In his classic history of the Lombard Communes—the finally doomed medieval republics of Northern Italy—W.F. Butler suggests that the creative and individualistic nature of the Italian people favored a rich cultural life over a stable political one. This could explain why modern Italy, historically a politically dysfunctional country, is nevertheless a civilized and delightful one. She represents the triumph of the cultural over the political. The United States, by comparison, suffers from the supremacy of politics over culture.
Americans have always preferred the political to any other aspect of civilization. It is as much our national sport as baseball or football, perhaps even more so. Americans would rather watch political talk shows in the evening than attend an operatic or theatrical performance, or go to a formal dinner party; they prefer to read the memoirs of some utterly ephemeral contemporary politician rather than a novel by Austen, Turgenev, or Faulkner. Tied only with sports heroes, nationally recognized politicians are America’s ultimate celebrities in a society where publicity, the creator of celebrity, guides, dominates, and determines everything. In America, the quickest way to fame and fortune is politics, an activity for which no real talent is required. It is unsurprising that politicians should be at once the most desirous of us all for celebrity status and the least deserving of it; inevitably they are also the most narcissistic. Who other than a narcissist is eager to hurl himself into the American political arena, there to be torn to pieces in latter-day gladiatorial combat with the institutional and the social media, the bloggers, talk-show hosts, and stand-up comics; the snoopers, private detectives, deceived girlfriends, betrayed wives, disgruntled children, old schoolmates and Army buddies, and traitorous colleagues past and present? The answer is people like Bill and Hillary Clinton, Newt Gingrich, John Edwards, Sarah Palin, and Anthony Weiner. Go into politics, waste a life: That seems apt advice for most would-be democratic politicians, including those human blanks, like Barack Obama, who succeed in grasping the brass ring—no matter that they lack the talent and competence to succeed in any lawful human enterprise beyond their chosen trade, frequently conducted in the twilit borderlands of the law. Yet hundreds of thousands of Americans presumably aspire to run for office someday and attain to the exalted station of Representative Weiner, a VIP invested with the fabulous power of Twitter to tweet his way into the boudoirs of young girls mightily impressed by the status of H.R. D-NY. Ann Coulter has suggested that perhaps 50 percent of American politicians are unfaithful to their spouses, compared with a reported 15 percent of “ordinary” men, and 7 of women. Really, it would be interesting—and possibly useful—to know what percentage of our political honorables are actually simple psychopaths.
The planned hysteria of modern life abets all this, and so does the national culture of lies spread by the increasing reach of the political culture itself. Even so, the fundamental generating force that churns out warped and twisted products such as Anthony Weiner is the absurdly disproportionate role that politics and politicians play in American life, and the equally ridiculous and dangerous fascination they have for the American public. The phenomenon, amounting to pathology, has a long history in this country. Mrs. Frances Trollope, the mother of Anthony, visited the United States only a few years before Tocqueville arrived in Newport in 1831, was here almost three years (compared with the count’s stay of less than two), and wrote up her impressions in a book, Domestic Manners of the Americans, about whom she had (to put it mildly) many complaints, among them the natives’ absorption in the subject of politics to the exclusion of almost every other mental activity. To Mrs. Trollope, the American natives were underbred, underdeveloped, and undereducated, except in respect of this single topic, which, in any event, they, as democrats, were incapable of comprehending. Similarly, Tocqueville complains (in Democracy in America) that Americans have no subject beyond politics on which to converse—more accurately, to bloviate and harangue. Yet one can perceive a significant, if subtle, difference between Americans’ attitude toward politicians today and in the early 19th century. If we may believe Mrs. Trollope (and she seems to have been an acute, though prejudiced, observer), the voters of that period viewed their elected representatives less as celebrities worthy of worship than as flesh-and-blood men presumed by their constituents to be scoundrels after power and the public teat until they proved themselves honest and responsible statesmen. Then, Americans’ preoccupation with politics was importantly an expression of distrust and a determination to hold their politicians on a tight rein, not a form of vicarious, half-envying experience. That distrust survives today, of course, and it has not weakened. Yet it is ordinarily reserved for members of the Other Party rather than for those of one’s own political sports team, whether the Red or the Blue one.
