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II: The New Absolutism - Robert A. Nisbet, The Present Age: Progress and Anarchy in Modern America 
The Present Age: Progress and Anarchy in Modern America (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2003).
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The New Absolutism
Any returned Framers of the Constitution would be quite as shocked by the extent and depth of the power of the national state in American lives today as they would be by war and the gargantuan military. The most cursory reading of the Constitution itself tells us that behind the labors which produced this document lay an abiding fear, distrust, hatred of the kinds of political power identified with the government of George III and with the centralized despotisms, such as France, Prussia, and Russia, on the Continent. Add to reading of the Constitution even a scanning of the Federalist Papers followed perhaps by a brief dipping into the annals of the Convention, and there can be no doubt of what the Framers most definitely did not want: a highly centralized, unitary political Leviathan.
That, however, is what their work of art has become in two centuries. And with this has come, has had to come, a political absolutism over Americans that would not be lessened or mitigated for the Framers by its manifestly, unchallengeably democratic foundations. There is not the slightest question but that ours is still what Lincoln called it, government of the people, by the people, for the people. But it is still absolutist.
The fact is, democracy can yield a higher degree of absolutism in its relation to the individual than is found in any of the so-called absolute, divine-right monarchies of the early modern era in European history. Louis XIV’s L’état, c’est moi, notorious for its purported absolutism, was actually a confession of weakness whether the king knew it or not. In between divine-right monarchs and any possible absoluteness of rule lay a thick stratum of intermediate authorities, starting with church and aristocracy, that made farce of any claim to personal authority. The absolute state of the sixteenth century is in fact as much a sham as was the Holy Roman Empire before it. What Walter Lippmann wrote a half-century ago in his A Preface to Morals remains apposite:
A state is absolute in the sense which I have in mind when it claims the right to a monopoly of all the force within the community, to make war, to make peace, to conscript life, to tax, to establish and disestablish property, to define crime, to punish disobedience, to control education, to supervise the family, to regulate personal habits, and to censor opinions.
The modern state claims all of these powers, and in the matter of theory, there is no real difference in the size of the claim between communists, fascists, and democrats. There are lingering traces in the American constitutional system of the older theory that there are inalienable rights which the government may not absorb. But these rights are not really inalienable for they can be taken away by constitutional amendment. There is no theoretical limit upon the power of ultimate majorities which create the civil government. There are only practical limits. They are restrained by inertia, by prudence, even good will. But ultimately and theoretically they claim absolute authority against all churches, associations, and persons within their jurisdictions.*
Much of the energy of political intellectuals, of what I shall call in this chapter the political clerisy, has gone since the New Deal into the demonstration that although state authority has grown constantly heavier, reaching more and more recesses of life, there has not been any real compromise of liberty, inasmuch as the authority has the sanction of the people, and the theory of democracy (the theory at any rate of Jean-Jacques Rousseau) holds that no people can by its volition tyrannize itself. I shall come back to this later.
In our politics as well as in our military, the present age begins with the Great War and with Woodrow Wilson’s powerful effect upon America.
“All men of military genius,” wrote Tocqueville, “are fond of centralization and all men of centralizing genius are fond of war.” The history of the United States is ample illustration of the general soundness of Tocqueville’s principle. If we look at the presidents, starting with Andrew Jackson, who if they have not actually relished and sought out war have nevertheless taken to it and to the use of war powers rather more easily than others have, we must include some of our greatest presidents. There was Jackson and Lincoln (who was exceeded by no one in the American presidency in alacrity in precipitating a war and in the free use of war powers during it); there was Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and, very much in the procession, Ronald Reagan.
In each of these presidents there is a conspicuous readiness to turn to political centralization, bureaucracy, and the heaping up of powers, so far as possible, in the central government even at the expense of a strictly read Constitution. Woodrow Wilson is the master of them all, in respect to his union of strong instincts toward centralization and use of war powers. His political, economic, social, and even intellectual reorganization of America in the short period 1917–1919 is one of the most extraordinary feats in the long history of war and polity. Through artfully created board, commission, and agency he and his worshipful lieutenants, drawn from all areas—business, academia, law, even entertainment—revolutionized America to a degree never reached in such a short period of time by either the French or the Russian revolution. And Wilson, let it be remembered, in diametrical opposition to the Robespierres and Lenins, demobilized completely the militarized society he had built only a couple of years earlier.
But it was by no means the war imperative alone that spurred Wilson to his work of political power in the Great War. He was an ardent prophet of the state, the state indeed as it was known to European scholars and statesmen. He had written a book on it. He preached it, especially in its American revelation, as no one before had. From him supremely comes the politicization, the centralization, and the commitment to bureaucracy of American society during the past seventy-five years. He only began this evolution, and what he did was chiefly apparent during the two years we were at war with Germany. But the wartime powers assumed by the national government proved to be durable seeds, and by 1939, only twenty years from the time when they had been nominally jettisoned for good, Wilsonian centralization and collectivization were, under FDR, as pervasive as they had been during the Great War. Ever since there has been a unitary, unilinear pattern of development to be seen, only rarely punctuated by sign of reversal, that has centralization of government its embedded goal, with all forms of decentralization and pluralism declared by political elites to be mere eruptions of the dead hand of the past. From Wilson through FDR, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Reagan we have seen America develop from its state of innocence in 1914 down to the highly sophisticated power complex that marks American democracy today.
Wilson began it chiefly within the context provided by the Great War. Within a few months he had transformed traditional, decentralized, regional, and localist America into a war state that at its height permeated every aspect of life in America. I shall describe some of the political changes he effected, in a moment. But I think the following passage from the English historian A. J. P. Taylor is an important prefatory note. It is directed to English experience but it is highly relevant to America:
Until August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state beyond the post office and the policeman. . . . He could travel abroad or leave his country forever without a passport or any sort of official permission. He could exchange his money without restriction or limit. He could buy goods from any country in the world on the same terms as he bought goods at home. For that matter a foreigner could spend his life in the country without permit and without informing the police. . . .
All this was changed by the impact of the Great War. . . . The state established a hold over its citizens which though relaxed in peace time, was never to be removed and which the Second World War was again to increase. The history of the English people and the English State merged for the first time.*
Much the same merging of people and state took place under Wilson after Congress declared war on Germany in April 1917. Congress not only obeyed Wilson’s request for a state of war—made with the same prophet’s intensity that had, until a few months before, supported his insistence upon neutrality—it also showered war powers on him beyond the dream of an early Caesar. Wilson accepted them as if he had created them himself. “It is not an army we must shape and train for war,” he said, “it is a nation.” His words came from the mind and heart alike.
No one knew better than Professor Wilson, student of American government, just how unfitted for the demands of the Great War raging in Europe the American constitutional system was. Founded on the sacredness of states’ rights, permeated with the philosophy of a weak central government which by design left all powers possible to the states, and crowned, as it were, by the doctrine of separation of powers in the national government, the Constitution was only too obviously a charter for peace, not war. That is, unless or until the Constitution was set aside for the duration, to be succeeded by a more practical scheme in which, effectively, the entire government of the United States would be delegated to the president alone—for the duration of the war, no longer.
Not Britain, not France, not even the hated Germany had the kind of dictatorial power vested in any one figure or office that the United States did shortly after American participation in the war began. Gone completely was the political character of government that had made the United States almost a curiosity in the eyes of European scholars and statesmen, who professed indeed to be able to find no true sovereignty in America nor even a “theory of the State,” as Lord Bryce put it in his widely acclaimed The American Commonwealth. In a word, decentralization was banished; centralization ruled supreme. Charles and Mary Beard wrote:
In a series of the most remarkable laws ever enacted in Washington, the whole economic system was placed at his command. Under their provisions the President was authorized to requisition supplies for the army without stint, to fix the prices of commodities so commanded, arrange a guaranteed price for wheat, take possession of the mines, factories, packing houses, railways, steam ships, and all means of communication and operate them through public agencies and license the importation, manufacture, storage and distribution of all necessities.*
Novel boards and agencies were fashioned to assimilate the whole American economic and social fabric in their workings. The most powerful of the economic bodies was probably the War Industries Board. From it, and it alone, came the authorizations, licenses, and permissions—and with these, absolute orders and mandates—by which the American economy operated during the war. Railroads, mines, and other interstate industries were nationalized, made wards of Washington, D.C. There was a War Labor Policies Board, a Shipping Board, a Food Administration, and before the ending of the war many another centralized, national authority created by the Congress or the executive in which absolute power was vested in its own sphere. Nothing even in Europe equaled the degree and intensity of American political absolutism during its brief period in the Great War. General Ludendorff acknowledged American initiative in this respect when, in a last great effort at German victory, he instituted “War Socialism.” Lenin’s War Communism, with its thicket of centralized agencies of regulation or ownership, was indebted to what America did first and so successfully. Mussolini’s early structure of Fascism in Italy, with its powerful national agencies controlling factory production, labor relations, the railroads, took a leaf from the American wartime book of three years earlier.
The blunt fact is that when under Wilson America was introduced to the War State in 1917, it was introduced also to what would later be known as the total, or totalitarian, state. There is this important point to add: The acts which transformed laissez-faire, entrepreneurial America into a total state for the duration were acts of Congress, not of a revolutionary minority as in Russia and Italy. And, to repeat, there was not the slightest difficulty after the armistice in putting a terminal date to the various elements of the total state, though not all of the elements—railroads, unions, other industries and associations—appeared to be happy in their return to freedom from the state. Certain figures, intellectuals and business executives included, began to think of techniques for escape from that freedom. Considerable thought was given to ideas, for example, that would under FDR go into the National Recovery Administration, the life of which was rudely ended by the Supreme Court in the early thirties.
But with full understanding of the democratic instauration of the Wilson War State and of its equally democratic termination a couple of years later, it is entirely proper, nay, obligatory, to see this state as total, as a brief forerunner to the kinds of state that would be “managerial states” in the thirties including those known as totalitarian. Just about everything in America that was susceptible of being brought under the direct rule of the federal government in Washington, was brought under.
