Every political movement needs a manifesto. The Tea Party surely needs one. So do other grassroots political resistance organizations. They don’t have it yet, but they now have its preliminary foundation, Angelo Codevilla’s essay, “America’s Ruling Class – And the Perils of Revolution.”
I have long regarded Dr. Codevilla as America’s smartest conservative political analyst. He has been unknown to the conservative public until last week, when Rush Limbaugh began promoting the best essay of Codevilla’s career. I regard this essay as the finest statement on the two-fold division in American political life written in my lifetime – more than this, in the last hundred years. He has laid it out clearly, accurately, and eloquently.
I am an expert on Dr. Codevilla’s most widely read previous essay, having published it in 1979: “The Danger Is Defeat, Not Destruction.” It appeared in my newsletter, Remnant Review. I pulled the copyright. It was reprinted so widely that I could not track it. I estimate that at least 500,000 copies got printed and mailed. But he received no credit for this. It was signed “Dr. X.” He was still working for the government, so we decided not to use his name.
I began working with him when we were both on Capitol Hill in 1976. I was on the House side. He was on the Senate side. His main assignment was defense policy. Mine was monetary policy.
Of all the scholars I have known in the conservative movement, he has been by far the best informed on foreign policy. He reads the major European languages.
But, as his essay indicates, he is very well informed on domestic politics, domestic economics, and the social issues that rule in the two major political blocs he discusses: the ruling class and the country class.
A NOT-QUITE MANIFESTO
I call this a not-quite manifesto. He lays out the scenario of American politics today, which he says is an extension of the split that began with the Progressive movement. He sees its incarnation as Woodrow Wilson. But he offers no call to action. He offers no program of reconstruction. He closes his essay without answering that most crucial of questions: “What is to be done?”
He is correct about Progressivism as the origin of today’s ruling class. The last bastion of resistance was the Cleveland wing of the Democrat Party. It was decimated in 1896 by William Jennings Bryan, a classic country politician, as Codevilla designates the anti-ruling class. Bryan was a Leftist – a Populist. But he hated the eastern Establishment, and they reciprocated. His nomination in 1896, 1900, and 1908 ended the old Democrats: pro-gold, low taxes, low tariffs, balanced budgets.
Progressivism is a bipartisan monster, just as Codevilla says. This bipartisanship had its origin with the election of 1912: Teddy Roosevelt and Wilson. All three Presidential candidates were certified Progressives: President Taft, Roosevelt, and Wilson. There was a hiatus in the 1920s, but then it reappeared again in the New Deal. In 1928, the Democrats ran Al Smith, more of a Clevelandite. He was surely no Progressive.
In contrast, Herbert Hoover was the incarnation of a Progressive. He was a budget-busting statist. He was a real engineer, whose mentality of engineering extended to politics – the mark of the Progressives and also today’s ruling class. Murray Rothbard provided the evidence for this Hoover legacy in his masterpiece, America’s Great Depression (1963). Coolidge dismissed Hoover as “the wonder boy.” Coolidge was the last of the non-Progressive Republican Presidents until Reagan, who at least abandoned the rhetoric of Progressivism. He changed little inside the system in his eight years. As Codevilla says, the Bush people gained control over Reagan’s Administration from the beginning.
As a faithful disciple of Edmund Burke, he raises the fundamental issue raised by Burke’s outlook, best expressed inReflections on the Revolution in France (1790). A revolution is a top-down affair involving the expansion of state power. This is hostile to liberty. How, then, can there be a conservative counter-revolution?
Codevilla might have quoted a real expert in revolutionary theory, Marx’s co-author and lifetime subsidizer, the Communist owner-manager of a profitable textile factory, Friedrich Engels. Engels wrote an essay, “On Authority,” in 1872. He commented on the effects of revolution.
A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon authoritarian means, if such there be at all; and if the victorious party does not want to have fought in vain, it must maintain this rule by means of the terror which its arms inspire in the reactionists. Would the Paris Commune have lasted a single day if it had not made use of this authority of the armed people against the bourgeois? Should we not, on the contrary, reproach it for not having used it freely enough?
Codevilla ends his essay with this summary of the practical political problem facing both claimants of political legitimacy and therefore authority.