Sir Henry Sumner Maine, in the 1880’s, deplored the English tendency to treat politics as a team sport, a source of excitement, competition, and bets, like cricket or rugby. Those were the days when sports were mainly reserved for gentlemen and aristocrats, the laboring classes having little time for such play. At mid-decade, the Third Reform Act went a way toward changing that. Even so, British politics at century’s end held nothing like the consuming interest for Britons that American politics in the Gilded Age had for the American public, whose appetite for torchlight parades, brass bands, conventions, and party literature was insatiable. Today, that appetite persists in the United States—hugely and horribly enhanced by radio, television, the so-called social media, and the immense, and immensely sophisticated, publicity apparatus that dominates the political, as well as every other, aspect of American life, and finally by the heady fact that American politics are, after all, the politics of the world’s sole existent superpower. When an American voter belches, the world trembles—and admires.
Quite apart from America’s history of political obsession, and the modern technology that feeds and abets it, is the vast ontological chasm that exists today between, roughly speaking, one half of the country and the other. This is the chasm created by what is commonly denoted as the Culture War or, alternatively, “political gridlock.” For so long as this divide persists—and there is no reason to believe that it can ever be removed, or even bridged, short of civil war—politics will continue to be the overriding popular passion in the United States, and politicians encouraged and facilitated in their efforts to present themselves as popular heroes and saviors to one political-ideological party or the other. This circumstance allows liberals like Bill Clinton to stonewall in office, despite moral scandal and a perjury charge, by insisting that to resign would be to hand victory to the vast right-wing conspiracy, and conservatives like Richard Nixon, the self-proclaimed defender of patriotism and free enterprise against creeping atheistic one-world communism, to do the same. (Anthony Wiener made no such claims, but the majority of his constituency that urged him to hang on seemed to feel that the congressman should stand defense on behalf of the new morality against Christian prudery and the old moral intolerance.) More fundamentally, it encourages a narrow preoccupation with political concerns at the expense of all others. This tendency disproportionately damages the right by comparison with the left, whose concept of political action is firmly grounded in its powerful cultural dimension—its patronage of ideological literature, film, music, and art, and the politicization of schools and the academy. Politically sophisticated conservatives, on the other hand, disgusted by modern left-wing culture or preoccupied with moneymaking to the exclusion of an interest in the arts and in learning, have an easy time persuading themselves that, for so long as the political deadlock between the forces of good and the forces of evil persists, reading novels or listening to real music or learning a foreign language or cultivating a taste for Baroque architecture or studying Renaissance art or taking piano lessons or laying out a flower garden is an unconscionable waste of time, and morally irresponsible to boot. (After I left National Review as literary editor more than two decades ago, the new publisher and editor made a concerted effort to persuade the Manhattan book publishers to buy ad space in the magazine. I expected them to be unsuccessful in this undertaking, and so they were. The publishing industry is stupid and incompetent in the extreme, but it is not so stupid and incompetent as to imagine that American conservatives buy books, except those carrying the Regnery or Crown imprint.)
The British constitution has been overbalanced against the sovereign since before Queen Victoria ascended the throne, and that is too bad. In a constitutional monarchy, the monarch should have clear and definite responsibilities that imply real powers—at the very least, as Bagehot argued, the power to insist upon being consulted by the government. I suspect that British government would go a great better today if the executive power were still partially lodged in the monarch, rather than entirely in the cabinet, as Bagehot, in his time, noted that it had come to be. Power or its absence aside, however, there is something wonderfully healthy and sane about the British royals’ antipathy for personal publicity. Prince Philip despises encounters with the media, and the Prince of Wales has inherited his father’s dislike of publicity and of publicity-mongers. Queen Elizabeth is courteous, even courtly, in her relations with the media, while disdaining to exploit them in a vulgar and obvious manner.
Bagehot thought the great virtue of the monarchy was that it provided the people with spectacle and entertainment; more importantly still, that it made great events and high people seem humanly interesting to the general public. From the American perspective, the signal virtue of the monarchy is that it does not put politics and politicians top and forefront of British society, but somewhere further down. Astonishingly, David Brooks, following a visit to England, wrote in a recent number of the London Spectator that British government, unlike its American counterpart, seems actually to work, leading the author to speculate that the events of 1776-83 might have been a mistake. An amazing statement, considering the source—also, quite possibly, a true one.