “Whig” mentalities in America’s mother country–not about the American metaphorical “Tory” of 1776 who may have been a conscientious objector to the separation from the mother country, or about the American metaphorical “Whig” of the 1830’s who conceived himself as a resister to the “monarchical” presidency of Jackson.
In England of the 1670’s, a Tory was a supporter of Charles II and of the legal right of his brother James II to succeed to the throne after him; meanwhile a Whig was someone suspicious of royal power in general and of James II in particular. The controversy over the succession affected issues of religious establishment. Whigs at least entertained republican notions. John Locke was a Whig.
This polarity had its roots in the English civil war, an event that an American needs to know about if he is to understand anything about the American founding. And the terms from the 1670’s are still metaphors, inasmuch as they reach back to the civil war as terms of abuse. Buried in each term is the suggestion that one’s opponent is a traitor (or foreigner) and a heretic. When a Whig called you a Tory, he was likening you to an Irish Catholic bandit. When a Tory called you a Whig, he was likening you to a Scottish Presbyterian insurrectionist. (Is it healthier to express partisan hostility openly and let your enemy name you?)1
Historical awareness has not been completely lost, and in 2013, Tories, Whigs, and the “Exclusion Crisis” were in the news. Conservative backbenchers in both houses of the British Parliament referred frequently to the ouster of James II when debating revisions to the Act of Settlement.2 New York Times columnist Russ Douthat counseled American conservatives to think in terms of the “country vs. court” politics of the eighteenth-century Tory leader Viscount Bolingbroke, perhaps flattering his readers by supposing they would get the reference.3
In the colonial rebellion of 1776, everyone in America was a Whig–that is, the inheritor of a British partisan mentality existing in opposition to another mentality that had no representatives on the scene. The people who came here had grievances which, back in Britain, had tied them to Whig constituencies. And if they were not aggrieved, only dispossessed seekers of fortune, their conceptualization of the new life in the wilderness was shaped by common Whig notions.
My thesis is that a cultural distillation occurred, that it brought into being a different partisan field, one suffering a particular lack that underlies the morbidity we see in today’s field.
A Political Spectrum Implies More than Partisanship
My point on the “missing ingredient” or “factor” in the American founding requires a preparatory survey of the nature of political difference, how it is perceived and how it works. On the one hand, a constitution may enforce division into two parties, two gangs, as in the “Crips and Bloods”, even before the Crips and Bloods discover any principles to stand for. The empty forms seek content. On the other hand, there really are families of sentiment that contradict each other, in a field I call a political climate of opinion, like the Cambridge Platonist Joseph Glanvill’s metaphysical climate of opinion, which undergirds the political.4
And this field can be mapped as a “political spectrum,” as the English named it in the 1800’s: a scale of more-and-less rather than the binary either-or of simple partisanship. A voter can hold beliefs anywhere on the scale, but his party’s manifesto has no nuance and may not express his specific beliefs. Still the party expects his support. So there is slippage between parties and mentalities.
British Colors and French Spectrum
Why a spectrum? Because English parties have colors (colours).Tories are true blue, going back to the livery of the Cavalier Musgrave family5 like the blue blood of the Visigoths in Spain’s Reconquest. But the blood of the workers (Labour) runs red. And in the U. S. A., communist “fellow travelers” were said to be pink.
And yet both Republicans and Democrats always wrapped themselves in red, white, and blue until Republicans arbitrarily became red and Democrats blue in 2000. This new color scheme mystifies most people. The late television pundit Tim Russert decided it for a computerized electoral map, probably because he didn’t want to connect the Democrats with the color of the CPUSA. No doubt he thought blue would stand for “blue collar,” but what is the correlative for Republican red?
With this color assignment he at once polarized us further and deliberately broke a chain of symbolism that would have connected the U. S. to the U. K. Meanwhile the French, though they invented gauche et droite from a seating chart in 1789, have not a spectrum, but a chessboard: l’échiquier politique.
The original metaphor involves seeing party politics as strategized combat, “playing for position.” It was pressed into service as an equivalent for the English “spectrum,” apparently, because spectre, to any non-scientist, means “ghost” or “phantom.” There was no intent to plot sentiments in two dimensions à la Descartes, in order to account for difference within each partisan wing. (I would be glad to hear more about l’échiquier from any Francophone readers.)
I began this article with the dead metaphors of “polarity” and “polarization.” The optical spectrum fades gradually into the invisible zones of infrared and ultraviolet, suggesting a politics so “extreme” at either end of the political spectrum as to be unimaginable. The metaphor of the political “pole” suggests something concrete–geographic and magnetic poles, perhaps with Adolf Hitler as right-wing “true north” (consistent with the vulgar polemical habit humorously called “reductio ad Hitlerum”) and Stalin as his “polar” opposite. But do such terms as “extreme” and “moderate” express degrees of any real relationship? And does the spectrum itself stand for anything more than a figment?