Wilson had shrewdly realized that in mobilizing the all-important industries and services in the war effort, some of the popular mind needed also to be mobilized, to be fixed, willingly or unwillingly, on the goal of military victory. He brought George Creel, previously a newspaper reporter and writer, to head the ministry of war information, one that turned out almost immediately to be an agency of war psychology, morale, patriotism, and vigilance against any excess of free thought in the country. There is no record of Wilson ever disapproving a single act of Creel’s. Creel saw his job as that of bringing, through every conceivable instrument, the patriotism of the American people up to the highest possible level. After all, at least half of the American people had been strongly opposed to American intervention, and they included what used to be known as hyphenated Americans, those naturalized or native citizens who sprang from ethnic minorities, starting with the German-Americans. There were Americans, the hundred-percenters argued, who weren’t as dedicated to war and victory as they might be. They must be watched and monitored. They must also be apprized directly of how important their patriotism was, to the country and to themselves. Several hundred thousand Americans volunteered, when called for, to be neighborhood watchers, that is, of their own neighborhoods, and to report to appropriate agencies, including the police, any suspicious scraps of conversation or any reports of such scraps. Creel also had the inspiration to create what he called the four-minute men. These numbered some seventy thousand at their height. They were empowered by the President to speak for four minutes on the war before any club, lodge, school, labor union, service club, whatever, whether invited or not, theoretically to give war information—their real purpose being, of course, that of lauding the war aim and the government.
The schools and churches were affected. Throughout America, citizens’ groups, and sometimes more official agencies, went through schoolbooks in order to remove all pieces written or otherwise composed by Germans, no matter how classic they had become. (I recall vividly that as long after the war as 1926, none of the music books in the school I attended had a single composition by a German—all such had been removed in 1917.) Multifold “suggestions” were received from Washington or local patriotic win-the-war groups to bring the living reality of the war into every class, no matter what the subject. The churches, or a great many of them, yielded to the pressure of propaganda from the Creel office. There was no want, apparently, of preachers who were only too willing to present arms almost literally from the pulpit. Preachers Present Arms is the unappetizing but accurate title of one major study of the militarization of the American pulpit.
There were millions of Americans with German names, and a substantial number of them knew the torment and humiliation of being pilloried for their German ancestry; more than a few of them found it expedient to anglicize their names—from Weber to Waybur, for example—the while American patriots were transforming hamburger to “liberty steak.” In 1917 the Espionage Act was passed by Congress at the behest of the White House, making life even more difficult for German-Americans no matter how long they had lived in this country; and the following year the even more deadly Sedition Act was passed, making it easy to charge and often indict the most casual comment in public as seditious to nation and war effort. Eugene Debs, Socialist and famous labor leader, spoke publicly against American participation in the war, for which he received a ten-year sentence in a federal prison. Even when the war was over, Wilson coldly refused to commute sentence or pardon Debs. President Harding pardoned Debs within days after he took office in 1921. Under the Espionage and Sedition acts just under two hundred thousand Americans were accused, or indicted, or found guilty and fined heavily or imprisoned for remarks heard or overheard in public. Turning in “German spies” or “pro-Germans” became a veritable sport for large numbers of American patrioteers in 1917 and 1918.
And yet despite the atmosphere of outright terror in the lives of a considerable minority of Americans, despite the food shortages for civilians, despite the presence throughout the country of superpatriots serving the government as neighborhood watchers for the purpose of reporting any act or word that seemed suspicious, despite the virtual militarization of the local schools and their textbooks, despite the maleficent custom of white feathers being pinned by women volunteers on the lapels of men seen rightly or wrongly as slackers—despite all this, many Americans seemed to become fond of the War State. Lost neighborhood, local, and other liberties didn’t seem too high a price to pay for the economic benefits in the form of high wages, props to unionism, quick and generally favorable arbitration agreements for workers, and the novel availability of spendable money, cash in hand. And how exhilarating to see the speed with which the national government could move in matters where local governments stalled and stalled.
It was all a great lesson, slowly but surely learned by those of nationalistic disposition: that it is far easier to promote the state’s power when a trade-off in the form of economic and social goods is effected. Also, crisis, whether actual war or something else, is a valuable means of acceleration of political power. Wilson, whose feeling for the state was almost religious, sensed this. So while he spurred on the Bernard Baruchs, Hugh Johnsons, Gerard Swopes, and other appointed, absolute industrial czars in their planning and managing of the economy, he also found the time to give aid and sustenance to the class of political intellectuals just coming into existence, those for whom service to the central state in the interest of the people would become a creed. Wilson had been impressed by a book by one of them in 1909: The Promise of American Life by Herbert Croly, a plea for the conversion of the abstract, constitutional state into a national community. Wilson was similarly impressed by a young Socialist just out of Harvard, Walter Lippmann, whom he placed in the secret group of scholars that was at work drawing up the Fourteen Points and possible postwar realignments in Europe. I shall say more about the New Class a little later in this chapter.
The Wilson War State was from the beginning a structure of unprecedented mixture of parts—in Europe as well as in America. On the one hand it was humanitarian to the core: in high wages approved by the government, improved working conditions, moderation of ethnic tensions in the workplace, and a variety of reforms aimed at the working class and the indigent. To many workers in the Northeast and Midwest, these reforms added up to the kind of socialism they had learned about in Europe and preached after coming to the United States. But the other side of the War State was different, making it difficult of acceptance even by academic socialists and liberals. This was the repressive side, the side presided over by George Creel, the side of repression, intimidation, and quick, summary justice. It was the side of the ugly “Palmer Raids” by the attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, with no known dissent from President Wilson. For all the delicate socialistic touches given the war economy by the government, there was no mercy extended to even the most peaceful and law-abiding of socialists and social democrats when the fancy seized Palmer. Throughout 1919 the raids took place, rarely if ever based upon legal warrants, invading without notice the homes, businesses, even churches of suspected socialists, anarchists, and ordinary dissenters.
This was the divided legacy of the War State of 1917–1919: on the one hand a centralized, planned economy that seemed to work and work well, at least with the stimulus of the Great War; on the other hand a police-state atmosphere, with the watchers serving secretly as monitors of their neighborhoods, ever ready to report a suspicious remark or alleged remark; and the Four-Minute Men empowered by law to invade any meeting, civil or religious, in order to warn of any departures from strict and absolute support of the war—and the Palmer Raids.
On the whole it was the first legacy that survived, the second that eroded away under the heady influences of the 1920s and then the chilling effects of the Great Depression. The national state never really went back to its prewar laissez-faire identity. Return to Normalcy, which President Harding made into a kind of national slogan—at least as a chapter title thenceforth in American history books—was really not much of a return. If nothing else there were the dispositions toward the national state acquired under the heady atmosphere of the Wilson War State.
But there was more. To begin with, the Eighteenth Amendment passed in 1919 after years of work toward it by teetotalers. However tempted Wilson might have been (he loathed it for its effect on the working class) to ban liquor as a war measure, he desisted; it would be pushing American tolerance of lost liberties too far, he may have thought. But what a monarch might draw back from, the people can confront and adopt. It is possible that all that saved America from an insurrection during the 1920s was the fact that the Volstead Act, passed to implement the Prohibition amendment, was from the start lightly and loosely enforced. The bootlegger became almost a heroic figure.
Another blow for the residual power of the democratic state was yet another constitutional amendment passed while a couple of million American men were in uniform, mostly abroad: the Nineteenth Amendment, in 1920, which forbade thenceforth any state or municipality from denying women the vote. For the many millions of zealots for states’ rights as well as for the perhaps larger number of male chauvinists, the Nineteenth Amendment was bitter brew, calculated, it was widely believed, to subvert the family and to bring the republic down in a soggy feminist mess.
Furthermore, in 1924, the mild President Coolidge—alleged physiocrat in economic views and veritable anarchist in fear of the central state, so it was said—appointed J. Edgar Hoover to take direction of the Bureau of Investigation with clear instructions to improve and enlarge it and set it on a track that would in a very few years make it the first federal police force in American history.
These are highlights, of course. But in dozens of laws passed and decrees issued, the 1920s proved to be anything but a return to the America of the first decade of the century. In national projects of reclamation, in agriculture, in educational assistance to the states and cities, in social work for the indigent, and in investigations of central-planning possibilities, the federal government often came closer in the twenties to the Wilson War State than to anything that had preceded it in American history.
Throughout the 1920s a vein of thought was visible that can be nicely summed up by the title of one of the books that nourished the vein: We Planned in War, Why Not in Peace? Such journals as The New Republic and The Nation and writers like John Dewey, Stuart Chase, Walter Lippmann, and literally dozens of university social scientists kept up a steady beat for the increased partnership of the state and the economy, one akin to that which had existed during the Great War but, of course, without war and without the repression of civil rights that had gone with it. Even some of the heads of great corporations spoke out in ways that would have shocked the business titans of a generation earlier. The state was very much in the air in the twenties as the possible pivot of what could be a national community.
The Great Depression hit the United States at the end of the 1920s, to be met within a couple of years by the New Deal under Franklin Roosevelt. He had served Wilson as assistant secretary of the navy in World War I, and had been one of those thrilled by Wilson personally and by certain aspects of the War State. It is interesting to speculate on what form American response to the depression of the 1930s would or might have taken had it not been for the legacy of government planning and regimentation left by the First World War. It is at least possible that some kind of response by government and business beginning in 1933 would have been a great deal less centralized and bureaucratized than what actually came into being.
In striking measure the response made by FDR and his chief aides, men like Raymond Moley and Rexford Tugwell, Henry Wallace and Harold Ickes, one and all political intellectuals rather than businessmen, was simply a revival of structures and relationships which had characterized the Wilson War State. With altered names, many of the same production, labor, banking, and agricultural boards of World War I were simply dusted off, as it were, and with new polish set once again before the American people. This time the enemy was not Germany or any other foreign power but the Depression; this did not, however, prevent Roosevelt from literally declaring war on it and likening himself and his associates to a “trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline.” In his inaugural address in 1933 the President pledged to “assume unhesitatingly the leadership of this great army of our people dedicated to a disciplined attack upon our common problems.” He perceived America, he said, as a vast army needing only to be mobilized for the war against depression to begin.
The New Deal is a great watershed not only in twentieth-century American history but in our entire national history. In it the mesmerizing idea of a national community—an idea that had been in the air since the Progressive era, featured in books by Herbert Croly, Walter Lippmann, John Dewey, and others, and had come into full but brief existence in 1917 under the stimulus of war—was now at long last to be initiated in peacetime, as a measure to combat the evils of capitalism and its “economic royalists.”
“At the heart of the New Deal,” William Schambra has perceptively written, “was the resurrection of the national idea, the renewal of the vision of national community. Roosevelt sought to pull America together in the face of its divisions by an appeal to national duty, discipline, and brotherhood; he aimed to restore the sense of local community, at the national level. He once explained the New Deal’s ‘drastic changes in the methods and forms of the functions of government’ by noting that ‘we have been extending to our national life the old principle of the local community.’”
