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"But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at such a place;' some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of subjection." (Henry V, Act V, Scene 4)

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Billmon - The Way of the Whigs

The Way of the Whigs

Howard Fineman is an asshole, but if a blind pig can find an acorn every once in a while I guess an asshole can pass a chestnut from time to time:

Can Democrats blow it even now? Sure. They don’t have the money and the machinery Republicans do.

More important, the Democrats’ message is murky. In the Senate, they decry the Mexican fence, then more than half of them vote for it. They label the Iraq war as a mistake, then vote $70 billion more for it. They object to Bush’s torture bill, yet flinch at a chance to block it in the Senate.

It was that kind of profound indecision on a moral issue (slavery) that led to the demise of the Whigs before the Civil War. The Foley Scandal means that Democrats might be able to succeed with a campaign slogan that says, simply, “Had Enough?” But if they take control of Congress, they’ll still have to do what the Whigs could not, which is explain what they are for, not just what we all are against.


The comparison with the Whigs is spot on, in fact I've made it myself. The rise of slavery as the great, polarizing issue in American life and politics did them in. The Democrats (oh, the irony) where superbly successful at demagoguing them down South, while their wishy-washy, kinda sorta anti-slavery positions were never hard enough to satisify Northern abolitionists.

The party never really stood a chance -- not as long as the farmers of the Old Northwest (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois) were enthusiastic members of the cheerfully racist, bellicose, expansionist coalition that Old Hickory had forged.

The Whigs tottered on for a time by recruiting a succession of war heroes as candidates (sound familiar?) but by the 1852 election the jig was up. The abolitionist wing -- the wild-eyed lefty bloggers of the 19th century -- grabbed control of the party, dumped their own president (the blandly moderate Millard "Lieberman" Fillmore) and nominated a slightly less moderate anti-slavery general named Winfield "Lamont" Scott. And got their heads handed to them.

After that the party fell apart as Southern "Bidens" and "Nelsons" bolted to the Democrats and the radicals formed their own splinter parties. For the next eight years the United States was, in effect, a one-party state.

There remained, however, a core of old Whigs -- including an obscure ex-congressman who had made something of a name for himself as a railroad lawyer in Illinois -- and they gradually gravitated to the one of the splinters, which merged with the leading radical abolitionist splinter to create the Republican Party.

The rest, as they say, is history -- a rather bloody history, but also glorious and revolutionary: leading to probably the greatest single blow for human progress ever struck on this continent.

If that was the way of the Whigs, then I could definitely go for it (not the blood, but the reborn, revolutionary party). And if the price that had to be paid was the destruction of the pathetic remnants of the Democratic Party, why the hell should anyone cry over that? It's practically a corpse. Let it rest in peace.

Unfortunately, the Flight of the Phoenix is probably not the most likely ending for this story -- and Fineman explains why, although I don't think he understands that that's what he's doing:

They [the Democrats] don’t have the money and the machinery Republicans do.

This is actually one of the most curious of the many curious attitudes I see among pseudo-liberal punditcrats like Fineman (or, worse still, the Post's Sebastian Mallaby): They slam the Democrats for being weak, wishy washy, devoid of principles, etc., but say virtually nothing about the economic realities that help keep them that way.

I mean, what exactly do they expect from a party that most of the time literally doesn't have the strength to put up its fists and fight back -- or doesn't have fists on the ends of its arms to fight with? They really expect a party that has one foot in the grave already (with the most ruthless political machine this side of Boss Tweed pushing on its back with a pitchfork) to take on entrenched interests, question hyperpatriotic hysteria and stand up for the Geneva Conventions in a time of permanent, amorphous war?

And if the Dems did take on those suicide missions, would the Howard Finemans and the Sebastian Mallabys of the world be standing on the sidelines, cheering them on? Oh no. They'd be writing contemptuous columns about how the Democrats have lost their minds and marched in lockstep into the fever swamps of the radical left. Hell, they're writing them now.

The point, I guess, is that the structural advantages enjoyed by the Republicans (the party of capital in a capitalist system) are taken for granted -- just as the power realities of the system itself are taken for granted. The Democrats literally can't buy a break. So if I despair at the ability of the party to resist the trance-like drift to war with Iran, it's not because I think most Democratic politicos don't want to stop it, but because I realize they can't stop it -- not without breaking the party politically and financially.

If that were to happen, I seriously doubt the Dems would go the way of the Whigs, more the pity. The Whigs could die and be born again because many of the institutionalized advantages enjoyed by today's Republicans -- the kind they're counting on to pull them through this election -- either didn't exist or were in their infancy. The giant corporations, the PACs, the 30-second TV ads, the vacuum cleaner-like fundraising operations, the computer-generated redistricting maps -- even Jules Verne hadn't imagined those things yet. Politics, even machine politics, was still a retail business. Voters still selected their politicians, instead of politicians selecting their voters.

The Democratic hegemony of the 1850s collapsed because the country changed -- it was in a constant process of change, with the industrial revolution in full swing and the frontier moving west at a couple hundred miles per year. Hungry for free soil to homestead, the Old Northwest bolted from its alliance with the slaveholding South and cast its lot with the Republicans and Lincoln. War came, and when the smoke cleared the political balance of power -- and the country -- had been completely transformed.

Can the same thing happen again? Maybe. Maybe the immigrants or the information revolution or economic distress or some other irresistable force will push the wheel around again and leave the Dems on top, or bring a new party to power -- instead of leaving us with a hapless bunch of windbags who have to rely on the mother of all sex scandals to overcome their own handicaps.

But there's a strong smell of fustiness and decay to the system -- almost like the sour, medicinal odor of a nursing home. The instruments of top-down manipulation and control, and the enormous quantities of cash available to power them, may be too strong for economic change and social evolution (the godparents of political realignment) to overcome.

America isn't a spring chicken any more. We're getting pretty set in our ways. Soon we we may need bifocals (some of us already do). At times (like now) you can almost hear the arteries hardening, even if you're not standing next to Dick Cheney. Political change -- much less fundamental change, the kind that frees the slaves or brings malefactors of great wealth to heel -- may no longer be possible in American politics.

The Republicans may lose this election. They're certainly trying hard. They may even lose the next one. But it's going to take more than one or two scandal-boosted victories to persuade me the Dems have a future that doesn't involve being the ornamental decoration on a functionally one-party state.

But of course, if the Dems lose next month, despite the GOP's best efforts to hand them the House and quite possibly the Senate, then I guess we'll know that's where they're heading. And unlike the Whigs, I don't think they'll be coming back.

http://billmon.org/archives/002772.html

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