The Accusation of Being “Left” or “Right”
This brief and hardly complete investigation of signs and symbols has a purpose. The spectrum concept shapes political consciousness and can be used to manipulate it. The image of a common field suggests an equal legitimacy for all participants, and supports an optimism about diversity. But as a linear scale it is a one-dimensional chart that says: “you are not allowed to think of political difference in other dimensions.”
In the 1960’s Schlesinger and Rossiter used the spectrum to define political normality as a median point between extremes, subconsciously imposing the image of a bell curve on the line, and pulling the bell’s head towards their liberalism: “I’m OK, you’re an extremist.”6 Insofar as the American spectrum maps tendencies of conservatives and Republicans (towards a politics of reaction and resistance to change) against tendencies of liberals and Democrats (towards a politics of gradual or perennial revolution), it manifests the new encroachment of ideology upon American politics.
We may retroject the terms “conservative” and “liberal” into nineteenth-century partisanship, but they don’t fit very well. It’s only in the twentieth century, especially when Americans needed to be clear on what they were fighting against in World War II, and there were American Nazis and American Communists in effect representing the ideologies of foreign regimes, and Americans in the political mainstream began positioning themselves in reference to ideologies, that one began to speak of an American “left” and “right.”7
The new terminology of “left” and “right” appears as an accusation: conservatives accuse liberals of being “leftist” in order to associate them with godless communists, and liberals accuse conservatives of being “rightist” to associate them with racist Nazis, following the pattern by which “Tories” and “Whigs” were named in seventeenth-century Britain. Furthermore, in liberal hands, the image of the political spectrum shows up not simply as a double-ended vector going left and right but going into the past and future: a time-line telling a progressivist story, to the disadvantage of those whom Comte labeled the “retrograde” element.
Political science teachers have the job of introducing students to the political culture of their own country and to the terms of political speech. Insofar as the roots of the dead metaphors are not exposed, these teachers are ideologizing the students while enculturating them. (I would like to hear from readers: how do you teach the political spectrum, and how far do you encourage your students to question it?)
It is one thing to deconstruct political clichés in order to break their power. It is another thing to deconstruct a nation’s civil theology, its founding myth. If one looks further into the nature and history of the partisan field in which political actors are asserting themselves and contending against each other, the myth is endangered.
Spiritual Wines and Secular Bottles
Voegelin’s History of Political Ideas tells again and again a story of fall, for example, the fall from empire to nation-state, when the Roman-Byzantine-Carolingian evocation of a unified Christian order failed, and sovereign Christian princes asserted the right to make war on each other and to control the destinies of their subjects in two worlds, the spiritual as well as the temporal.
The new institutions and conceptualizations are not up to the task of expressing man’s full nature and ordering his social life, to the extent that they shirk or scant the task of representing man’s place in the cosmos. The old wine of the spirit, so to speak, does not fit into the new bottles of cultural downsizing–in a process of fragmentation, of subjection of the spiritual to the temporal powers, and ultimately, even when it is unintentional, of secularization.
Furthermore, Voegelin portrays America as a European project, nothing more or less. And he characterizes the migration of Protestant sectarians to New England not as a covenantal exodus, but as an evasion, a walk-out.9 I believe I’m expanding a Voegelinian narrative when I tell the story of the American founding in terms of a shift from the paradigm of Tories and Whigs to the paradigm of Federalists and Democratic Republicans.
This is a cultural distillation in which Toryism gets left behind–in the first American civil war of 1776–with religious overtones derived from the English civil war. Part of the organism is lost. Once lost, there’s no one ever again to speak for it. So Tories and Whigs make something like a Taoist yin and yang, and an all-Whig America is a yang without a yin. (That’s the “Cliff notes” version.)
This thesis requires painstaking historical substantiation, starting with: What was Toryism, and what was Whiggism? Well, Toryism is not an “ism” at all, Dr. Johnson might say, but a principled relation of loyalty, “an adherence to the ancient constitution of the state and the apostolic hierarchy of the church”–hence, a politics of throne and altar, a politics still open to spiritual representation, or more open than any competitor, under post-reformation circumstances in the age of the nation-state.10
And, Johnson might say, Whiggism at bottom is only a politics of faction–Jonathan Swift would add, a politics of absurd coalitions.11 And so in America the Federalist glorifies republican factiousness and the multiplicity of sects as natural limiters of governmental power and brakes on religious influence. This is a fall.
You may say the fashion changed, people don’t follow the beat of an antique drum. Institutions disappear along with the élites they harbored, the élites who would speak for the old politics. Rest assured: mine is no theory of a historic wrong turn that could have been averted, or righted today by moral earnestness. It only tells how we got here, and what we don’t have.