The New Deal public philosophy, then, may be understood as a resurrection of the progressive vision of national community: a powerful central government in the service of the national idea, a president articulating that idea and drawing Americans together as neighbors, or as soldiers facing a common enemy. This vision of the national community, this public philosophy, would continue to dominate American politics for three decades, and to this day it strikes a responsive chord in the hearts of millions of Americans. As Irving Howe wrote recently, the “lasting contribution of the Roosevelt era” was the “socialization of concern, the vision of society as community.”*
The New Deal did not, alas, have any discernible impact on the economic problems of deflation, unemployment, reduced profits, and the virtual disappearance of growth. In this respect we were somewhat behind not only England but Hitler’s Germany as late as 1938, which was well before either power commenced rearmament on a significant scale. Neither country suffered the deep recession of 1937, a recession within a depression, that America did.
It was therefore a matter of supreme luck for the New Deal and the national community dream that World War II broke out in September 1939. For the war not only brought the Depression at last to an end in America—once war orders from Europe assumed massive enough force to break all vicious circles in the plight of the American economy—but there was, once again, war to serve the drive toward national community, the while it deluged and intoxicated many millions of long-unemployed, dispirited American workers with high wages, ample jobs, and a very cascade of long-sought economic and social reforms. American soldiers seemed less inspired by war, more prone to seek draft deferment at almost any cost, but from early on, they were promised educational, home-buying, and business benefits after the war that would make it all worthwhile.
Without doubt the idea of national community burns brightly in the American consciousness at the present time. Initiated by President Roosevelt, the idea has been nourished, watered, and tended in one degree or other by each succeeding president. When Governor Mario Cuomo of New York delivered his now historic speech in San Francisco in 1984 before the Democratic Convention, he made the national community his central, spellbinding theme. Over and over he referred to “family” and “community,” and once or twice to “wagon train,” meaning in each use, not the actual family or local community or wagon train crossing the prairies of earlier America, but rather the national state, the centralized, collectivized, and bureaucratized national state of this late part of the century.
Perhaps only under the camouflage of the rhetoric of freedom is the actual power of the state increased more easily than under the camouflage of the rhetoric of community. The greater despots of history, which is to say twentieth-century history, like Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler, Mao, and Castro, have turned to both rhetorics—of freedom and community. Here the Rousseauian vision in Western political thought plays a major role. Rousseau designed, in his The Social Contract and even more perhaps in his Discourse on Political Economy, the most powerful state to be found anywhere in political philosophy. There must be, wrote Rousseau, a social contract among the people. “Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.”
Properly understood, Rousseau insists, there is “the total alienation of each associate, together with all his rights, to the whole community; for, in the first place, as each gives himself absolutely, the conditions are the same for all and, this being so, no one has any interest in making them burdensome to others.” True community for Rousseau is not anything arising out of kinship, religion, ethnicity, or language. True community lies only within the purview of the state, the state consecrated to the virtue of its citizens, to be sure, but the state, once and for all. The general will, to which Rousseau gives absolute sovereignty, is the collective will purged of all marks of purely individual wills—with their egoisms, avarices, and selfishnesses.
But, Rousseau enjoins, the absoluteness of power of the general will and the new political community resting on the social compact, is only freedom, real freedom, in disguise:
In order then that the social compact may not be an empty formula, it tacitly includes the undertaking, which alone can give force to the rest, that whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body. This means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free; for this is the condition which, by giving each citizen to his country, secures him against all personal dependence.
From this it is really but a short step for Rousseau to the idea of a civil religion, the note on which he ends his Social Contract. The civil religion, Rousseau insists, is to be limited to a few common articles which are “not exactly dogmas,” being more nearly in the nature, he writes, of “social sentiments.” While the sovereign “can compel no one to believe them, it can banish from the State whoever does not believe them. . . . If any one, after publicly recognizing these dogmas, behaves as if he does not believe them, let him be punished by death: he has committed the worst of all crimes, that of lying before the law.”
It remains for Rousseau only to point out that while the sovereign general will is created by the social compact and is the emanation of the whole people, the ascertainment of this will on any given issue does not absolutely require such devices as voting and systems of representation. In fact, especially in larger states, these are undesirable. They would tend, Rousseau explains, to corrupt the purity of the general will by making appeal to the mere “will of all” with its undesirable attribute of majority opinion. Fortunately, Rousseau continues, elections, votes, and representatives are “hardly ever necessary where the government is well-intentioned. . . . For the rulers well know that the general will is always on the side which is most favorable to the public interest, that is to say, the most equitable; so that it is needful only to act justly to be certain of following the general will.”
And whoever heard of a government, from ancient imperial Egypt down to Stalin’s Soviet Union, that did not believe it acted justly? We are more likely to ascribe the totalitarian mystique in modern Western thought to Marx, with his “dictatorship of the Proletariat,” or to Lenin and the “dictatorship of the Party,” or to Hitler and his “dictatorship of the Volkstum,” that is, the true German people, than to Rousseau, but in all truth it was he who converted the democratic ethos into the totalitarian dogma.
Rousseau is the man of the hour at this juncture in American political thought. Unlike Marx, for more than half a century the invisible guru of the clerisy in America, Rousseau is clean; that is, without the tarnish that the practical reality of the Soviet Union has put on Marx’s name for the last seventy years. The only major event or emergence in modern history that Rousseau can be connected with is the French Revolution. The Jacobins virtually memorized him in order to guide the revolution to its totalitarian apogee in 1794. But who today remembers or gives thought to the French Revolution?
Rousseau’s paean to the absolute power of the state is offset in any event for most intellectuals by the other, seemingly unconnected, faces he presents to readers: the face of the romantic in his novel La Nouvelle Héloïse, on the surface no more than an idyll of spontaneous affection and love; the face of the artless believer in the purity of the state of nature and in the intrinsic, ineffaceable goodness of man—“corrupted only by institutions”; and the face of the tutor in Émile, dedicated to the task of teaching by tireless attention to natural right, to educing and evoking the good from the pupil rather than imposing harsh and alien idols of the mind upon him. And, finally, implacably, there is the Rousseau, the very central Rousseau, of the general will and its absolute power over the individual, of insistence that when the individual enters into the social contract that yields the general will, all liberties and rights are automatically surrendered.
Rousseau, as I have stressed, did not—in his estimation and in the estimation of countless worshipers since—thereby snatch freedom away from the individual. On the contrary, Rousseau guaranteed for man a higher form of freedom, that of participation in the being of the collective sovereign. And when this sovereign appears to be lowering its absolute power on the citizen’s head for whatever reason, this is only an act of “forcing the citizen to be free.”
Is it any wonder that Marx is rapidly being consigned to the charnel house of history, save among cultists, with only his “humanist” attributes preserved—preserved for fusion with the near totality of agreeable attributes in Rousseau. Rousseau is, at least to the mind of the late-twentieth-century clerisy in this country, the saint of saints. He offers absolute power in the form of divine grace, of the community of the elect.
This is perhaps the single most important fact there is about Rousseau the political thinker, the fact that makes him just as attractive to certain marginal conservatives like the followers of Leo Strauss as to all-out radicals. Of all the philosophes that the late Carl Becker brilliantly assigned to The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers, written over half a century ago, Rousseau is the most interesting and also the most important. Rousseau transferred, as it were, grace from the body of the church to the body of the state, the state based upon the social contract and the general will. His doctrine of the general will was regarded in his day as it is in ours as beyond the power of pure reason to understand, to assimilate. He could have said what Saint Augustine said in effect: To understand, one must first believe, have faith. The general will is the will of the people but it is not the will of all people. This is precisely what Rousseau tells us. The resolution of the paradox, like the resolution of the paradox of the Christian Trinity, lies in a kind of transrational or pararational imaging of the general will as the mind of the organism properly formed, no more capable of being understood by rationalistic dismemberment into tiny molecules than is the human mind itself. Rousseau is the political mystic, rivaled in this respect only by Plato, whom Rousseau declared the greatest of his teachers.
It is testimony to the religious element in Rousseau’s political philosophy that he endowed his collective monolith of power in the pages of The Social Contract with a religion of its own—the civil religion—to which I have already referred. The general will is of course the godhead.
There was a certain unwonted historical wisdom in Rousseau’s act of creating a church for his state. State and church, although arch-enemies over long periods of time in the annals of civilization, have more in common than either does with the economic realm—the common butt of both religious and political condemnation for its alleged crassness and egoism. And it is a fact that in the succession of power that forms the greatest single pageant in Western history, the state has succeeded the church in the detailed and minute custodianship of the individual. The state for a long time in history was obliged to wear the mantle of other, more respectable institutions. Thus the patriarchal state of yore, followed by the religious or divine-right state. But since the eighteenth century, the state has walked on legs of its own, and in so many respects has taken over once-ecclesiastical functions.
In Western Europe, throughout the Middle Ages, the majority of Europeans lived cradle-to-grave lives in the church. There was no aspect of life that was not either actively or potentially under the ordinances of the church. Birth, marriage, death were all given legitimacy by the church, not the state. Property, inheritance, work conditions, profits, interest, wages, schooling, university admissions, degrees, licenses for professional practice, workdays, holidays, feasts, and commemorations, all were subject not to secular but to ecclesiastical governance. The Middle Ages represented the height of ecclesiastical absolutism. That particular absolutism has vanished in the West—though not of course in other parts of the world, beginning with an Iran—but no vacuum has been left. Much of modern European history is the story of the gradual transfer, as it were, of ecclesiastical absolutism to monarchical and then democratic-nationalist absolutism. Medieval man was so accustomed to the multitudinous ordinances of the church governing his life that he didn’t even see them. That is more and more true today of modern man, democratic man.
There are respects, as I have suggested, in which the contemporary democratic state is like the totalitarian states of this century: in the number and scope of political laws governing the most intimate recesses of our lives, in the sheer comprehensiveness of political identity, role, law, and power in each state. But there is one large and sufficing difference between even the most bureaucratized and paternalistic of the democracies and the totalitarian states we have seen thus far, in Russia and Germany foremost. In the total state there is no pretense of free elections, free political association, and free choice of representatives in political office. Moreover, there is no instance, thus far at least, of a heavily bureaucratized, ordinance-saturated, democratic Leviathan ever evolving into the total state as I have just described it. All totalitarian states we are familiar with are the consequences of armed revolution, are based upon their armies, and exist literally by command. There is no suggestion that apart from military and party command there is any kind of law that operates, certainly none of common-law character.
But while democratic absolutism of the kind and extent we are now thoroughly familiar with poses no threat of evolution into a Soviet Union or Nazi Germany, it does not follow that it may not possibly grow almost insensibly, by infinitesimal degrees, into what is nothing less, for all practical purposes, than legal and administrative tyranny. Our consciousness of freedom is something more likely to be reserved for the interstices of the laws we pass annually rather than to be found in the laws themselves. There comes a time when no matter how much “representation” we as citizens have, laws—of taxation and disposition of property, of choice of schooling, of penetration even of the bedroom, of pornography and obscenity, of race, color, and sex, and of all else involved in the business of living—become burdensome to even the thickest-skinned.
