“Every nation has the government it deserves.” Joseph de Maistre’s hard saying can give small comfort to Americans. Oh, it is true, we have a paper Constitution that promises a republican form of government, but all three branches of that government have for several generations conspired to evacuate the republican content from the system, leaving only a decorative and ceremonial shell of elections without issues, ghost-written speeches, and congressmen haranguing an empty chamber for the benefit of C-Span cameramen. The United States is a republic in the same sense that Great Britain is a monarchy. In theory, the Queen might declare a dissolution and summon new ministers more to her liking, but the attempt would bring her unfortified palace down around Her Majesty’s ears. Over here, it is the people who reign without ruling.

Whatever our form of government might be in principle, the real American system has little in common with the republic of our not-so-distant ancestors. If there is any doubt of this, we have only to consider the apparently inverse relationship between the quality of leadership and the quantity of power. In the beginning we elected Washington, Adams, and Jefferson but refused to grant them even a fraction of the power we cheerfully surrender to Jimmy Carter and George Bush.

It is not so much the form of government that defines a nation as the character of its governors. The Leaders We Deserve was the title of a provocative book by Alistair Mant, who describes bad leaders as men (typically) who cannot conceive of any value or significance beyond their own personal victories. They have learned, since early childhood, when to attack and when to flee, and they are bound by no loyalty to principle or institution. The Lyndon Johnsons and Margaret Thatchers, he argues, may be kind to those who serve them, but they are incapable of laughing at themselves, because they have no criterion beyond their own personal success. Such people do not become political leaders except in countries where the entire leadership class is dominated by such personality types.

In symbolic terms, our own ruling elite consists of George Bush (assisted and mirrored by James Baker, William Bennett, Newt Gingrich, and GOP chairman Rich Bond) on the Republican side; and Bill Clinton and/or Paul Tsongas among the Democrats. That we have sunk so far from the republic of Washington and Jefferson is no occasion for wonder—”All human things are subject to decay”—but that we fall so short of the glories of Grover Cleveland and Calvin Coolidge, that is the festering wound in our national conscience.

What a contest it will be, assuming Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton receive their parties’ nominations. Unlike George Bush, Clinton is not even a credible imitation of a man. “Governor Elvis,” as he is sometimes known in his home state, is too cute for words, the Peter Jennings of politics, an Al Gore with the common touch, a male model who knows how to flirt and leer at the audiences that even he must despise for their gullibility. Bill Clinton is a very familiar type to those of us who went to college in the 1960’s: the well-dressed frat boy who is already planning his political career. (Isn’t that the real significance of his letter to the National Guard?)

A politician with a program to cure every human ill, Clinton only lacks a principle with which he can connect up all the little dots of his policies. Selected as his party’s dream candidate, a Southern moderate, Clinton has oriented his entire campaign toward keeping Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition within the Democratic Party. Even George Bush, the feeblest Republican candidate since Wendell Willkie, not excepting Gerald Ford whom he so much resembles, even George Bush ought to be able to mop up the floor with him, especially when more of the governor’s rejected mistresses come back to haunt him.

Mr. Tsongas, it must be said, is both more intelligent and more honest than the front-runner, but are we ready for a moralizing prig who made his money as a lobbyist? Tsongas does have the ability to laugh at himself, but that is one more sign of his superiority over lesser men. Jerry Brown, for my money, is the best of the lot: smart, clearheaded, and brave enough to tell America the truth about itself, that we no longer have the best Congress money can buy. If we must have social democracy, then we would be better off under Brown, who promises something like German efficiency in the service of Catholic social thought, than under either of the more prominent liberal candidates, Clinton and Bush.

Mr. Bush, to his credit, makes a good impression on foreigners who do not speak English. He wears his clothes well, and unlike Clinton who can never shut off his coprophagous grin, the President knows how to appear grave on serious occasions. Unfortunately, he is another Monroe—Marilyn, not James—who can manage to keep up appearances until he ventures to say something that is not written down for him. Next to his pleasant appearance, George Bush’s other virtue is his fidelity to one of his party’s oldest principles, the conviction that the country belongs exclusively to those who can afford to buy it. When his sons are accused of insider trading or profiting from an S&L swindle, the President is honestly baffled. Isn’t that how everyone makes his money?

Mr. Bush’s reelection hopes are pinned on the support of loyal Republicans, a class of Americans even more mule-headed than the yellow-dog Democrats who refuse to vote for the party of Grant and Sherman. To the true Republican stalwart, nothing matters but his party’s control of the White House—and the patronage that goes with it. They may agree with Pat Buchanan’s message, but they are afraid to vote for him, lest they split the party and hand the election over to the Democrats, as if there were principled differences between the Bush and Carter regimes. In fact. Bush’s New World Order internationalism is the craziest of Carter’s policies, but we used to be able to blame that kind of one-worldism on liberal Democrats. Pat Buchanan is fighting an uphill battle in his crusade to reform the Republican Party. The first man to make the attempt, James Garfield, was shot by a disgruntled stalwart, and the party’s leadership is filled with would-be Charles Guiteaus.