The U. S. A. has prospered upon its “low but solid” foundations, but there’s a canary in the mineshaft: when my late friend Russell Kirk invents American intellectual conservatism as an anti-ideological construct around 1950, he cannot do it purely from American sources. He has to internalize Edmund Burke the crypto-Tory, and invoke British anti-utilitarians.12
Risky Business: Tampering with the Myth
My thesis faces diplomatic difficulties as well as difficulties of substantiation, and simply agreeing with Voegelin provides no cover.
First, I know that American conservatives don’t take well to labefaction of the constitutional gods. At the first APSA annual meeting I ever attended in 1983, I saw Thomas Pangle get the “how dare you” treatment from a Harry Jaffa acolyte.13 One may dispute the status of Jaffite Straussians as “conservatives,” but their critics may be just as touchy about the sacred origins cordoned off protectively under “originalist” rubrics.
Then, insofar as the American founding was a Protestant sectarian project, the spiritual insufficiency of the American founding is the problem of some insufficiency in Protestant sectarianism, and here I invoke Voegelin’s critique of Luther and Calvin,14 whom I would describe, respectively, as the Washington and Lincoln of a Protestant founding myth.
But saying so will be a set-back for ecumenism–let’s put it that way. As I said to the gentlemen on this Americanist panel: your scholarship will prove useful to my project (thank you) for a version that does not demand absolute secularization and utter social atomization. At the same time I perceive you are arguing from inside the American founding myth. As Ben Franklin should have said to the lady in Philadelphia after the constitutional convention, “It’s a sectarian republic, if you can keep it.”
And then I face smiling European post-modernists who just don’t feel the pathos of the fallen ancien régime as Marx and Wagner did and who live in deep “existential conflict” under embourgeoisé constitutional monarchies and marginal state churches that seem an exercise in quaintness. If I don’t get my tone on Toryism and Whiggism just right, they will patronize the work as an exercise in quaintness. These gentlemen will have no feeling for the view of Voegelin and Camus that the next step after regicide is deicide.
In the submitted article, I relied on Voegelin in order to take a shorter path than arguing for my own readings of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But his History of Political Ideas deserves full discussion and full exposure of themes leftists would call “reactionary.” His reading of the period starts with rejecting the narrative of an epic struggle for the revival of classical republicanism; instead he looks for the spiritual casualties.
The English seventeenth century has more to do with the imagery of the royal martyr, the royal touch, and the attempt to dress Cromwell’s corpse in the royal regalia, than with dusty tracts that may or may not have been read by the American founders.15 The English eighteenth century is a story of corruption of District of Columbia proportions, the Whig mother at last outdone only in our time by the Whig daughter.
The American Synthesis: Making the Best of a Bad Bargain?
I closed my remarks by returning to American culture’s internal contradictions and their alleged symbiotic life as an organic whole. I contrasted Voegelin’s conclusions on America with those of a conservative gentleman whom I grant the shelter of anonymity; after all, his remark was off the cuff, and I take it out of context. He says:
“If you take the Protestant Christianity of some of the founders and compromise it with the kind of Lockean Deism [or] covert atheism of some of the [other] founders, the compromise between the two kind of accidentally produces Thomism.”
Needless to say, this is a curious statement, for the light it casts on its maker’s view of Thomism as well as on America. Contrast it with Voegelin, from a private letter to a Harvard student in 1954, where he says:
“The incipient gnosticism, which . . . entered the American [founding], but [was] stabilized at a comparatively innocuous level, has nevertheless had the result of ruining, in American intellectual history, a balanced conception of the nature of man.”
“As a consequence, from the [founding] to the present, the picture of man oscillates between a Pelagian confidence in man’s goodness and . . . ability to work his self-salvation; and a radical Calvinist conviction [note, not Augustinian but Calvinist conviction] that he is a creature not to be trusted and permanently to be kept under supervision . . . .”
“The optimistic exuberance of creating a new society in a new world, entirely different [from] the bad old Europe, is well balanced by Madison and Hamilton’s profound conviction that everybody is a crook . . . This schizophrenic anthropology, to be sure, is not a brilliant achievement of the human mind; but as a substitute for the wholeness of man it seems to work in practice . . . at least up to the present . . . .”16
In other words, the American climate of opinion, pitted against itself–checking and balancing itself–has functioned in and through institutions in such a way as both to moderate policies and to conserve the institutions themselves: a system of operational complementarity.
As people say, “it’s crazy but it works.” Or still did in the twentieth century; ideologization makes everything worse. But Voegelin did not want to be the ugly European; the ugly Europeans were busy on the East Coast turning the Ivy League schools into “brothels of opinion” and pandering to American post-Puritan self-hatred. So he mostly kept this to himself–and, of course, did not publish the History of Political Ideas.