How the country class and ruling class might clash on each item of their contrasting agendas is beyond my scope. Suffice it to say that the ruling class’s greatest difficulty – aside from being outnumbered – will be to argue, against the grain of reality, that the revolution it continues to press upon America is sustainable. For its part, the country class’s greatest difficulty will be to enable a revolution to take place without imposing it. America has been imposed on enough.
Indeed! To replace one set of power-seekers with another affects the distribution of the political loot. It does not stop the looting.
THE GREAT DIVIDE
Every movement seeks legitimacy. It appeals to something beyond its own authority. Even Superman always proclaimed his allegiance to truth, justice, and the American way, and he was not in need of anything that he could not get voluntarily just by being bulletproof and flying around in red tights and a cape.
Codevilla correctly identifies the source of legitimacy for the ruling class: Darwinism. Darwinism removed God from the vocabulary of self-accredited academia. Once liberated from the doctrine of original sin, the Progressives regarded as illegitimate the Constitutional limits placed on the Federal government.
As the 19th century ended, the educated class’s religious fervor turned to social reform: they were sure that because man is a mere part of evolutionary nature, man could be improved, and that they, the most highly evolved of all, were the improvers.Thus began the Progressive Era. When Woodrow Wilson in 1914 was asked “can’t you let anything alone?” he answered with, “I let everything alone that you can show me is not itself moving in the wrong direction, but I am not going to let those things alone that I see are going down-hill.”
Wilson combined the fervor of his father’s Old School Presbyterianism with the social engineer’s faith in tinkering with the institutions of society by means of state power. This was a decidedly non–Old School outlook on Federal power, especially in the Southern Presbyterian Church, where his father served as the senior officer – Stated Clerk – for a quarter century. This was a toxic brew.
Wilson was the first American statesman to argue that the Founders had done badly by depriving the U.S. government of the power to reshape American society. Nor was Wilson the last to invade a foreign country (Mexico) to “teach [them] to elect good men.”
Codevilla recognizes the crucial importance of the New Deal. The second Roosevelt did what the first attempted to do, but had failed.
Franklin Roosevelt brought the Chautauqua class into his administration and began the process that turned them into rulers. FDR described America’s problems in technocratic terms. America’s problems would be fixed by a “brain trust” (picked by him). His New Deal’s solutions – the alphabet-soup “independent” agencies that have run America ever since – turned many Progressives into powerful bureaucrats and then into lobbyists. As the saying goes, they came to Washington to do good, and stayed to do well.As their number and sense of importance grew, so did their distaste for common Americans. Believing itself “scientific,” this Progressive class sought to explain its differences from its neighbors in “scientific” terms.
This is the heart of his analysis of the state of American society, and therefore politics, today. There is a great divide between the ruling class and the voters. This is better understood by the ruling class than what he calls the country class. The years between 1918 and the Second World War increased the bitterness of the Progressives, even under Roosevelt.
Above all, our educated class was bitter about America. In 1925 the American Civil Liberties Union sponsored a legal challenge to a Tennessee law that required teaching the biblical account of creation. The ensuing trial, radio broadcast nationally, as well as the subsequent hit movie Inherit the Wind, were the occasion for what one might have called the Chautauqua class to drive home the point that Americans who believed in the Bible were willful ignoramuses.
Anyone who doubts the importance of the Scopes “Monkey Trial” in July of 1925 cannot understand the great divide that exists today. Take a look at the clever faked newsreel, produced in 1960 – the year of Inherit the Wind – using footage from the trial. PBS still posts it. There is not a word on the #1 issue that motivated Bryan in his challenge to the ACLU: the right of voters to determine where their tax money should be spent (the content of school curricula), which the Progressives opposed. There is also not a word about the other unmentionable, which was dropped down the Orwellian memory hole after 1938: the right of state legislatures to pass laws forcing the sterilization of racial “defectives” in the Progressives’ long-term plan to establish the political dominance of the Nordic master race.
WHO WINDS UP ON THE MENU?
In politics, there are those who dine at the victory feast, and those who are on the menu. The country class has long been on the menu.
Politics is about attaining power. Today, as in ancient Greece, this has to do with patronage and loot.