Nothing so reveals the character of the regime as the campaign carried out against Patrick Buchanan. A devoted Republican and loyal servant of two Republican presidents, Buchanan was attacked as an anti-Semite by A.M. Rosenthal and William Buckley (who later attempted to explain away his slander), as a fascist by Charles Krauthammer and William Bennett who also accused him of appealing to the “worst angels” of the American character, and as another David Duke by Rich Bond and Newt Gingrich. So much for conservatism’s Big Tent or the 11th commandment of the GOP.

Pat Buchanan’s importance as a challenge to the liberal-conservative/Republican-Democratic regime can be measured by the nastiness of the assault upon his character, and it is not too much to describe the conservatives who piled on as lackeys of that regime. But the fault does not lie with the Bennetts and Rosenthals—utterly implausible public figures who could not have taken in our same ancestors who paid extra to see Bamum’s Egress—but with the party that tolerates them and an American people who have forgotten the use of tar and feathers.

The standard line from the liberal-conservatives is that our institutions need reforming. Cut taxes, tame Congress, trim the fat from the budget, dismantle the EPA, and it will be morning again in America. But the acceptability of George Bush and his mercenaries cannot be blamed exclusively upon our institutions. There is something wrong with the character of a people who cannot look at a David Duke or Newt Gingrich or Bill Clinton and read their character in an instant. “A man of fifty,” observed a Republican stalwart of an earlier generation, “is responsible for his face,” and our current crop of leaders in both parties is a parade of Dorian Gray pictures illustrating the Seven Deadly Sins.

The relationship between a nation’s character and its institutions is not simple. Nations, as much as species, evolve by adapting themselves to conditions that are, to some extent, of their own devising. According to what is called the “gene-culture theory” of E.O. Wilson and Charles Lumsden, certain human qualities proved to be useful “in the beginning.” Individuals endowed with superior agility, intelligence, cooperativeness were more likely to do well in the competition for resources and mates. Cultural forms were gradually devised to take advantage of these aptitudes, and these forms themselves served to filter out individuals who lacked the requisite skills: a population of NFL players, for example, might not have much use for baseball pitchers, tennis players, and lyric poets, especially if they were in a race for the Super Bowl.

The same processes are at work in the evolution of human societies, although in this case the limited time involved usually (but not always) would preclude anything like major genetic changes. A rough new world, for example, will naturally attract a high proportion of adventurers, misfits, malcontents, and ne’er-do-wells, who will form customs and institutions compatible with their characters. More settled conditions will inevitably begin to favor the fortunes of shopkeepers and organization men, but an open and expanding frontier will enable the more adventurous souls to shake off the fetters of town life and light out for the territories, and the history of America is a ceaseless process of dissolution and creation, as families pulled up stakes and moved west. Besides, many of those who stayed behind were only half tame, living on farms and in backcountry settlements.

The social and political institutions of such a country will naturally take a different turn, away from the Old World’s settled habits of conformity and dependence. The Church of England might be established in the Carolinas and even take root in the Low Country areas, but Henry Woodward, a truculent Anglican minister of the 18th century, tells a miserable tale of the contumacious and ribald backcountry settlers who acknowledged no authority but their own. The Constitution ultimately adopted by the 13 seceding colonies was a compromise between the British conception of order, promoted by the Adamses and Pinckneys, and the near anarchy espoused by the most fervent Jeffersonians.

In the long run, however, it was the Federalist (falsely named) conception of order that prevailed. Some blame the triumph of government over the people on the process of modernization, but there is a universal tendency for all those in authority to increase their own power at the expense of any rival, whether that rival be another branch or lower level of government, another estate of the realm, or the citizenry themselves. Despite the revolutions of Jefferson and Jackson, and—on a lower level—of Harding and Coolidge, the centralization of power, which began with John Marshall’s appointment to the Supreme Court, never really slackened its pace.

But the concentration of power is not an autonomous process; it is parasitical and feeds upon the body politic. Politicians cannot simply seize power, not if they wish to hold on to it; they must buy it, by bribing, one after another, the classes and interests that can be expected to support the regime. From the beginning, Hamilton planned to use the nation’s borrowing power as bait to attract the commercial interests, and Henry Clay’s Whigs and Lincoln’s Republicans structured tariffs, jiggered freight rates, manipulated the sale of public lands, and granted monopolies and franchises in a time-honored strategy for enriching their supporters at the expense of the nation.

These devices are no worse than the strategems of European monarchs who sold peerages and patents to raise revenues and reward followers, but democracy opens much broader vistas for corruption, and allows the many to take part in the vices of the few. Once upon a time, only the very rich (or the very poor) could afford such luxuries as adultery, divorce, gambling. Today, it is well within the reach of any hardware dealer to spend a week at a “business convention” in Vegas with a side-trip to the Mustang Ranch and write the whole thing off on his taxes.

Throughout this century, the leaders of the American regime have attempted to be all things to all people: defense contracts for business, social security for the working classes, welfare programs and affirmative racial discrimination for the poor. Potential troublemakers—intellectuals and artists—have been bought off with academic jobs and federal grants.

