Presidential elections in the United States sometimes seem more like the Wars of the Roses than political contests. The resemblance to dynastic conflict goes beyond the predictable acrimony between two sets of political interests: the taxpayers of the Republican Party and the tax consumers on whom the Democrats rely. It is true, of course, that taxpayers in and out of the GOP hope to witness the defeat of a President who is not ashamed to say that he actually believes in redistribution, a nice word that means taking from me and my family to buy the votes of his welfare-dependent supporters.
The painful experience of the last four years is teaching America’s working classes—from factory workers to neurosurgeons—a little of what it is like to be a subjugated people, and some of us are already crying out to pharaoh to “let my people go,” or, rather, crying out to the people to let this pharaoh and all his ministers go. Naturally, the people who depend on the system—food-stamp recipients and the denizens of housing projects, public-school teachers, social workers, and government bureaucrats—are equally depressed by the prospect of a president who might even think about slowing the rate of growth in government spending on themselves, which is about the worst thing government dependents can fear from a Romney victory.
These serious pragmatic considerations, nonetheless, do not go very far to explain the high-running passions that attend this round of musical chairs that, in the end, will mean very little for normal Americans. Whoever wins, we shall still be fighting unwinnable wars, still refusing to protect our borders, still making war on all the moral and cultural traditions on which we claim this country was founded. Before signing on to the Romney campaign’s crusade for Western Values, we might pause to consider that this is the first election in which neither presidential candidate can make any plausible claim to being a Christian. I have nothing against Mormons. I have known several fairly well, and they are fine people. I am even willing to vote for a Mormon. My only objection is when they make the entirely bogus claim to being Christian.
As the range of issues on which the parties diverge narrows to the point of the infinitely receding railroad tracks, the cry goes up ever more stridently that what this country really needs is more effective political leadership. When Republicans fall back on this cliché, I ask them if their party has not taught them that self-reliance is the great American value. I thought, from listening to Rush and Sean, that all Republicans really want from politicians is for them to step aside and watch the smoke of entrepreneurs as they streak down the highway of prosperity and success.
There is something magical, these days, about leadership, whether it is the manna emanating from the ghost of Steve Jobs or the semi-royal accoutrements that envelop the president. These “leaders” are not mere mortals, oh no, and we do not expect them to lead normal lives. If they are great philanders like the Kennedys or Bill Clinton, their adoring public decries any criticism as puritanical; if they are manifestly inarticulate and incompetent like George W. Bush and Barack Obama, their clients in the press and in the parties simply lie. Obama is the greatest president in history—look at all the make-work programs he has devised to bankrupt the nation—and just look at Hillary Clinton, the greatest secretary of state in the history of the galaxy. Why, she’s straightened out just about everything in the Middle East.
If you don’t like Team Obama, you may put your faith in Team Bush and its potential successor, Team Romney. Consider the brilliance of Cheney and Rumsfeld, who brought peace to Iraq and Afghanistan without burdening the taxpayer. We fought those wars, as Rummy averred on a memorable occasion, “out of stock.”
Godamighty, as Sam Francis used to say, Godamighty, what a people we have become. The political credulity of American grown-ups cannot be blamed entirely on propaganda or even on the media. We actively want to be deceived; we desperately want leaders to believe in to the point of reverence. As every American with the right to vote should know, political reverence of this sort is incompatible with republican government, but, then, hardly anyone really wants republican government. What they want is monarchy—a Kennedy, Clinton, or Bush dynasty—and the only reason we have failed to achieve this desire is the persisting competition of the two crooked factions that divide power between them in much the same way that the North Side Mob and the Capone boys divided up Chicago.
As a political observer, I can wait for the inevitable St. Valentine’s Day, because it is clear which gang is going to win: the anti-European baby-killing tax-consumer gang. For this victory to be consummated, the Republican Party need not go out of business. It has an excellent track record of reinventing itself as last year’s Democratic Party. Mitt Romney is well to the left of the previous generation of his party’s leaders—of George H.W. Bush and even of Mitt’s liberal father George. When poor Governor Romney was being tutored on how to mouth conservative slogans, I was reminded of the famous Lenny Bruce routine in which Lyndon Johnson is drilled on how to pronounce Negro. “Come on, Lyndon, let’s hear it one more time: ‘Ni-i-gg-er-o.’”
We adore our leaders in much the same way as the Roman rabble licked the caligae of Julius Caesar and with the same religious zeal as the mixed lot of Macedonians and Greeks worshiped first Alexander and then his successors. It was the conquests of Philip and Alexander, the Scipios, Pompey and Caesar that made a Roman monarchy inevitable. The Roman order idealized by Cicero could not effectively rule a diverse polyglot and multiethnic population of subject peoples, any more than the U.S. Constitution can serve as the political framework within which Yankees and Southerners, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims and Santerians, Africans, Mexicans, and Asians can function as citizens of a republic.
I am not by any means a monarchist—far from it. The peoples I most admire lived in small-scale republics more or less controlled by a brilliant and patriotic aristocracy: Athens, Sparta, and Rome; the Children of Israel who fought their way into the Promised Land; Genoa, Venice, and Pisa; Virginia, South Carolina, and—yes—Massachusetts and New Hampshire. City-states and republican commonwealths have given the human race its civilization, but the painful truth is that, however we define it, republican governments are short lived, anywhere from a few generations to perhaps 500 years.
When Samuel gave the Children of Israel a king, he issued his oft-quoted warning about the consequences: taxation, conscription, servitude. What is less often cited are the circumstances that led to the demand for a king. The Jews were being thrashed by the Philistines, but the divisions and conflicts among their own tribes made a common defense impossible. That, it seems to me, is one important lesson we learn from the era of the Judges. The Israelites were a quarrelsome and prickly people, and their fractious nature made a king—despite all the abuses the prophet predicted—a necessity.
