After wearing out the patience of television viewers over an entire year of premature campaigning, the two political parties will soon be informing us of their choices.  Will the presidential election of 2008 really come down to a contest between two leftist anti-Christian senators representing New York?  Or will Al Gore, even more bloated with a Nobel Prize, sneak in to rescue the Democrats?  Or will the ghost of Ronald Reagan return to do what no living Republican is likely to—namely, to cover that disgraced and shameless party with a few rags and tatters of respectability?

For the sake of argument, I am assuming that my two favorite candidates, Ron Paul and Donnie Kennedy, have less of a chance than my third choice, Stephen Colbert.  In a great comic moment, one of the news anchors (Charlie Gibson, I believe) wondered if Colbert’s mock campaign showed disrespect to our great democratic institution of free elections.  I think he was kidding.

When conservatives say they are upset because no one represents their “ideas,” I hope they, too, are kidding.  What the GOP needs, they tell me, is a sharper ideological focus.  I have lost my voice and developed writer’s cramp trying to explain to them that, in Washington, there is no ideological conflict in which it is worth your trouble to take sides.  Whatever and however the candidates are chosen, the choice can only be between the welfare state party of international socialism and the welfare state party of global capitalism.  For Christian conservatives and traditionalists, there is no ideological choice.

We must  distinguish between the two basic senses in which ideology is typically used: The one pretends to take ideas seriously; the other looks honestly at political reality.  In the first sense, ideology is a social-political theory that pits one movement against another and gives people an excuse to slander, deceive, enslave, and murder unbelievers.  Marxism is the preeminent example of a principled ideology.  Since there is no “Christian ideology,” all ideologies are non-Christian.

Every principled ideology—socialism, capitalism, libertarianism, feminism—can be explained as a distortion of one or another aspect of Christianity that is taken out of context and inflated into a universal theory that explains everything.  Socialism takes the Christian view of charity and community, as practiced in the Acts of the Apostles, and twists it into a totalitarian denial of personal liberty.  Libertarianism and capitalism take Christianity’s emphasis on the dignity of the human person and pervert it into a money-grubbing greediness that is contemptuous of charity.  Feminism borrows Christianity’s elevated view of women and turns it into a means of exploiting and degrading the weaker sex.  To accomplish this transformation of gold into lead, the bit of Christian faith that is borrowed must be heavily diluted with ideological solvents that make it thin enough to cover the globe.  Examined in this light, all ideologies, including those that might pretend to be based on Christianity, are anti-Christian.

For this reason, no Christian can put much stock in a political ideology that explains the world in anti-Christian terms.  There is no Christian Party in the United States, and no presidential candidate, with the exception of Jimmy Carter, has run explicitly Christian campaigns, no matter how many Baptist churches they have attended for photo ops.  Unless they are blinded by the illusion that some conservative is going to outlaw abortion, Christians who wish to vote can feel free to vote for either Hillary or Rudy, if one of them will help their business, increase their welfare payments, or cut their taxes.

When people vote their pocketbooks, as they so often do, they are giving some color to Marx’s other definition of ideology: a set of ideas concocted to advance the interests of a social class.  Classical liberalism—low taxes, free trade, individual liberty—is the ideology of the well-to-do bourgeoisie, while socialism is the ideology of those who expect to be dependent upon government largesse: schoolteachers, promiscuous young women, and the politicians and public servants who have so nobly given up brilliant careers in the private sector because they wished to serve the people.  No one claims the ideal of public service more loudly than outgoing public officials who have abused their authority.  In his farewell address, Alberto Gonzales lauded “the power of the people in this Department to give of themselves selflessly and to provide hope to others.”  I took him more seriously when he thanked George W. Bush for the appointment and declared that Hispanic-Americans now had an attorney general.  Since his loyalty was only to his boss and not to any part of the American people, we can conclude that, fortunately, he was only kidding.