Freedom, whether in the sense of from or of to, is not a virtue in itself. It is a virtue only when there goes with it personal privacy, autonomy in some degree, and creativeness to the limit of one’s faculties. To be free merely to be free is the stuff of inanition—like making hammers to make hammers to make hammers, as Chesterton has suggested. Democratic absolutism, chiefly in the manifestation of the thick, heavy bureaucracies we build today, can be as oppressive to the creative instinct, the curiosity itch, and the drive to explore as anything that exists more blatantly in the totalitarian state. It is interesting to observe in the Soviet Union right now a marked relaxing of law and ordinance taking place, especially in the economy. The reason for this is emphatically not some sudden reconsideration by the politburo of the values of liberalism; it is solely because after seventy years of Communist central planning and control, production, distribution, and consumption are in a more and more hopeless condition. Love freedom or hate it, there is a minimum without which there is no significant thought and action.
Tocqueville, first and even yet greatest theorist of democracy, was clear, as he surveyed the European democracies coming into existence in the 1830s, that democracy, more than any other genus of state in history, introduces and then refines and strengthens the power of the majority, the centralization of government, the leveling of social ranks in the name of individual equality, and the bureaucratization of society. On the last, Tocqueville went so far as to say that the progress of bureaucracy in modern Western history is the infallible augury of democracy coming up in the rear.
The Framers would be stunned by the mass and the labyrinthine complexity of the American bureaucracy today. It covers the country like a blanket and it does not by now hesitate to intrude into the most intimate details of our economic and social lives. The Framers knew from afar the kind of oppressive, suffocating bureaucracy that lay in Prussia, France, Russia, and other European countries. They didn’t like it. They would have agreed with Tocqueville’s famous description in Democracy in America: “It covers the surface of society with a network of small, complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd.” They would have seen with Marx “an appalling parasitic body which enmeshes the body of French society like a net and chokes off its pores.” The Framers would have quickly understood Parkinson’s Law—the inverse ratio between significance of function and size of attending bureaucracy—for they had seen it operate under George III.
But would they be prepared, could they possibly be, for the current reality of American bureaucracy, answering as it does to both Tocqueville’s and Marx’s characterizations but going far beyond the reality of any national bureaucracy in the nineteenth century. Consider the vast payroll, the number of jobs, tiers of responsibility, departments, subdepartments, commands, and cross-commands, assistants to assistants to assistants in the chain—if that can possibly be the right word—of command in the military bureaucracy, the Pentagon. The Joint Chiefs valiantly pretend to be in charge of the American military, but they aren’t really, and they must know it. No one is in charge. No one can be. The system is too elephantine and cumbersome, too much a vast prehistoric type of monster, for any one person or any tiny group to control it. Even if the military bureaucracy were small and manageable, joint—and incessantly conflicting—responsibility of the president and the Congress would make any kind of leadership by top brass unlikely.
Being elephantine, the Pentagon can apparently think only in terms of the elephantine. Since World War II the planet has known only small wars—Korea, Vietnam (far from small by the end, to be sure), Dominica, Iran, Grenada, etc., to limit ourselves here to American wars. Small wars would appear to be the wave of the future. Apart from the exceedingly unlikely war between the Soviet Union and the United States, there really isn’t the possibility of a war like either of the two world wars in this century. Small wars call for different kinds of forces from those which fought the Civil War, the Napoleonic Wars, and World Wars I and II. What is manifestly needed is the highly mobile, rapidly deployable, specially trained, and relatively small fighting force. The Joint Chiefs know it, we assume. But the enormous bureaucracy with its tentacles stretched out in every possible direction, tripping over one another, threatening to strangle the monster they are connected with, has apparently made it impossible for the great military bureaucracy in America to develop proper forces for the late twentieth century’s kinds of war. A single strike force, operating swiftly and responsibly, would have been more than enough for tiny Grenada and its primitive defensive forces. Instead there were three vast services put into place at or on the island.
If the Pentagon is the most glaring, and downright dangerous, of our mammoth bureaucracies, it is far from being the only one. There isn’t an aspect of individual life, from birth to death, that doesn’t come under some kind of federal scrutiny every day, and that means of course bureaucratic scrutiny. Horror stories are legion and related to every bureaucracy from the Internal Revenue Service to Commerce, Labor, Human Services, and so forth.
Even so, Americans are ambivalent about bureaucracy. They hate it, suffer from it, yet find it tolerable. In the first place, it is, with all its clumsy steps, the bearer of goodies. Once the American middle class became a full-fledged part of Social Security and Medicare, and then of an escalating abundance of still other goodies such as low-interest loans for their children’s precious college degrees, animosity toward bureaucracy began to retreat. “Damned bureaucracy” may be one word in most conversations, but it is said with more and more toleration, even affection.
The second reason that bureaucracy is acceptable is that it operates as a brake on the muddleheaded, brash, and sometimes cretinous ideas of government, of war and peace, brought to Washington by each new administration. As I noted in the preceding chapter, under the enchantment of the Great American Myth, each new president, secretary of state, of defense, and other departments is convinced of his effortless wisdom of leadership. The bureaucracy checks many of the gaffes and blunders, though not all. True, the bureaucracy would doubtless be equally vigilant against good and meritorious ideas, simply on the grounds that they were new and had never been tried before. But there haven’t been many of those in the modern age.
Reagan promised, vowed, swore that the size of the bureaucracy and with it the size of the national debt would be dramatically decreased. Those promises came in the fall of 1980 and in the first months of 1981. But things changed. And it is recorded in the books of Reagan’s own government, now in its second term, that his administration has presided over the largest budget increases and the largest budget (and also trade) deficits in American history, and that the size of the federal bureaucracy has shot up 13 percent, with not one significant bureau or department, not even Energy or Education, despite promises, dropped.
Nor is that the entire story. For, again beyond any predecessor in the White House, the rhetorically sworn apostle of laissez-faire President Reagan has sought, promised, and backed increases in the powers of the centralized state which would carry it into the intimacies of the bedroom and the cloister of the church: constitutional amendments, in other words, to forbid abortions on the one hand and mandate religious prayers in the schools on the other. Not even Hitler dared carry the state, the totalitarian state, that far into the home and the church. But absolutist democracy dares!
Arresting—egregious, some would say—as the Reagan spectacle is, however, it not unfairly epitomizes the attitudes of a great many Americans toward bureaucracy and state centralization. They curse it, deride it, abhor it, all the while they are beckoning it to them with one hand. Any reader can verify this easily. Whenever there is a dispute of some kind going on over a moral, social, economic, cultural, or even religious issue, the words “The government must . . .” lead all proposed solutions offered on the spot. Whether it is drug abuse, child molesting, obscenity, housing, educational quality, sickness all the way from AIDS down to the common cold or headache, the appeal to government—and necessarily bureaucracy—leads the field. Americans may hate bureaucracy, as they piously insist over and over, but any reduction whatever in the vast number of entitlements and other political subsidies, whether in money or in kind, would (indeed, does!) bring on avalanches of despair and hatred of the suspected malefactor.
There are two activities which account for well over half the annual budget and contribute most to the size of bureaucracy: the social services and the military. The middle class, the largest and overall wealthiest segment of American society, receives the most and the greatest of federal entitlements, thus being a major burden upon the taxpayer. But since the major taxpayer is the middle class, the happy theory is that it is all an ingenious and providential trade-off. Actually it isn’t, because seemingly no government, Republican or Democratic, dares to pay through current revenues the massive costs of the welfare state and the military, and therefore annual budget deficits of over two hundred billion dollars a year have become commonplace. The almost equally massive military budget is, as I explained in the preceding chapter, the consequence not so much of the sheer danger posed by the Soviet Union, but of the popular passion, inflamed first by Woodrow Wilson, then by Franklin Roosevelt, to intervene anywhere in the world that seems to be less than democratic, liberal, and humanitarian in the American image.
Together the social welfare bureaucracy and the military bureaucracy add up in the contemporary democratic United States to the largest bureaucracy in the history of the world, including even the Soviet Union. In fact, all else being equal, democratic absolutism creates larger bureaucracies—by virtue of the humanitarian factor—than does totalitarianism.
For a long time, until the aftermath of World War I, the main Western ideologies were checks on the idea of the omnicompetent state. All these ideologies—essentially socialism, liberalism, and conservatism—had developed in consequence of two great events of the eighteenth century: the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. The first epitomized the birth of modern nationalism, the second capitalism. But in actuality the role of the state was about as prominent in the second as in the first. As an increasing number of historians have demonstrated, the creation of nineteenth-century capitalism required a good deal more than simpleminded laissez-faire. The landscape for the new industry had been reordered by a number of activities. These included the enclosure acts of the English Parliament; other politically driven erasures of the Old Order, manifest in the lingering villages and outdated boroughs; special new laws and decisions the political state, after obliterating much of the old, made to provide reinforcement to the new, its factories and mills, its wage-earning labor force, and the “free” market required for cheapest possible production and distribution.
That is why all three ideologies, in the United States as well as Great Britain, found themselves in an often combative role toward the state. Even though socialism for the most part made the economic the dominant force in the long run, it (including Marxian but especially in its Proudhonian quasi-anarchist form) saw the state and the army and police as the very first target of the dreamt-of revolution. For Marx and Engels as well as for Proudhon and Kropotkin, the abolishment of the bourgeois state and its appalling bureaucracy was a goal of highest priority. Although neither Marx nor any other champion of socialism was ever able to set forth clearly the kind of society future socialism would actually usher in, a fundamental dogma of socialism declared that whatever the future might hold, the centralized, bureaucratized, and unitary national state would be gone, driven out by the Revolution.
So did nineteenth-century liberalism and conservativism make assault upon the state basic in their doctrines. For liberalism the individual and his maximum possible freedom formed the basis of opposition to the state. Conservatism rested its opposition to the unitary state on its defense of the social order—family, neighborhood, guild, and property—and the necessity of autonomy from political centralization.
The nature and significance of all three traditional ideologies have been drastically changed during the decades since World War I. Marx’s and Engels’ antipathy toward the state found no echo in Lenin and Stalin, who made the land of the first great socialist revolution a setting for the centralized state in the single most repressive form it has ever taken in history. Totalitarianism had its origin in our century in the events of 1917 when the Bolsheviks, under Lenin’s generalship, set up the first totalitarian state in history. A considerable number of Western socialists persist, of course, whose opposition to the Soviet Union is unqualified, and often bold and courageous. But what is sometimes called “the death of socialism” in our era is actually the collapse of a once vigorous and exciting crusade against the national state into yet another form of statism. Between democratic socialism and the omnipresent, current humanitarian-bureaucratic state there is too little difference to be worth spelling out.