Our ruling class’s agenda is power for itself. While it stakes its claim through intellectual-moral pretense, it holds power by one of the oldest and most prosaic of means: patronage and promises thereof. Like left-wing parties always and everywhere, it is a “machine,” that is, based on providing tangible rewards to its members. Such parties often provide rank-and-file activists with modest livelihoods and enhance mightily the upper levels’ wealth. Because this is so, whatever else such parties might accomplish, they must feed the machine by transferring money or jobs or privileges – civic as well as economic – to the party’s clients, directly or indirectly.
He believes that the bailouts of 2008 and 2009 finally awakened the country party. These people opposed the bailouts, but the government ignored them. They are now far more aware that the system is rigged against them, that they have no say.
This was a long time coming, I say. But better late than never.
He sees that the rise of the bailout state has created millions of dependents.
By taxing and parceling out more than a third of what Americans produce, through regulations that reach deep into American life, our ruling class is making itself the arbiter of wealth and poverty. While the economic value of anything depends on sellers and buyers agreeing on that value as civil equals in the absence of force, modern government is about nothing if not tampering with civil equality. By endowing some in society with power to force others to sell cheaper than they would, and forcing others yet to buy at higher prices – even to buy in the first place – modern government makes valuable some things that are not, and devalues others that are. Thus if you are not among the favored guests at the table where officials make detailed lists of who is to receive what at whose expense, you are on the menu. Eventually, pretending forcibly that valueless things have value dilutes the currency’s value for all.
This is the economic heart of the matter. But he sees that the real dividing issue is at bottom moral. There are rival views of legitimacy and authority dividing America’s politics. One is Progressivism. The other is localist, decentralist, pro-family, anti-abortion, and suspicious of the movement of society away from these values.
He thinks that the Progressives cannot continue to keep in power. But what is to stop them?
WE CAN’T BEAT SOMETHING WITH NOTHING
He does not discuss the circumstances favorable to a transition to a better world order. If I were to write What Is to Be Done? I would begin here. I would begin with the last chapters of Martin Van Creveld’s book, The Rise and Decline of the State (1999) and Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence (2000). Both of them see a great bankruptcy of the modern nation states – a great default. This will undermine the states’ legitimacy.
This is the context of a great reversal without a revolutionary centralization of power. This is my answer to his question of the possibility of a revolution by the country class.
He sees the rise of the administrative state as anti-democratic. So do I. The only essay I regard as almost as important as Codevilla’s is Harold Berman’s Introduction to Law and Revolution (1983). He warned that the modern administrative state, with its system of laws and judges inside the executive, threatens to destroy the Western legal tradition. Most of that essay is posted here.
Codevilla is correct: there must be a wider understanding of the Constitution.
Only citizens’ understanding of and commitment to law can possibly reverse the patent disregard for the Constitution and statutes that has permeated American life. Unfortunately, it is easier for anyone who dislikes a court’s or an official’s unlawful act to counter it with another unlawful one than to draw all parties back to the foundation of truth.
Problem: the Constitution rests on the assumption of the Enlightenment’s worldview of Newtonian mechanics. This outlook has been replaced by Darwinism. No one saw this more clearly than Woodrow Wilson. He wrote in The Constitutional Government of the United States (1908),
The trouble with the theory is that government is not a machine, but a living thing. It falls, not under the theory of the universe, but under the theory of organic life. It is accountable to Darwin, not to Newton. It is modified by its environment, necessitated by its tasks, shaped to its functions by the sheer pressure of life. No living thing can have its organs offset against each other as checks, and live. On the contrary, its life is dependent upon their quick cooperation, their ready response to the commands of instinct or intelligence, their amicable community of purpose. Government is not a body of blind forces; it is a body of men, with highly differentiated functions, no doubt, in our modern day of specialization, but with a common task and purpose. Their cooperation is indispensable, their warfare fatal. There can be no successful government without leadership or without the intimate, almost instinctive, coordination of the organs of life and action. This is not theory, but fact, and displays its force as fact, whatever theories may be thrown across its track. Living political constitutions must be Darwinian in structure and in practice (pp. 56–57).
That statement is the underlying premise of Progressives everywhere. It is why the Constitution has been undermined, exactly as Codevilla describes.
Ideas have consequences.
We must work at the local level and on the Web to create alternatives to the programs of the Federal government. We must adopt this slogan: “Replace, not capture.” We must not seek our share of the loot. We must end the looting.