Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Country Citizens’ Revolt

Democracy As it Was
I’ve been struggling with this essay for quite some time.  I haven’t been able to answer the “So what?” question, but it may have come to me recently.  You can let me know.  Another problem I dealt with was in the topic and message.  So far, this site has been heavy on the “Rural,” and not so much on the “Republic.”  We’ve been trying to stay fairly non-partisan, although that’s not the same as unbiased, and I wasn’t sure if getting too overtly political would damage that.  I have come to the conclusion that there’s nothing wrong with discussing the modern civic live in the Rural Republic.  Indeed, one of the animating forces behind this concept, in my mind, was the image from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, where he describes the unique political character of discourse in the rural stage of this republic: 
The cares of political life engross a most prominent place in the occupation of a citizen in the United States, and almost the only pleasure of which an American has any idea is to take a part in the Government, and to discuss the part he has taken…  Debating clubs are to a certain extent a substitute for theatrical entertainments:  an American cannot converse, but he can discuss; and when he attempts to talk he falls into a dissertation.  He speaks to you as if he was addressing a meeting; and if he should chance to warm in the course of the discussion, he will infallibly say, “Gentlemen,” to the person with whom he is conversing. 
 Of course the esteemed Frenchman is having a bit of fun at early Americans’ inability to separate political discussion from other social interaction.  The difference between the two cultures was incredibly portrayed in the HBO miniseries John Adams, in the episode where the eponymous founder found himself on a rather uncomfortable diplomatic envoy in France.  He may have been English just a few short years earlier, but, as his later trip to England showed, it’s the difference between the politically free citizen and the socially free subject that caused the rift, greater even than that ancient Franco-English rivalry.  Apart from his poking fun, Tocqueville had high praise for the new American society, though. 
 I am persuaded that, if ever a despotic government is established in America, it will find it more difficult to surmount the habits which free institutions have engendered than to conquer the attachment of the citizens to freedom. 

This ceaseless agitation which democratic government has introduced into the political world influences all social intercourse.  I am not sure that upon the whole this is not the greatest advantage of democracy.  And I am much less inclined to applaud it for what it does than for what it causes to be done.  It is incontestable that the people frequently conducts public business very ill; but it is impossible that the lower orders should take a part in public business without extending the circle of their ideas, and without quitting the ordinary routine of their mental acquirements.  The humblest individual who is called upon to co-operate in the government of society acquires a certain degree of self-respect; and as he possesses authority, he can command the services of minds much more enlightened than his own.  …  I have no doubt that the democratic institutions of the United States, joined to the physical constitution of the country, are the cause (not direct, as is so often asserted, but the indirect cause) of the prodigious commercial activity of the inhabitants.  It is not engendered by the laws, but the people learns how to promote it by the experience derived from legislation. 
The men, and even the women, as mentioned in the remainder of that passage, of that era were steeped in democratic responsibility.  The discussion in the “ale-houses” was as often as not discussion regarding various measures and policies in the local, state, and federal governments.  Can you imagine having a discussion about state bill 1365, or the latest ballot proposals down at Buffalo Wild Wings?  I mean, I can, but I’m a nerd and I’m writing this essay.  But it certainly would be out of the ordinary.  Either way, that’s an image that’s stuck with me for a long time.  

Perhaps more than that image, though, was what he said later in the passage.  The reason everyone talked about politics was that everyone was involved in politics in one way or another.  Everyone, even the lowliest citizen, would serve on some council or board, and would be a more complete, more informed, more confident citizen as a result.  

The Division of a Democracy
My, what progress hath wrought.  In the July/August issue of the American Spectator, Angelo M. Codevilla wrote an incredible, and incredibly influential essay regarding the class stratification of American society.  In a situation of which the “Tea Party” (more on that later) is a symptom, rather than a disease, he theorized that the society today is split not along Marxist class lines, but along lines of political influence and philosophy, into two classes:  a Ruling Class and a Country Class.  There have always been those with more influence than others; it’s likely Tocqueville’s extremely democratic democracy  was more illustration than reality. 
 Never has there been so little diversity within America's upper crust.  Always, in America as elsewhere, some people have been wealthier and more powerful than others.  But until our own time America's upper crust was a mixture of people who had gained prominence in a variety of ways, who drew their money and status from different sources and were not predictably of one mind on any given matter.  The Boston Brahmins, the New York financiers, the land barons of California, Texas, and Florida, the industrialists of Pittsburgh, the Southern aristocracy, and the hardscrabble politicians who made it big in Chicago or Memphis had little contact with one another.  Few had much contact with government, and "bureaucrat" was a dirty word for all.  So was "social engineering."  Nor had the schools and universities that formed yesterday's upper crust imposed a single orthodoxy about the origins of man, about American history, and about how America should be governed.  All that has changed.
 Indeed, it has.  Today, as Codevilla uses polls and demographic statistics to illustrate, the Ruling Class is incredibly uniform in background and ideas.  They’re usually coastal, went to an Ivy League or other extremely prestigious school, and work in more liberal “professional” careers, such as law, education, journalism, or politics.  They all behave and believe a certain way, and even talk a certain way.  They overwhelmingly self-identify as Democrat, although some other members of the class are establishment Republicans.  