Liberalism had its notable reversal of values in the United States during the New Deal. The New Deal is second only to World War I under Wilson as a cause of the steady politicization of a doctrine founded originally on the freedom of the individual. The central value of contemporary American liberalism is not freedom but equality; equality defined as redistribution of property. Not autonomy from power but participation in power follows, as tenet, directly from the new equalitarianism.
A veritable renascence of conservative ideology was under way by the end of the fifties; it was sufficient to carry with it an interest in both Edmund Burke and Tocqueville greater perhaps than any in prior decades. Overwhelmingly the new conservatism—in resolute opposition to liberals above all other groups—followed Burke and Tocqueville in espousing decrease in centralization, pluralism over monism in government, the free market in basic economic production and distribution, intermediate social groups like family and local community and voluntary associations—all calculated to take some of the load of responsibility from big government—and, inevitably, substantial decrease in bureaucracy. The new conservatism also emphasized some of the traditional moral values which, it was plausibly argued, had gotten battered into passivity by the forces of modernism, political modernism most of all. In a word, the autonomy of social order and culture was the prized objective of the new conservatism.
At the present moment, however, militant conservatism has as little to do with its historic substance as contemporary liberalism has to do with its birthright of devotion to individual liberty. What is most likely to be labeled “conservative” by the media—and with considerable basis in reality—is militarism on the one hand and Christian Far Right evangelicism on the other, which is far more interested today in extending the power of the state into the intimate recesses of life through legislation and constitutional amendment than in a free religion in a free political society. In large measure conservatism has become, within a decade or two, an ideology seeking to capture democratic absolutism rather than secure from it social and moral authority distinct from political power.
Conservatism has had severe difficulties ever since the Reagan coalition captured the government in 1980. Given the sharp differences in the ideologies forming the coalition—military hawkishness, evangelicism, libertarianism, supply siders, the power-obsessed Right, and others equally discordant—it is probably remarkable that the Reagan coalition lasted as long as it did. It does not now look as though it will be missed.
Politics is king, having deposed economics in World War I. That war proved that however insane a given economic measure might seem when examined strictly on its own merit, its success was virtually guaranteed in the marketplace if the state chose to mandate it, to make it a part of the state’s official strategy, and to frost it with the rhetoric of freedom and equality. Jacques Ellul, in his The Political Illusion, has written powerfully on politics in the present age:
To think of everything as political, to conceal everything by using this word (with intellectuals taking the cue from Plato and several others), to place everything in the hands of the state, to appeal to the state in all circumstances, to subordinate the problems of the individual to those of the group, to believe that political affairs are on everybody’s level and that everybody is qualified to deal with them—these factors characterize the politicization of modern man, and, as such comprise a myth. The myth then reveals itself in beliefs, and as a result, easily elicits almost religious fervor . . . To act in a contrary fashion would place us in radical disagreement with the entire trend of our society, a punishment we cannot possibly accept . . . We consider it obvious that everything must be unreservedly subjected to the power of the state.*
Vital to the contemporary bureaucratic, centralized, omnicompetent democratic state is its clerisy, by which I mean the aggregate of intellectuals and scholars dedicated to the state precisely as their medieval forebears were to the church. The medieval clerisy was formed chiefly of theologians but was not without politiques, theorists and practitioners of power. The clerisy of our day in America is mostly politiques pure and simple, but it has its full share of theologians too, as almost any academic journal of political science attests.
Predictably, the contemporary political clerisy was born of the Wilson War State in 1917 and 1918. Wilson, himself a reverent politique, of course, and the very idol of America’s intellectual classes, sent out a call for fellow intellectuals to aid him in the winning of the war and the planning of the peace. A secret group of intellectuals with the distinguished geographer Isaiah Bowman of Johns Hopkins its chairman, and containing also the youthful Walter Lippmann, almost literally wrote the famed Fourteen Points that Wilson thrust upon the world.
But there were many others marshaled by Wilson as clerisy—historians like Guy Stanton Ford and Stuart P. Sherman, novelists including Booth Tarkington and Samuel Hopkins Adams, and many others from various sectors of society. Europe had been familiar with the political intellectual for a long time, certainly since the philosophes in France in the late eighteenth century. They were the earliest of a long procession of thinkers and doers through the European nineteenth century who saw capture of the state and its sovereign powers as the first step toward bringing about the good society. For centuries most intellectuals had been more closely attached to the church or to the aristocracy for support. Now, increasingly, emotional, and not seldom financial, attachment was to the secular state.
It is difficult to find a class of political intellectuals, a clerisy, in America in the nineteenth century. Utopian and reform energies were characteristically expended from religious or philosophical bases—as in the great wave of Protestant social reform in the century and the many and divers utopian communities. Edward Bellamy’s widely read Looking Backward, in which a powerful and militarized state is portrayed as America’s salvation, was a conspicuous exception.
In the 1920s the political intelligentsia grew appreciably in size and influence. The Wilson War State had left indelibly imprinted on a great many minds, academic foremost perhaps but legal and business minds too, the spectacle of intellectuals serving the state in the interests of moral betterment and economic reform. Where the church had been for so long the most widely accepted institutional base for reform of society, a constantly increasing number of social scientists, philosophers, and critics now, in the 1920s, put full emphasis on the national state. John Dewey, America’s most respected and influential philosopher in the twentieth century, put the stamp of approval upon a liberalism in which the state would be the tireless champion of the people, as against the varied factions of business, religion, and ordinary politics.
The onset of the Great Depression at the beginning of the 1930s carried with it the greatest opportunity yet for the expansion and popularization of the political class. The almost instant odium that fastened itself upon the business community made the hypertrophy of the state and its apparatchiks the easier. So did the presence of Herbert Hoover in the White House when the stock market crashed and then the pall of depression settled over the land. Hoover’s reputation is and doubtless always will be that of a strict apostle of laissez-faire. He was anything but that. An engineer by profession, he tasted of social engineering under Wilson in World War I. He was food administrator for the United States and important in a variety of other government connections. He was the strongest member of the Harding and Coolidge administrations, always known for his keen interest in the use of the national government to build up the country. When depression came, Hoover launched a considerable number of governmental schemes and programs for relief of the people—many of them to survive and be used by Roosevelt in his first term of office. Hoover really began modern peacetime political and social engineering; Roosevelt simply enlarged upon it.
It was Roosevelt, though, who led all predecessors in the sheer number of intellectuals he attracted to Washington. What James Burnham has called the managerial revolution took place in America under Roosevelt all the while, in different setting and with different result, the same managerial revolution was taking place in Europe. Burnham was struck in the 1930s by the ever-increasing power of management in the great corporations of America, almost always at the expense of the stockholders who in theory owned the corporation and possessed all the usual rights of control which normally go with ownership. Many times the most powerful individuals in the corporations were managers who didn’t own a share of stock in their corporation. Their power came from a managerial role that was in effect crowding out the actual owners.
Burnham saw the same type of managerial revolution taking place in Western governments. Political intellectuals and bureaucrats—one and all appointed, not elected—were taking over powers which once belonged to the people and their elected representatives. In Europe this managerial revolution yielded up the totalitarian regimes of Russia, Italy, and Germany. They could be seen as extreme, deeply ideological manifestations of the revolution. But in other parts of Europe—France and Great Britain, for example—the managerial revolution had very much the same character and substance as it did in the New Deal in America. Under the spur of the crisis of the world depression, even the democracies were succumbing to the allure of a managerial class, thus in their own way adding to the crisis of democracy.
I believe that the legal fraternity, especially in some of the more influential law schools, is rapidly becoming the most powerful wing or sector of the political clerisy in America. The idea of working directly through law and the courts in order to accomplish major changes in economy and social order, even in government itself, has its modern origin in Jeremy Bentham. Not that Bentham for a moment liked the English common law or the courts in which it was practiced. He loathed the jury system, ridiculing the idea that a pickup group of men could rationally and logically make its way to the truth in law any more than in philosophy or mathematics. Nor did Bentham like the accumulating paraphernalia of democracy in Britain. Democracy is ultimately based upon the will of the majority; this implies minorities, Bentham observed, and with majorities and minorities, the danger of chaos and anarchy becomes threatening. Working through parliaments and congresses, Bentham believed, was a time-consuming, infinitely circuitous, and ultimately self-defeating approach to the good state.
Bentham’s solution was what he called the Magistrate; that is, a man or tiny group of men, acting more in the role of grand inquisitor than of any king, president, or legislative body, who by the special nature of his exalted being would always be in perfect synchronization with the will—that is, the real, the true, the general will of Rousseau, essentially—of the whole people. Congresses inevitably fragmented the populaces; kings and presidents were hamstrung by intermediate institutions serving actually as obstacles to truth and justice. The only way of overcoming the clutter and slowdown of representative institutions and of electorates—masses of incompetent citizens voting their feebly understood will—was through a great system of law, one based upon the principle of the greatest happiness for the largest number of people. This system of law would be personified, acted for, served, and above all dominated by the Magistrate—ill-defined by Bentham but plain enough in his fevered prose.
We are not likely to hear about a sovereign magistrate or the general will from our increasingly active, change-oriented legal clerisy. They appear to be quite satisfied with the present system of federal courts rising to the Supreme Court. Why not be satisfied? The Supreme Court is the single most glittering prize to be had in America for the activism-, reform-, or revolution-seized political mentality. We have learned over the past several decades, most resplendently in the Warren Court, how great, far-reaching changes can be effected by a majority of the Supreme Court without having to go through the channels set up and favored by the Framers—that is, the legislative and the executive working together.
How long, it has to be asked, would it have taken for state legislatures, Congress, and the presidency to have brought about desegregation, the principle of one man, one vote, and the total legalization of abortion? A long time, obviously. Tocqueville, who admired America’s localist and regionalist political institutions, confessed that these would never, by themselves, overcome the “terrible evil” of slavery or, for that matter, if slavery was somehow abolished as law, overcome too the still fiercely segregated position of the races. Only a great central power, a kind of superemperor, was capable, Tocqueville thought, of abolishing slavery and its segregationist aftermath. Tocqueville was very far from recommending such a central power, though he did comment on some of the great things which can be accomplished only by centralization.