1. Gaelic tóraidhe means “pursued man” or outlaw, and refers to Irish Catholics, often noble, reduced to banditry and guerilla warfare against English parliamentarian forces and settlers in the 1650’s. “Whig” is the shortened form of whiggamor or whiggamaire, a whipper (whigger) of mares, particularly a west Scottish rustic coming to Leith to buy corn. It was applied to radical Scottish covenanters in 1648 who made a raid upon other covenanters allied with Charles I.
2. David Cameron was trying to force through Parliament his revision to the 1701 law which regulates the royal succession–in time for the possible birth of “the royal baby,” so that this child could have a place in the succession even if female, and even if it should someday marry a “papist.” Conservative backbenchers in both houses (Commons and Lords) raised many learned objections to tampering with fragile constitutional fabric. Note that members of the (British) Conservative Party are known informally as “Tories.”
3. “Going for Bolingbroke,” New York Times, July 28, 2013, page SR12.
4. Joseph Glanvill (1636-80) was a Cambridge Platonist. The phrase occurs in his Vanity of Dogmatizing (1661). Voegelin embraces the phrase in his 1973 essay “On Classical Studies.” See Collected Works Vol. 12, p. 257.
5. Sir Philip Musgrave, 2nd Baronet (1607-78), was a Royalist commander. His escutcheon had nine gold rings on a field of blue.The family’s royalist heritage is the basis for the Sherlock Holmes story, “The Musgrave Ritual.”
6. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (1917-2007) was a perennial pundit and Kennedy hagiographer. His biased discussion of the spectrum appears in The Vital Center (1949). Clinton Rossiter (1917-70) was a Cornell political science professor who recycled Schlesinger’s discussion when trying to explain American conservatism to liberals in Conservatism in America: The Thankless Persuasion (1st edn., 1955). These accounts provided the standard view of the spectrum that became a staple in civics instruction for the second half of the twentieth century.
7. The only “left” and “right” to be found in America during the 1920’s and early ’30’s were internal to the communist movement, as a polarity of Social Democrats vs Stalinists.
8. As I mix metaphors here I am, of course, conflating several of Voegelin’s references to pluralism and the conservative-liberal polarity. I would especially call attention to his citation of Coleridge on the Tower of Babel in the 1977 Hillsdale Lecture, “Deformations of Faith.”
9. On “walk-out,” see the History of Political Ideas Vol VII (Collected Works, Vol 25), p. 90. See Glenn A. Moots, Politics Reformed: The Anglo-American Legacy of Covenant Theology (Univ. of Missouri Press, 2010 for a brief account of Voegelin on covenant.
10. Samuel Johnson (1709-84), who wrote the Dictionary of the English Language (1755), has long been a symbol of mid-eighteenth-century Tory sentiment–during a period when the actual Tory Party was sinking into oblivion. His famous biographer James Boswell prettified Johnson’s politics somewhat for a Whig audience, and the twentieth-century scholar Donald Greene, in The Politics of Samuel Johnson (1960) misrepresented him as a modern liberal hero. See Russell Kirk’s castigation of Greene, “Samuel Johnson the Statist,” in Kenyon Review XXII (1960), pp 679-86). “Adherence to the ancient constitution . . .” comes from the entry in his dictionary for “TORY.”
11. Swift may have been the most read and most influential political writer of the eighteenth century. See the Examiner essays.
12 See Kirk, The Conservative Mind (1953). “Low but solid ground” is a phrase Leo Strauss seems to attribute to Locke’s Second Treatise in his Natural Right and History (1953), but as far as I can see is not to be found there. It has come to be associated completely with Straussianism. Solidity language occurs more often in Mandeville and The Federalist Papers.
13. Pangle’s paper was a draft chapter, I believe, for The Spirit of Modern Republicanism: The Moral Vision of the American Founders and the Philosophy of Locke (1988). He dared to point out that the word “virtue” never occurs in the Declaration of Independence. His respondent objected to any suggestion that the founding was “base.”
14. See the chapter in HPI Vol IV (Collected Works Vol 22), “The Great Confusion I: Luther and Calvin” and other references in HPI.
15. Not actually Cromwell’s corpse, but the effigy constructed for his lying-in-state and funeral procession. See Laura Lunger Knoppers, Constructing Cromwell: Ceremony, Portrait, and Print 1645–1661 (Cambridge, 2009).
16. Voegelin’s answer to the student, Arthur L. Fine, who had just read The New Science of Politics, appears in Selected Correspondence 1950-1984 (CW 30), pp 212-14. Perhaps Voegelin bothered to answer because the writer was a student of William Yandell Elliott, who had helped to facilitate Voegelin’s settlement in the U. S. when he escaped from Austria in 1938. This letter did not inspire Fine to pursue a career in political philosophy. He became a lawyer and a judge.