Politics is about power, and mainly the power to get money and sexual favors.  The antics of Warren Harding, Jack Kennedy, and Bill Clinton were not aberrations.  To devote one’s life to seeking power requires a high level of testosterone, which has almost inevitable results.  Some men, in the interest of holding power, do not risk the scandal generated by extramarital affairs, but they know that the lust for power is supposed to be accompanied by plain old lust.  Hence the sanctimonious—and ridiculous—claim made by Cherie and Tony Blair of the frequency with which they pay their marital debt.

Political parties, whatever ideologies they may profess, function as coalitions of interest groups.  The Democratic Party attracts, as I said before, government dependents, resentful ethnic and racial minorities, and immoralists; the Republican Party, while claiming to represent the middle class, remains the party of large corporate interests.  Republican farm policy, for example, subsidizes the huge profits of agribusiness while leaving the smaller farmers, who actually live and work on the farm, to starve.

In a vast continental empire the size of the United States, there is no way for a major party to take account of the true interests of the nation, which may be regional, socioeconomic (farmers versus bankers), or even ethnic and religious.  The very size of the country encourages politicians and parties to adopt ideological slogans that trick voters into thinking that the Democrats really want to help poor blacks or that the Republicans are trying to protect innocent life and save Western civilization, when, in either case, nothing could be further from the truth.  I am on the verge of formulating a general rule: While statesmen, in the early days of a commonwealth, wish to defend the interests of the whole (e.g., these United States) and of their little part (e.g., Virginia or Massachusetts), it is the politician’s object to substitute an ideology or party loyalty for the real interest of the people.  Contrast, for example, statesmen such as Adams, Jefferson, and Calhoun, with politicians such as Van Buren and Lincoln.

One example of how the old system worked, even on its last legs, should suffice.  In 1848, the election of Zachary Taylor, one of the most popular presidents in our history, served to unify an increasingly divided nation.  As an Indian fighter and the hero of the Mexican War, Taylor had an unquestioned reputation for patriotism; as a Whig (though he virtually ignored the Whig platform of a national bank and federal investment in development), he had the support of much of the northeastern establishment; as a slave-owning Louisianan, he appealed to the South, even though he opposed the extension of slavery; but as a sugar planter, he supported protective tariffs, without which the entire sugar industry was unprofitable.  I do not say he was a prudent politician or an especially effective leader, but in representing substantial interests of his country, he was able to steer a course which, had he lived, might have avoided the war.

In talking about over 200 years of the history of a vast and diverse country, I have inevitably simplified and probably trivialized it.  We can see the process more clearly on a smaller-scale society, such as ancient Athens before the Persian Wars.  There, the basic struggle was not so much between rich and poor (though the class conflict was real enough) as among three regions of Attica, each dominated by one or more powerful aristocratic clans.

When Cleisthenes, the leader of one of those clans (the Alcmeonids), came to power by taking an anti-Spartan line, he reorganized the polity by eliminating the traditional tribal structure, reducing the role of the cult-based clans (the phratries), and assigning every little community (or deme) to larger entities that cut across traditional boundaries of region and kindred.  The result was what they called democracy, and it worked for a while until Pericles (related through his mother to Cleisthenes) made a faction of the lower classes and destroyed the barriers to mob rule.  As Thucydides shrewdly put it, they called it democracy, but it was really the rule of one man.

Athens could not survive either the class conflict or the ideological cheapening introduced by Cleisthenes and Pericles, and the city swung from a well-managed tyranny (Pericles) to mob rule under demagogues (Cleon) to an irresponsible fascistic dictatorship (Critias) back to a moderate democracy that gradually sank into oligarchy—the best fate that any democracy can suffer, once it has turned its back on the authentic interests on which a legitimate commonwealth is based.