To return to the present age: Law, especially the law of the entire nation, federal law, presents itself as the most potent force for social change now imaginable. Inevitably, therefore, the attention of the eager, impatient, and activist among humanitarians and reconstructionists is already being turned from the presidency and the Congress—and conspicuously the merely state-level political offices—to the federal judiciary with its grand prize of the Chief Justiceship of the United States. It will be interesting to historians of the next century or two to see in what measure the Supreme Court—consisting today of nine unelected individuals, still of the traditional conviction, for the most part, that the proper business of the Court is the interpretation, not the making of law, least of all the making of large reconstructive law—evolves, if it does, into an entity at least suggestive of Bentham’s Magistrate.
Irrespective of all that, the present fact is that federal law, the federal courts, and above all the Supreme Court offer a challenge to eager spirits of the political clerisy that was not possible a generation or two ago when virtually all law practiced was at the local and state level. Law is, as Bentham saw brilliantly, the most egalitarian of all institutions in present society, and, as Tocqueville foresaw, the quest for equality would be the most consuming of all quests in the future. Given the vital place of the Supreme Court in this respect, we may expect to see nominations of justices by the Executive Branch henceforth subjected to ever more bitter confirmation fights in the Senate. The inquisition of Judge Robert Bork in late 1987 will have frequent followups in the years ahead.
In politics the best of all known reinforcements of an ideological position is a philosophy of history. It has the effect of making your particular goal seem a part of the constitution of mankind, of the movement of the stars in their courses.
Karl Marx learned this, and what he learned has had great influence on other political and social causes, including that today of the centralized national state. In his youth Marx was a seething cauldron of desires, fantasies, utopian ecstasies—all the product of his deeply dyed hatred of the institutional setting in which he lived, all catalyzed by his apocalyptic vision of the great, cleansing revolution. But by the time Marx had spent a few years in Paris, had met Engels, and had written with him the historic Manifesto of the Communist Party, he had a philosophy of history in which personal craving was hugely reinforced by the vision of all history as class struggle, with each stage a moral step above the preceding one. This was for Marx “scientific” socialism. Social action, including the revolution, was not proscribed; merely adjusted to the great “law of motion” of human history.
A similar philosophy of history in stages contributes to democratic absolutism and its prosperity: first the family, then religion, then the local community and cooperative. These, like the family itself, served human beings well in their time. But, the argument goes, their time is now gone, leaving the political state as the lineal, progressive replacement of the family, church, and traditional local community. The highest form of community is today, the argument continues, the political community; that is, the state suitably equipped with largesse in every form.
It is not enough to say that the national state is simply a good community; it must be presented as the only possible community in the late twentieth century, the single form of community that has emerged from the whole historical process and is thus, whether we recognize it or not, an inevitable stage in the evolution of human society. We must be able to sing with our hearts: The state is necessary and the inexorable outcome of Western history. All other forms of association intermediate to man and state are at best sentimental reminders of the past—the dead, soon to be the forgotten past.
Within the larger frame of asserted evolution lies the narrower but trenchant evolution of the state itself. This evolution, it is declared, has moved in unilinear fashion from the primitive kingship through the patriarchal, the religio-sacred, the oligarchic, the contractual, and the laissez-faire state, each a necessary stage in its time, down to the twentieth-century people’s state, to the nation as family, church, and above all community.
The great advantage of a philosophy of history or theory of social development, however subjective and fanciful either is in fact, is that the holder of the philosophy or theory is then able to point out confidently those elements of the present which are “progressive,” “modern,” and “functional” as contrasted with other elements of the present which are “obsolete,” “archaic,” and “reactionary.” These latter are survivals of some earlier, now outmoded, stage of human development, and no matter how attractive, how desirable, how seemingly efficient they are—like the family, church, and local community, like the free market, the private sector, and the voluntary association—they must be sternly repudiated. Repudiated in favor of the national, democratic, central people’s state hereinafter known as the true “family,” “community,” and “wagon train,” all courtesy of Governor Cuomo. Thus centralization, nationalist administration of government, and within this the presidency over Congress and the judiciary, and a generally unitary type of society are all to be preferred to pluralism, decentralization, particularism, and the private sector because these last are mere reminders of the past, “communities of memory,” and the stuff of nostalgic romance.
Armed thusly, the contemporary clerisy is mighty and its consensus supreme—in sophisticated society, at any rate. The polemical advantages are obvious. No longer must one justify his predilection for the centralized national state bureaucratically thrust into our most intimate lives by naive expressions of desire and preference. With a little experience any apprentice in the clerisy can quickly snap out “Modern” and as quickly the epithets “Outdated” or “Archaic” and thus have the battle won immediately. Only an Alice in Wonderland would be struck by the weirdness of dividing the present, or any historical time period, into the Modern on the one hand and the Archaic on the other. But as the queen would doubtless inform Alice tartly, a theory of history is exactly what I want it to be, no less, no more.
The same myth of an ordered, necessary development of the state works admirably for the clerisy in foreign policy. There are many despotisms in the world. On any rational scale, the Soviet Union has by far the worst record of repressiveness, one that includes, over a few decades, genocide, terror, torture, show trials, and the Gulag. States made in the image of the Soviet Union, like Bulgaria, Cuba, and Albania, are not far behind in internal, permanent terror. But on the other hand, the world’s despotisms can be arranged in terms of a different scale, that of the archaic and reactionary to the modern and progressive. In the first category fall such states as the South Korea of Syngman Rhee, the South Vietnam of Diem, South Africa, and the Philippines under the Marcoses. Without doubt these are repugnant governments—but hardly the equals in systematic repression and flouting of human rights of the Soviets and their shadow states.
But beginning with the 1930s a very considerable number of American liberals, members all of the political clerisy, have found it much easier to swallow the Soviet Union and its minions than the South Koreas and South Africas. As Jeane Kirkpatrick pointed out in a now historic essay, a great many political intellectuals in the United States confront the world’s dictatorships armed with double standards: one standard (usually in fury) for the “reactionary” and “archaic” and “capitalist” nations such as South Vietnam under Diem; another standard for the Soviet Union, Castro’s Cuba, and Sandinista Nicaragua. The double standard rests precisely on the dogma of a pattern of political development, or progress, that divides the present world into the reactionary and the progressive.
Roosevelt had a great deal to do with the coining and broadcasting of this dogma and the distinctions among nations that flow from it. He made no bones, during World War II, about his preference for Stalin’s Communism over Churchill’s British imperialism. The Soviet leaders, FDR told Frances Perkins one day, after the Teheran summit, have “an almost mystical devotion” to their people. “They all seem really to want to do what is good for their people instead of wanting to do for themselves.” Despite the totalitarian structure of the Soviet Union and its appalling record, it was not this nation that FDR foresaw as the enemy of democracy but rather British imperialism. He seems to have actually believed that the United States had more in common with the Soviet Union than with Great Britain. The Soviets were somewhat barbaric, FDR agreed, but in comparison with imperialism practiced by capitalist states, mere barbarism was venial and could easily be overcome, especially if there was someone like Roosevelt to guide Stalin after the war.
Roosevelt commissioned a special report on imperialism, particularly British, from his dutiful aide General Patrick Hurley, who required no instruction as to FDR’s likes and dislikes. In a report to the President—which Roosevelt sent immediately along to Churchill, indicating that in general he approved of it—Hurley declared that at that very moment the blood of thousands of brave American boys was being spilled in their forced position of defense of British imperialism. He added that the great struggle ahead was that between democracy and imperialism—not, be it noted, between democracy and totalitarianism. Finally, in the general’s judgment the Soviets, as Hurley found them in Iran, were very exemplars of modern efficiency and world citizenship.
Armageddon would be, in short, between the modern United States and the “archaic” and “reactionary” imperialism of states like democratic Great Britain, not between democracies and totalitarianisms—the latter a concept seemingly unknown to Roosevelt and Hurley. However odious in short-run situations the Soviets might be, as in Poland, the Balkans, and the Baltics, and however cruelly destructive of all parliamentary, representative states which they subjugated and occupied, the Soviets yet had to be recognized as vastly ahead in the line of progress of the imperialistic czarist regime they had vanquished and ahead, too, in any proper philosophy of world history, of the Great Britains and the Frances of Europe. These were still democratic, representative, attentive to human rights, and all that, but they were archaic, basically great fossils harking back to the outstripped past. As the Churchill-Roosevelt wartime correspondence amply attests, FDR spent at least a part of the war lecturing Churchill on the sin of imperialism—with India the great object lesson, of course—the while he seems to have stomached everything in the Soviet Union, even finding in the Soviet leaders, as I have noted, a mystic bond of consecration to the people.
At bottom it is the same conception of history, of some believed logic or pattern of history, that leads the political clerisy in the democracies to speak so assuredly of “developed” nations on the one hand, and the “undeveloped” on the other. Empirically, logically, and scientifically, the distinction is fatuous when applied to the peoples of the earth. How can we declare any people undeveloped? It has presumably had a long history and quite possibly has undergone as many fundamental changes over time as any people we describe as developed. The United States, three centuries old, is developed. India, several millennia old in its constitutive elements of family, village, and caste is undeveloped.
The distinction is ridiculous by the criteria of ordinary logic, but it exists and is widely used as the consequence of the philosophy or theory of progress that the West has sustained for many centuries and that has been the very life’s blood of modernity. Under the Western canon of progress, the West itself is deemed to be in the vanguard of the advancement of humanity. Other peoples are ranked unprogressive or undeveloped in accord with a scale: Those peoples most different in customs from the West are ipso facto not merely most different but most undeveloped; they are, it is said, primitive, barbaric, savage, or, commonly, reactionary if there is property coupled with strong kinship and caste ties and with a system of political representation different from ours.
Limited use of the political government in the lives of citizens; considerable reliance upon family, clan, religion, and class or caste in matters of self-government and mutual aid; a suffusion of life by the sacred and its symbols; decentralization and localism; and a jealous regard for private property and its place in the family or caste—all such traits, commendable though they may be in many contexts on earth, are deemed reactionary and undeveloped by the West’s political clerisy. Political omnicompetence, with the state the spearhead of all social and cultural life; industrialization, however farcical in context; nationalization of education; rampant secularism; and growing consumer-hedonism—all this bespeaks modernity to the Western clerisy and the welcome sign of the developed, the progressive. When there is evidence of a burgeoning socialism, or at least of socialist thought styles, joy runneth over, it would seem, in the political and bureaucratic offices of the World Bank and other sanctuaries of world homogenization, American style.
The Soviet Union, it will be noted, ranks very high on the scale of development and modernity. This puts the Soviets well above a South Africa or a South Korea unless one happens to be affronted by genocide, permanent terror, a totalitarian government, and militaristic imperialism.
