I awoke yesterday morning to the news that Barack Obama had caved on the “Bush tax cuts”. The headline in the Times, when it eventually arrived, did not speak of a presidential capitulation, but of his “Accord with the GOP”. I watch very little television. I got the news, as I get most of my political news, from an early morning survey of “Real Clear Politics.” This is a website that offers a reasonably complete anthology of the previous day’s punditry and video sound bites. In time one sees that it must have a “conservative” drift, but not an insidious one. Should it be the case that the only political opinions you ever want to hear are those of Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow, you actually could do that through Real Clear Politics.
Quite a few Democrats seem really sore about this deal, while some Republicans are praising the President’s new spirit of “cooperation”, apparently preferring that word to “cooptation”. Most intelligent observers of the country’s financial plight have long ago concluded that our dangerously indebted government must do two things: (1) spend less money, and (2) get more tax revenues. Now the president and congressional leaders have arrived at a plan that will spend more money and take in less. This is called bipartisanship.
I’m glad to see some bipartisanship, because like so many others I have been distressed by the country’s political polarization. I was so distressed, indeed, that last week I attended a public lecture on the Princeton campus on the subject of "The Polarization of American Politics." This was one of the annual Presidential Lectures (President Tilghman of Princeton, that is), which allow the local community to hear outstanding members of our own faculty. The lecturer was Woodrow Wilson School Professor Nolan McCarty, previously unknown to me. The lecture was based in, or at least related to, a recently published scholarly book*—a book I have not read, but hope to find time to read.
This lecture confirmed my impression that current American politics are highly polarized, but astonished me with its historical analysis and rather dazzled me with its ingeniously devised graphs and charts. It turns out that, setting aside a significant but aberrant period in the middle of the last century, American politics have almost always been highly polarized, and often more so than at present; that the polarization is not easily explained by most of the phenomena invoked to explain it (race gap, income gap, generation gap, geography gap, education gap); and that there is no reason to imagine that political polarization will soon or perhaps ever disappear.
This set me to thinking. Like many others I was shocked when during the President’s State of the Union address a Republican representative from South Carolina could be heard to ejaculate, “You lie!” But was this really more “polarized,” I wondered, than the episode (1856) in which a Democratic representative from South Carolina beat Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts bloody and senseless with a gold-headed gutta-percha cane on the floor of the Senate? If you want to hear about some real polarization, come to my state. In the first session of the Arkansas House of Representatives (1837), the Speaker killed one of his colleagues on the chamber floor with a Bowie knife (aka an “Arkansas toothpick”). At issue was the question of a bounty for wolf hides.
Why, then, do we share an impression of extreme polarization in contemporary American politics? I find my answer, which I realize may be only the answer of an English professor, in the inadequacy of our national political discourse, which specializes in vulgarity, triviality, exaggeration, gross partiality, gross simplification, and insipidity. Though the worst offenders are the politicians themselves, the poisonous discourse fills the throbbing circulatory system of the body of our “news” and “opinion” apparatus. In and of itself this situation, too, is hardly new, but it has in the past been moderated by the presence in the political arena of a few intellectual and moral giants of a strain now effectively sieved out by procedures of nomination and election.
This week my reading and writing have lingered on two figures from a crucial period of British political history: Edmund Burke (1729-1797) and William Hazlitt (1778-1830). The former was a famous politician, the latter a famous critic of politics, art, and literature. Though both are admired thinkers and writers, in certain aspects of intellectual profile the two could hardly have been more different. Burke is rightly regarded as one of the founding fathers of modern political conservatism. Hazlitt was a political radical in the true and noble sense of the term. The word radical derives from Latin radix, meaning a root. Radicals like Hazlitt—or Locke before him or Karl Marx after him—passionately sought to understand the deep and often hidden roots of human action and human community.
They were men of contiguous generations. The great event of the period they shared, the French Revolution, began in 1789 when Burke was sixty and Hazlitt still a boy. Concerning the Revolution they could be said to inhabit polar extremes. Mitch McConnell and Nancy Pelosi could not be more polarized in their attitudes to the setting of income tax rates than were Burke and Hazlitt concerning the meaning of the French Revolution. What is more deplorable is that they could never be so intelligent, so substantial, or so eloquent either. Let me add a couple more categories that seem to me today sorely lacking: greatness of soul and spiritual generosity.
William Hazlitt (self-portrait, 1802)
Burke never had the occasion to call Hazlitt out in single combat, and that is rather a pity. It would have been a battle of Titans, but also, one instinctively feels, an uplifting one. When is the last time you heard something “uplifting” coming from the corridors of our Congress? Burke’s first published work was called A Vindication of Natural Society. It makes intellectual mincemeat of the ideas of Lord Bolingbroke, a rather shallow high-society “thinker” of the middle of the Eighteenth Century; but its technique is not invective or clichéd “talking points”. Its method is a demanding irony that flatters a reader with the suggestion that he might be intelligent enough to understand it. “How easie it is to call Rogue and Villain, and that wittily? But how hard to make a Man appear a Fool, a Blockhead, or a Knave, without using any of those opprobrious terms? To spare the grossness of the Names, and to do the thing yet more severely, is to draw a full Face, and to make the Nose and Cheeks stand out, and yet not to employ any depth of Shadowing.” That is Dryden in his sparkling Essay on Satire, insisting on the difference “betwixt the slovenly butchering of a man and the fineness of a stroke that separates the head from the body and leaves it standing in one place.”
On the other hand Hazlitt could hardly avoid the menacing ghost of Burke, which seemed so terrible an impediment to Reform to the English “progressives” of the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries. Many of the radical intellectuals of the age railed against him. In Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Man (1790) the personal invective only occasionally simmers down from a full boil. The radical American poet Joel Barlow—perhaps more impressive for his radicalism than for his poetry—wrote thus:
"Oh Burke, degenerate slave! With grief and shame
The Muse indignant must repeat thy name…"
In common with most of us Hazlitt was drawn to like-minded friends. Hazlitt generally hung out with folks like Wollstonecraft and Barlow. Under these circumstances it is remarkable that he made the following judgment: “It has always been with me a test of the sense and candour of any one belonging to the opposite party, whether he allowed Burke to be a great man.” So far as true greats are concerned, it often does take one to know one.
*Nolan McCarty, Keith T. Poole, and Howard Rosenthal, Polarized America: The Dance of Political Ideology and Unequal Riches (MIT Press, 2006).