It would be more difficult, though hardly impossible, to trace the degeneration of the United States from the limited republic of Adams and Jefferson to the imperial plutocracy of Lincoln and Grant to the national socialism of Franklin Roosevelt and his successors to our own miserable and degraded condition today, when conservatives have abandoned even the fig leaves of law that used to protect us, in theory at least, from our rulers in Washington.

Is there a single moral, social, economic, constitutional, or even environmental principle that would deter such people as Donald Rumsfeld or Alberto Gonzales, Dick Cheney or Michael Chertoff, for even a day, if there was something they wanted?  I have no pity for foreigners or Americans who join, however loosely, terrorist organizations, but it is a well-known principle that rulers bent on tyranny always begin by ignoring the civil rights of unpopular people: communists, klansmen, and criminals.  The techniques used to frame Bill Haywood and Al Capone are now routinely employed against ordinary citizens.  Perhaps it will not be too long before right-wing Americans who dissent from the religion of Lincoln, Wilson, and FDR will be given the same treatment as John Walker Lindh or Moazzam Beg.

The American people have never been so politically powerless as they are today.  Elections are, for the most part, a meaningless game of musical chairs in which phony liberals change places with phony conservatives, and none of them, apart from a few old gangsters and logrollers, has the slightest concern for the constituents who only see him on television.  Retail politics, which is the only politics that benefits the consumer (that is, the voter), has always been, from the politician’s point of view, undesirable.  Now, with congressional districts approaching an average population of 700,000, and with the population of medium-sized states such as Illinois reaching 13 million, it is impossible.

If conservatives abandoned ideological politics and voted the interests of themselves, their communities, and their professions and businesses, what would change?  For one thing, we would no longer be held hostage to the abortion question, whose only function today is to distract us from what is actually going on.  It is the prestidigitator’s wand that keeps the rubes in the audience from seeing what he is slipping up his sleeve with the other hand.  In economic policy, the free-traders—international socialists to the marrow of their bones—could no longer prate about how they are preserving free markets by destroying the livelihoods of the American people.  If you are going to vote socialist, at least vote for the street-and-sewer socialism of the old Midwestern Progressives instead of the globalist socialism of the Wall Street Journal.

If I had to pick a currently active national politician to represent my interest, I should probably select Robert Byrd.  Like his colleagues, he may be one of the biggest boondogglers, but much of the boondoggling is for his home state.  Ideologues and party hacks complain about pork, but what else is there in American politics?  At least when a congressman sends pork back to his district, he is not monopolizing the fruits of his corruption.

Back in South Carolina, many people had a chance to meet their congressmen and senators.  The state and its districts were smaller back then, but there was also a different attitude.  Face-to-face contact between politicians and the middling classes was expected.  For some years, my congressional representative was the late Mendel Davis, who died this past May.  He was an old friend from college and the nephew and godson of the immortal L. Mendel Rivers, the king of military-industrial pork packers.  As one of his colleagues once told him, “Mendel, if you send any more military hardware down to Charleston, that place is going to sink.”  Although I never cashed in on our relationship, I always knew that Mendel Davis would at least listen to my complaints, both for old times’ sake and out of deference to the interests of the people who elected him.

Southern Democrats have always been better than Republicans at serving their constituents.  Among most people I knew—including several ferocious right-wingers— there was a feeling that Ernest F. Hollings was a better senator than Strom Thurmond.  While Strom could hoodwink most of the white vote (and some of the black vote) every six years, Fritz had to work hard to stay in office, and he always looked out for the little communities of his state.  Although a perfect nobody, I met the senator on several occasions, and his representative came to our village annually to listen to the complaints and petitions of the locals.  Fritz, though a fiscal conservative, was a typical Southern liberal, and a cynical one at that, but he stood in a long line of Deep South politicians who actually looked out for the folks back home.  In 1980, when I broke my firm rule against voting, I pulled the lever (we still had them) for Ronald Reagan and Ernest F. Hollings.  When President Reagan bailed out on Mel Bradford, I knew that I had been at least half-right.