The word politicization may not be felicitous, especially off the tongue, but it is an indispensable word to any faithful account of the present age. “The Politics of . . .” is the beginning of many a title or subtitle of book and article in this epoch. Once it was the economic factor that was emblazoned on books about the Constitution, the Civil War, Hollywood, or World War I. But economics’ place has been overwhelmed by the political. Now it is the politics of the family, the school, relationships in industry, the Supreme Court, and the environmental movement. Power, not money, is the great commodity to be brokered and traded.
There is a very considerable actuality behind the triumph of the political in print. Under the spur of this actuality, Washington, D.C., is at last on its way to becoming a city, that is, a city with some identity. It should be. Before World War II there weren’t a dozen trade associations headquartered in Washington; they were mostly in New York and Chicago. There are thousands now in the capital, and they include lobbies for every conceivable economic, social, and cultural interest in this country. There is almost nothing, from art to zoos, in which the politics of the interest doesn’t come close to outweighing the intrinsic subject matter. It is not so much freedom from bureaucracy as it is participation in it that seems to matter the most.
Until the early 1960s, the fondest wish of most evangelicals—a term I take to include fundamentalists, Pentecostals, and charismatics of all colors—was seclusion: from the inquiry of the state, from political processes, and from publicity. The humiliations suffered by the fundamentalists alone in the famous Scopes trial in Tennessee in 1925, from the defense of Scopes by master defense attorney Clarence Darrow, with the once-revered William Jennings Bryan the chief scapegoat, were enough to make them covet the anonymity of seclusion. They were not likely, either, to forget for a long time the brilliant and widely printed lacerations by America’s reigning critic and wit, H. L. Mencken.
But when religion generally became popular in the 1950s, not least on college campuses, the evangelicals began to seek the sunlight again, and within a decade they had become not only religious but political forces to deal with. For whatever reasons, Americans flocked to the ranks of born-again Christians and to the arms of the Oral Robertses, the Pat Robertsons, the Jerry Falwells, and many others. I shall say something about their economic significance in the next chapter. Here I want simply to point out the extreme politicization their religious message has undergone in very recent years. The political communiqué or handout often seems to have succeeded the New Testament as the organ of the Good News. The agenda of the group that began under the label of the Moral Majority was as political, as concerned with strictly political ends, political techniques, and political power plays, as anything witnessed back in the 1930s in the labor unions.
We have no difficulty in seeing three stages, all recent, of the evangelical affair with politics. Its first motivation was acquisition of enough political influence to protect religious exceptionalism in America. This was followed by stage two in which political power, the engine of the national state, was sought in order to advance, indeed to force upon the whole of America, certain moral objectives—such as the criminalization of all abortion and the establishment of prayers in all public schools—which were the possession of a distinct minority of Americans. Stage three is well symbolized by the entry into the presidential race of one of the most powerful of the evangelicals, Pat Robertson. What we shall see in the future no one can foretell. But it is well to remember that politics and religion have always been the pristine areas of human division and difference, of blinding hatred uncoiled in terror, arson, and wars without limits of mercy. There is much food for reflection in the history of Christianity. Beginning as a sect, or rather a multitude of sects, in the early years of the Roman Empire, with simple desire for autonomy and growth its obsession, it had become the official religion of Rome by the end of the third century. A thousand years later it was the supreme power—at once religious, moral, economic, and political—in Western Europe.
I do not question that the majority of Christians in America are basically uninterested in wielding the sword of political power. Their chief interest—as Christians, that is—is that of preserving spiritual and moral autonomy under existing political power. But there is a large, and apparently fast-growing, minority of Americans whose zeal for Christ and overwhelming confidence in their righteousness make politics an irresistible beacon. If politics is the name of the game, and it is in our age, then let born-againness become a political as well as a spiritual rite.
Thus the nakedly political approach of the evangelicals to such matters of morals and faith as abortion, prayers in the schools and other public places, and the so-called right to life of the comatose in hospitals. There will be a great deal more of this in the decades ahead.
Labor unions in the United States offer a panorama of politicization, with the political function of unionism now superior to the economic function that led to unions in the first place. Prior to World War I, the unions were just as eager for autonomy in the state as were universities and churches. The war changed that. It was part of war strategy for the home front to make everybody, capitalist and wage earner alike, happy. Unions were accorded a special honor and privilege by the several economic czars Wilson appointed. After the war the famous labor leader Samuel Gompers chose the older course of keeping unions as free as possible of political involvement. He was totally opposed to the course of politicization he could see in Europe, a course that transformed mutual aid economic associations into political parties, even parts of the state.
But Gompers’s philosophy did not win out. Increasingly, the unions saw the capture of political power as the quickest way of enlarging membership and their rights against employers. The Norris-LaGuardia Act of 1932 exempted unions from antitrust laws and outlawed use of injunctions in labor matters; the National Industrial Recovery Act of the following year, and especially the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, went a long way in the politicization of the American trade union simply through heaping ostensible privileges, special protections by the state, upon labor leaders. It was strengthening to the unions for some time, but in the long run the politicization of the unions has contributed a great deal to their waning importance as economic powers. So thick are the political restrictions now—with the federal government even directly governing at least one large union—that there is little room for autonomous mobility by the unions today. Basically the unions no longer have the once-feared strike threat. The AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington is close enough to the White House to suggest a government bureau, and that is about what organized labor has become—to consequent erosion of morale.
So do the great universities threaten, by the sheer volume of political demands upon the federal government, to become in due time as politicized as the universities in Europe and Latin America. Among several meanings of academic freedom is that of a college’s or university’s freedom from the power of government ministries or departments. Until World War II the unwritten law of laws in the university world was the duty of the university to stay as clear of the national state as possible; that is, not to allow its academic freedom to be jeopardized by government bureaus sniffing and poking around. Although Wilson had drawn heavily on scholars to engage in war propaganda work, he did not involve the universities themselves.
That changed dramatically in World War II when, by early 1942, the militarization of the university was well in progress. Courses were hastily adapted to “national defense” curricula, young soldiers were marched from class to class, whole colleges were occasionally taken over for war training, and research was almost totally military in character in the sciences and remarkably so even in the humanities.
Today the university is becoming a creature of the national state, in funding primarily but thereby, almost necessarily, in impact upon university policy, and in general orientation to political strategy. The recent powerful demonstrations of students and faculty in the major universities on disinvestment in South Africa were only the latest illustration of the political power possessed by campuses at the present time. To what extent the university will remain an academic instead of a political university of the kind that has become legion in Latin America, the Far East, and other parts of the world is still unclear. Such is the extent to which the forces of militarization and politicization have already left heavy impress on the American university.
Without doubt one of the most vivid and ominous tendencies in our present age is the politicization of mind and behavior that is to be seen in the churches, the labor unions, the universities, the professions, and indeed so much of ordinary social concern. For the most part the object of the drive toward politicization is the state at its highest level. As I write, we read in the press of the televangelist Pat Robertson, currently a candidate for the U.S. presidency. A decade and a half ago, in a personal testament published and sold widely, the Reverend Mr. Robertson wrote that God had commanded him for Himself, and not, therefore, for politics. God, we can only conclude at this point, has changed his mind or else found even himself impotent before the spell of politics in America in the present age.
Accompanying the rage to political power in our age is the relentless march of royalism in the federal government. We see this in the presidency perhaps foremost, and I shall restrict myself for the most part to this office. But it would be negligent to overlook the trail of royalism in other departments of government also: in the Supreme Court where, as I have just emphasized, the temptation to make law instead of merely interpreting becomes ever stronger; in the Congress, especially the Senate, where more and more recourse is had to televised performances of Senate committees sitting inquisitorially over individuals, hailed commandingly by subpoena to come in front of it and be interrogated, often sharply, before the many millions of the television audience—descendants perhaps of those who used to enjoy public hangings. Everywhere, in the federal courts, in the halls and offices of Congress, in the White House, the mantle of luxury shines—a luxury of appointments, architecture, and style that one cannot often find in Europe anymore.
This is particularly noticeable in the presidency, in the present-day, post-Kennedy White House, never as resplendent before as under the Reagans; in the luxuriousness that pervades every corner and crevice of the presidential life; in the incessant imaging of the president for public purposes; and in the palace intrigues by now rife in every White House. Capture of the White House has appealed to utopians, reformers, and plain movers and shakers since the beginning of the century. From the time Wilson assumed the absolutism of his war powers in 1917 and commenced the radical transformation of America implicit in the War State, there has been a kind of dream of the strong, active, robust, commanding president that included more than a mere touch of plebiscitary democracy in it.
Basic to the clerisy strategy of magnifying the presidency in the eyes of the people is the parallel work of denigrating Congress and the departments. It is usually a toss-up between Congress and the Department of State as to which will be made, in any given year, the chief donkey of government. It is nearly instinctual in the political clerisy—and this holds true whether the administration is Republican or Democratic—to portray the president as the elected representative of the entire people, “The People,” as it is commonly put, with congressmen portrayed as like mayors and city councilmen, mere representatives of wards, sections, and districts, thus a cracked mirror of the People.
This is not, of course, the way the Framers of the Constitution saw the ideal of American government. Ben Franklin is said to have replied, when an outsider asked him which was being effected by the Constitutional Convention, a republic or a monarchy: “A republic, if you can keep it.” Franklin’s answer would no doubt be the same today were he on the scene, but the words might be uttered with somewhat less confidence or optimism. During the past half-century we have seen the spirit of royalism rise considerably. Wilson is prototypical; not since have direct, personal powers been showered on a president by Congress, and with the approval of the Supreme Court, as they were on Wilson. But his presidency was one of austerity, and when the armistice came, demobilization of forces and return to constitutionality were immediate.
Present-day royalism in the federal government began with FDR. Few then present are likely to forget the excitement generated by his seeming assumption during the Hundred Days of just about all the powers of government. Congress was for the time relegated to the shades; the air was filled with alphabetical symbols of the agencies, bureaus, strategies he was pursuing on his own. He found it possible to receive credit even for entities like the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Reconstruction Finance Agency in which his role was slim at best. He did create on his own the ill-fated National Recovery Administration, a fusion of government and business that suggested Italian Fascism and was rather quickly ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. With undiminished effort at autocracy, FDR sought to get a bill through Congress that would have—on the pretext of enhancing the Court’s efficiency—increased significantly the size of the Court, thus making it possible for him to add justices of his own predilection. He was defeated on that by Congress.