Government assistance is an addition that saps the moral vitality of the recipients. What begins as a bad habit in which a free man might choose to indulge from time to time turns into a demon that subverts the will and enslaves the mind of the possessed. We were once a free people with distinctive, if somewhat limited, virtues, but we have conspired with our would-be masters to construct the institutions of the servile state. Can a servile population, such as ours, restore the institutions of a free republic? Probably not, although there may be a significant minority who would like to give it a try.

Revolutions, despite the textbook versions of history we learn in school, are not made by the masses. Neither the Jacobins nor the Bolsheviks, neither the Fascists nor the Nazis, represented the opinion of the majority. If a hard-core movement could be formed out of the elements supporting Mr. Buchanan’s bid for the Republican nomination, it might well possess sufficient resources and momentum for a social and political transformation that goes well beyond the misnamed Reagan Revolution.

I am addressing my remarks, now, exclusively to people who have the courage of their convictions. It is worth the effort, even to reason with the misguided souls who honestly support George Bush or his Democratic alter egos. But it is a waste of breath speaking to the self-styled conservative Republicans who support the President: they are like sheep, frisking and gamboling on the way to the slaughter house. They marvel at the modern elegance of their new home, comparing it favorably with the barns and pastures of their youth, and they are particularly impressed by the meat-processing machinery—real state-of-the-art stuff. They are embarrassed to think of all those years they spent exposed to the wind and the rain.

There are still some conservatives who do not have the sense to come in out of the rain, who prefer a life of principled independence out in the cold or back in the fever swamp. Some of them, watching the antics of their “allies” on the right are beginning to wonder if we are so corrupt as a nation that we do not deserve to enjoy—could not enjoy if it were handed to us—republican liberty. The truth is that in any nation, it is only a minority that can enjoy the blessings of liberty. Most men are made to lick the boots of their oppressors, and the classical republicanism of the 18th century was the creed of aristocrats. The real American experiment was our attempt to share those blessings with a large part, perhaps even a majority of the population. But any good thing may lose its value if shared too broadly. A spirited horse, harnessed to a cab or a hay wagon, will lose his character, and there are few men who would share their girlfriends and wives with even their best friends.

When we speak of “restoring the republic,” we cannot mean the immediate reconstruction of republican institutions for every man, woman, and illegal immigrant who happens to be residing somewhere between Canada and Mexico. The first task is the repair and reempowerment of a class of citizens who will take their responsibilities seriously. The Roman civil and military aristocracy of the imperial period constituted such a class, as did the gentlemen—broadly defined—who created and administered the British Empire.

The task seems, on the face of it, impossible. All the institutions that form the American character—schools, churches, the press, the arts—are responsible for the currently dilapidated state of our morals and manners. Give your son all the advantages of wealth and position—the Episcopal Church, good prep schools, and four years at Yale—and he comes out George Bush. In the short run, at least, we have to write off the great institutions and the current class of leaders being produced by them.

The only elements from which the next elite class can be constructed are the various religious and cultural sects that have attempted to secede from the main stream: some Baptist and Lutheran groups as well as various other evangelical and fundamentalist denominations, antimodern communitarians, maverick individualists. What do these people have in common? On the surface very little, although I have run into a 60’s hippie who turned Christian and is now a leader in the Christian home schooling movement. Two things have to happen in order to forge a new republican class out of such disparate elements. First, each of these groups has to straighten out its own house. My limited observation of conservative religious groups has not been encouraging. The laymen are, by and large, good solid people, but the clergy are almost unbelievably ignorant, and their ignorance makes them easy prey for any political or cultural fad that is not positively excluded by the Bible. I have seen, very recently, a paean to Afrocentric education in a publication of the Lutheran Church Wisconsin Synod. “It seems like the end of the world,” one church member said. The tougher, more sectarian groups may do a better job of preserving the primitive faith than the main-line churches, but their contempt for civilization makes me shudder at the prospects for a Christian America. Once upon a time, Calvinist and Methodist preachers were serious and educated men, and it is up to Christian communities to insist upon preachers that are both learned and virile.

Internal reform is a long-term process. In the short run, there must be a small and disciplined class of leaders with the energy and courage displayed by that small group of New Englanders, Virginians, Yorkers, and Carolinians who dragged their colonies kicking and screaming out of the British Empire. By the time this essay is published, Pat Buchanan may well have withdrawn from the race, but the 1992 election was never the only motive for his campaign, and for many of his supporters, it was not even the primary motivation. The really important point of the Buchanan movement is that it finally gives the remnants of the American Republic a place to take their stand. With Ronald Reagan, they had a leader like Homer’s Menelaus, who was “good at the battle cry” but rarely up to a fight against the most powerful enemies. With Mr. Buchanan, a street-brawler turned politician, they have a general who is willing to lead the charge in person.

“Give me somewhere to stand, and I shall move the Earth,” said Archimedes, who only needed a lever long enough. Mr. Buchanan’s challenge gives small “r” republicans of every type a place to stand and fight against the servile state, but it is up to them, in all their little communities, to provide the lever.