These animosities made inevitable the quarrels that broke out between Saul and David (and their respective kinsmen and followers), and the troubles did not cease with David’s ascent to the throne. Within two centuries, however, the northern tribes repudiated David’s grandson Rehoboam, crying, “What portion have we in David? . . . To your tents O Israel, now see to thine own house, David.” They did not simply fall back on their tribal institutions but divided the tiny kingdom into two easily swallowed morsels. After being subject to Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, and Macedonians, the Jews, backed by Rome, both won their independence and accepted the Hasmonean monarchy established by the Maccabees in the second century.
The kings of Athens are lost in an historical fog, but kingship sputtered out into an hereditary archonship and then into some sort of elective archonship in the eighth century. Four centuries later, the Athenians submitted to Philip of Macedon, though not without a fight. According to tradition, the Romans overthrew and expelled their last king in 509, but they made Julius Caesar dictator-for-life in 48. The contest between Antony and Octavian was not between despotism and republican liberty. Octavian’s victory at Actium settled the question of who was to be master and how he should rule. In my view, it was the best possible outcome, and the stable constitutional monarchy known as the principate fostered a two-century revival of Greco-Roman civilization.
We Americans are a hasty lot, and we have accelerated the timetable. We declared our independence from George III in 1776, but, in less than 200 years, we made Franklin Roosevelt dictator-for-life and now grovel at the feet of his undistinguished successors. There is, by the way, a reason why both Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich revered FDR, and it is the same reason why Bill Clinton was so fond of quoting Ronald Reagan: Both Roosevelt and Reagan knew how to gain the consent and affection of their subjects. Both successfully appealed, over the heads of the gatekeepers, to “the people,” who responded by adoring them.
I admire Reagan, deplore Roosevelt, but monarchical charisma is like libido: It admits of no distinctions. We like it when Reagan or Ross Perot cut through the red tape of formalities and tradition—“I’d just do it,” was Perot’s answer to every complexity—but power based on popularity rather than on tradition and precedent is always the mark of tyranny. When the frogs in the Latin fable cried for a king, they really wanted a tyrant. Not satisfied with King Log, they demanded a more effective leader and were granted King Stork.
Republican government is a transitional phase between traditional monarchy, rooted in loyalty and community, and tyranny, based on coercion and deception. The Wars of the Roses were not settled by a Lancastrian victory but by the construction of the coercive Tudor state, with all the usual mechanisms of spying and torture. The larger and more diverse the population is, the more inevitable monarchy becomes. Celtic Gaul had no political identity except, perhaps, and only very briefly, during the uprisings against Julius Caesar. When Roman power fell, the Romano-Gallic population did not create a nation-state for themselves or make a serious attempt to unify themselves with the Visigoths, Burgundians, Franks, and Bretons who inhabited what became France.
The creation of France was undertaken, accidentally, by Frankish adventurers who conquered their rivals and subjugated the other peoples. Clovis was merely king of most Franks; Charlemagne was the ruler of a polyglot empire, doomed to break up as its predecessor had. As more and more the peoples west of the Rhine began to speak some form of Romance, as distinguished from the German dialects croaked and grunted on the east side, some foundation for unity was established, though it would take centuries of violence to weld the regions and counties of the hexagon into something like a nation-state.
The lesson for Americans is clear enough. Our growing size and diversity make republican government, whether democratic or oligarchic, impossible. We already live under a system that resembles what Karl Wittfogel described as hydraulic—that is, a state that harnesses its human energy and resources to control irrigation. I am not much taken with Wittfogel’s theory that the Egyptian state came into being to control the Nile, but his grim picture of an “oriental despotism” that eliminates private-property rights, and supervises and exploits every aspect of its subjects’ existence, uncannily anticipates the United States of the new millennium.
Diverse societies require a unifying principle. For a time, perhaps, the principle can be the revolution or the party. In a generation or less, more likely from the beginning, the revolutionary principle will be incarnated in a prince, a Stalin or a Perón. In America, some form of monarchy—probably a coercive tyranny—is inevitable. There may well be a prolonged period of ethnic and regional bickering, but we can already see the end of the road, and for conservatives the sight is not pretty even from a distance, but we do have at least the moral authority to decide on which sort of monarch we prefer—someone like Franco, or someone more like Mao.
Monarchy is the default position for human politics; republican self-government, a hard enterprise that can only be taken up by a brave and self-reliant people who possess a common culture and religion. With every cry for effective leadership, whether it comes from leftists or conservatives, we can hear the sound of an oligarchic regime hardening into a party-state. That there may be two parties, staging petty quarrels over taxes or same-sex marriage, cannot alter the reality.
Governor Romney is a bit of an improvement on both Barack Obama and John McCain, but he is no Ronald Reagan. He is not even a Dwight Eisenhower or Warren Harding. But, then, we should not expect anyone better. Romney reflects, almost to a T, the confusion and weakness of the taxpaying middle class. If he is a servile tool of the interests who back him, most of us are no better. If only he will save my pension, repeal ObamaCare, and protect my investments, I shall be content. As a wise old man used to tell me, Americans talk too much about freedom. Some things are more important.
Liberty is only for the free. It cannot be given to slaves, and if someone has to be liberated, he becomes the slave of the liberator. This is not a time for naive idealism, and no constitutional convention or term limits or third party can rescue us from ourselves. The major political task that conservatives must undertake is to clear their heads of the ideological mist in which they have been wandering and to make the Republican Party serve at least some of the interest of American taxpayers who want to be secure in their lives and property.