Royalism is the essence of Roosevelt’s wartime stance. Churchill, true architect of the salvation of the West from both Nazism and Soviet Communism and resplendent leader in action, was obliged, as noted above, to report regularly to Parliament and almost daily to the powerful War Cabinet. In no way was his leadership diminished; he thought, indeed, that Roosevelt would have been aided by a similar regimen. Roosevelt would have had none of it under any circumstances. His consultation of Congress, once the war was entered, was infrequent and minimal. So was his consultation of the Cabinet. So was his consultation of any high official of government, including the Secretary of State, Cordell Hull. Churchill became the war’s most illustrious leader without departing from constitutionalism. Roosevelt came very close to flouting constitutionalism, electing to confide in and listen to Harry Hopkins and, to somewhat less degree, General Marshall.
Under the Kennedy administration royalism was reinvigorated. From the beginning the theme, broadcast widely through a compliant press, was the “power of the president.” To this end courtiers—there is no other appropriate word—appeared named Rostow, Schlesinger, Bundy, McNamara, Rusk, Hilsman, and Goodwin. This is the group given journalistic immortality by David Halberstam in his The Best and the Brightest. Although they all held regular governmental positions, including high Cabinet secretaryships, the real influence of the group came from their direct, personal fealty to the young and histrionic president.
Under President Kennedy’s authority alone the number of military advisers to Diem in South Vietnam was increased from a few hundred to more than fifteen thousand, commanded by a four-star general. Under the same authority came the tragic and fateful decision to depose President Diem, thus leading to Diem’s murder and also to our eight-year nightmare of war in Asia, eight thousand miles away. Precisely the same kind of exercise of presidential authority, nourished only by courtiers, not genuinely constitutional bodies of advisers like congressional committees and full departments like State and Defense, led at the very beginning of the Kennedy administration to the Bay of Pigs fiasco.
Royalism has not disappeared since Kennedy’s assassination, only subsided slightly from time to time. Lyndon Johnson’s Tonkin Gulf ruse gave him individual war powers suggestive of Roosevelt’s and Wilson’s. So did his reshaping of domestic bureaucracy through the Great Society program. Intrigue in the palace was constant; so was public discontent over his war in Vietnam. The President was in effect deposed, saved from that actuality only by grace of the election of 1968.
Since then in the reigns of Nixon and Reagan there have been analogous, even worse, incidents of extreme hypertrophy of White House power. National security, that ancient refuge of despotic monarchs, has become the portmanteau for at least two clutchings for personal power by the president: Watergate and, most recently, Irangate. National security as shield takes on some of the odor of raison d’état in Renaissance Europe, the plea of “reason of state” to conceal crime, heresy, or treason, or all three, in a given kingly court. The National Security Adviser—who has his own special power undergirded by a large and growing staff and which is composed for the most part of individuals sworn in fact to the personal being of the president rather than to the seals of government—would make the Framers rub their eyes. For in it, as it has been interpreted almost continuously since the Kennedy administration, lies, by implication at least, almost everything the Fathers of the Constitution loathed and abominated in the Old World.
National security is, like raison d’état, a wonderful umbrella for extensions of the presidential-royal power. Whether the president personally, consciously, participates in these extensions in domestic and foreign matters is just as hard to discover as ever it was when a Henry VIII or Louis XIV was involved. For the vast White House power is wielded today by a score of loyal, faithful personal retainers dedicated to protection of the royal presence and largely out of reach of legislative bodies. Government of laws and of offices threatens thus to be supplanted by government of personal retainers, of courtiers—hit men, jesters, confidential clerks, envoys of the most personal and secret responsibility, one and all thrilled at the work of guarding, when necessary, the government and the people from their duly elected, constitutionally vested representatives.
Perhaps the ultimate thus far in raison d’état in the name of the higher patriotism and morality that is above the law is the recent Poindexter-North intrigue, possibly even a small coup d’état, as it all unrolled. Here, an admiral and a marine lieutenant-colonel between them, serving as members of the National Security Council staff, took upon themselves the engineering of foreign policy to a degree that strains the vocabulary of the comic as well as the ominous. The height of the dark comedy was reached when the admiral relieved the President of the-buck-stops-here responsibility for the execution of a major, if ultimately farcical, coup in foreign policy.
Inevitably, given the temper of the times and the ubiquity of the political clerisy, the blame for White House coups and secret governments and grossly illegal operations abroad falls on Congress, sometimes the Court but never the royal presence of the president. For the clerisy that would amount to lèse-majesté. To shield, protect, conceal, dissemble for the president is now high among the responsibilities of the several hundred politiques who fill the White House and adjoining buildings as “staff.” This began in the Kennedy administration; there the gravest offense any one of the protecting aides could be found guilty of was failing to absorb the possible blame to the President created by his own actions or words. The president is never wrong! If he appears to be wrong in the eyes of press and people, someone in the White House curia, or janissariat, has failed in his job by not instantly absorbing full responsibility. Repeatedly during the Iran-contra hearing, Admiral Poindexter and also Colonel North made evident their devotion to the principle that the President must be protected even from his own judgment. This was the ground on which the admiral justified not only his withholding of vital information from the President but his actual destruction of documents signed by the President. Such treatment may be proper occasionally for traditional heads of state, whether kings, emperors, or presidents, who by office and tradition must be above the fray at all times. But it is hardly a fit role for the executive of the government.
Government by deception, by flat lying, grows apace in America. Prior to Franklin Roosevelt deliberate lies by chief executives, or indeed public officials of any considerable consequence, were few and, when detected, deemed reprehensible. Presidents before FDR were charged with everything from sexual immorality to blind political stupidity, but not with calculated deception of the public. When Roosevelt declared to the people that his reason for wishing to see the Supreme Court enlarged was a desire for greater judicial efficiency, he lied and everyone knew it. When, after the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941 and Roosevelt took the lead in organizing a vast program of Lend-Lease for the Soviets, such was his desire to whiten their reputation that he even called a press conference in the fall of that year in order to declare that despite all misunderstanding, the Soviet constitution did grant freedom of religion. He didn’t have to go that far, but he did. When he returned from Yalta in early 1945, he would have been forgiven had he said nothing about what was done at the Crimean conference. But he chose to go before Congress and lie about concessions to the Soviets in Eastern Europe, the Far East, and the United Nations. Again, he didn’t have to; but he did, by politics-governed choice.
Between Roosevelt’s death in 1945 and 1960 when the Kennedy administration took office there was something of a moratorium on lying in the White House, though Eisenhower shocked the country when he lied in whole cloth about the U-2 spy plane shot down by the Soviets. Unlike the “Gay Deceiver” who had been his commander in chief in the war, Eisenhower didn’t present the image of the liar.
The Kennedys did, however, and they lied with maximum confidence. There were the lies covering the buildup of American military forces in South Vietnam; about the threat of Soviet missiles coming to Cuba—lies which persisted until the last minute despite Senator Keating’s public warnings, followed by the all-out “eyeball to eyeball” crisis involving Kennedy and Khrushchev; about the bugging of Martin Luther King, Jr.; about Chappaquiddick; about the gangster’s moll mistress, and so on.
Johnson gave the world the biggest lie yet to come from the president of the United States: the Tonkin Gulf lie, which led to the notorious Tonkin Gulf Resolution and then to the War Powers Act, and who knows what yet to come.
With Nixon came the crescendo of lying that went with Watergate, not to forget the fateful bombing of Cambodia. It would be tedious to go further here and also needless. Before it is over the Reagan administration may well be proved to have captured the prize for systematic lying to the public. The Iran-contra episode alone has made the administration a formidable contender for the century’s prize. But it is well to recall that an imposing background exists for the Reagan accomplishments in public deception, a background going all the way back to President Wilson’s assurance to the country in 1916 that no secret understandings existed with Great Britain and, despite the poisonous “rumor,” no secret plans for an American military draft.
Journalists have estimated that not more than about 20 percent of the American people will by this late date believe the White House or the president personally when a major announcement is made. More than a decade ago I wrote the following lines; I see no reason to qualify them:
Of all passions, A. E. Housman wrote, passion for the truth is the feeblest in man. Of course. Who will not lie to save himself? Neither the common law nor the American Constitution demands that any individual tell the truth when such act would tend to incriminate him. Lying in behalf of self, of friends, of family, of military allies: all this is as old surely as mankind. Casuistical nuances in matters of truth and falsehood are a part of the fabric of traditional morality and law.
It is different, however, with the great mass societies we call modern democracies when habitual, institutionalized lying comes to be considered a part of the governmental process. A fateful circular pattern develops: the more that credibility in the government’s capacity to do all that it arrogates to itself drops, the greater is the amount of lying necessary by bureaucracies and officials; and the greater the amount of lying, the faster the decline in government credibility.
A final example, and glittering emblem, of the royalization of the American presidency is what has recently come to be known as the president’s living memorial; that is, a monument built in his lifetime, during his presidency perhaps, to the stipulated greatness of his reign. Money for construction is raised among private citizens, but thereafter the memorial becomes a responsibility of the federal government—like the Washington Mall or the Jefferson Memorial. In the beginning, with FDR’s Hyde Park home made an official archive of personal papers, the justification was simply that: an archive to facilitate scholars’ study of a presidential administration. There was little if any pretense of a “memorial,” for in American history memorials were posthumous, like the memorials to Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and others in Washington, D.C. A long time passed before the greatness of those three was recognized by monuments.
Not so today. The moment a new president takes office work begins, or is jolly well expected by the White House to begin, on the living memorial. As for archives, yes, some space will indeed be allotted, but the Carter and now the Reagan plans for personal monuments include a great deal more than collections of papers. If each is to be a living memorial, it must be the setting for more than scholars. It must be a pulsating matrix of possessions of presidents, reminders, photographic and other, incunabula, period pieces, and general memorabilia attesting to the expanse of the empire this president ruled over. There must be large parking lots, special throughways built, day-care centers, restaurant facilities, conference rooms galore, movies, tableaus, etc.—all in memory of a president, probably still living well and healthily, of whose real importance in political history no one has the remotest idea. For Reagan, whose living memorial bids fair to become the grandest of them all, even a substantial piece of the Stanford University campus was not too egregious a demand; and when the trustees finally summoned up the courage to deny the campus to the Reagan memorial, the bitter howl of ideology and politics was raised immediately.
Pyramids like those of the ancient pharaohs would be cheaper in the long run; even less royal in thrust.
[* ]A Preface to Morals, New York, 1929, p. 80.
[* ]English History: 1914–45, Oxford University Press, 1965, p. 1.
[* ]Charles and Mary Beard, The Rise of American Civilization, New York, 1930, p. 635.
[* ]The Quest for a New Public Philosophy, American Enterprise Institute, Washington, D.C., 1983.
[* ]The Political Illusion, Tr. from the French by Konrad Kellen, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1967, p. 12.