On the other side of the divide is the Country Class, a group as varied as the Ruling Class is uniform.  (Let me note here that I’m not making this “Country Class” thing up, though it’s certainly a happy accident that the terminology chosen by Codevilla matches so well with the concept behind this site)  The most interesting thing is they don’t identify as Republican consistently, but as “independent,” or perhaps in some polls as a practitioner of a generic “Tea Party” if given the option.   Regardless, while some members of the Country Class may aspire to the same careers as those in the Ruling Class, a Country Class lawyer will have less in common with his Ruling Class colleague, and no one will know it more than the latter.  

The whole essay is as fascinating as it is long, but it’s well worth the read.  It’s already being treated as a fundamental shift in the way of looking at the American political scene.  It certainly illustrates the difference between the democratic America described in Democracy in America and the aristocracy we experience today.  

Democracy as It Is
In their recent book The Blueprint, political journalist Adam Schrager and former Colorado state legislator Rob Witwer delve into the creation of a progressive political machine that has reshaped the state of Colorado, and indeed races across the country, in method and infrastructure.  While there is much to glean from a relatively short book, a few things stand right out, in addition to the occasional despair experienced on the part of those who would lament the creation and effects of a progressive political machine.  First, the system is what it is, or, as my college philosophy professor was fond of saying “Every system is perfectly designed to effect the result it does,” and the modern political system is apparently perfectly designed for such a progressive political machine.  So what are the rules of the system?

The first rule bounding the system is term limits.  While it’s not a necessary condition, it accelerates the effects of the “machine,” and recalled a line from Aeschylus:
So in the Libyan fable it is told
That once an eagle, stricken with a dart,
Said, when he saw the fashion of the shaft,
‘With our own feathers, not by others’ hands,
Are we now smitten.’
The reason term limits matter is that any given seat in a state legislature will be in play at some point in an eight year period.  With enough influence, no seat is safe.  

The second bound to the system is the campaign finance law.  To contribute to a campaign or a party, a person must pass a minimum standard (e.g., citizenship), will have their identity recorded and made public, and can give a maximum amount, which is usually fairly nominal when compared to the amount of money spent on a campaign.  There is one major exception to all of these caveats, however: so-called 527 organizations.  Simply put, these 527s can collect an unlimited amount of anonymous money from anyone, anywhere, and put it toward a political goal, or, more properly, against a political candidate.  See, one of the restrictions on 527s is that they can’t collaborate with a political campaign, which in practice means they can’t support a given candidate; they can only oppose the other candidate.  Incidentally, if you were wondering why you were getting covered in mud this campaign season, that’s why.  

Out of these rules grew an organization designed to take advantage of them for progressive political ends.  Various “anonymous,” though we know who they are, ultra-rich donors funded massive coordinated smear campaigns under numerous 527s, all with vague, fuzzy-as-a-bunny-sounding names to get their candidates elected.  It was devastatingly effective in Colorado, and is surely on its way to a political race near you.  

Democracy as It Is Becoming
But the other side of the political spectrum has an answer to the coordinated, hierarchical, unified structure of the progressive 527 machine: the “Tea Party” movement.  As I noted above, of the two classes, the Ruling Class identifies with progressive politics, while the Country Class can be said to identify with the Tea Party.  Although, since there is no real “Tea Party,” perhaps a better way of saying that is that the Tea Party is a loose collection of politically-motivated members of the Country Class.  

Either way, the Tea Party movement is as different from the progressive machine as can be imagined.  Where the “machine” is hierarchical, the Tea Party is organic.  Where it is well-funded, the Tea Party survives on small donations and volunteer leadership.  Where the machine has defined objectives and carefully-calculated campaign strategies, the Tea Party runs on free information and sheer energy. 
In the end, both methods have their advantages and disadvantages.  In an article in the National Journal, Jonathan Rauch discussed the advantages of the Tea Party’s disorganized structure with a few of its facilitators.  In one such vignette, one of the leaders explains to a newer volunteer how things really work:
 Rick, from Albuquerque, N.M., asks if the national agenda includes investigating voter-roll irregularities, something his group is concerned about. Mark Meckler, a Tea Party Patriots coordinator and co-founder, weighs in. Newcomers "often don't understand how badly we need you to lead the way," he says. "If this is an area of concern to you," he admonishes, "the way the Tea Party Patriots works is that you guys really lead the organization. We're a relatively small group of people who are just trying to help coordinate. We're not in charge; we're not telling anybody what to do. You need to take a leadership role and stand up." Meckler suggests that Rick gather a group of people concerned about the issue and go to work.

Rick gets the message. "We'll get on the Ning [social-networking] site and try to take the lead on that."
 The interesting thing about the Tea Party movement is not that it’s spontaneous, not that it’s organic, but that it’s not at all novel.  As Rick in Albuquerque may soon discover, he might become a volunteer expert on voter-roll irregularities, and have his understanding and methods of dealing with other problems change.  And if he is successful, Rick may find himself chosen as a subject matter expert by other volunteers interested in the same problem, and bringing his newly-found expertise to other races and other areas of the country, if not in reality, at least virtually.  

 Rick is just one of hundreds of volunteers who are “The humblest individual who is called upon to co-operate in the government of society.”  In the formless, leaderless structure of the Tea Party, it’s not the goals, or the races, or even the politics that matter the most.  It’s that the people are rediscovering “the habits which free institutions have engendered” one conference call, one social-networking post, one political action at a time.  It’s no accident that the new organization of the Ruling Class is hierarchical and precise, while the new organization of the Country Class has turned out to be so chaotically democratic.  Politics is, after all, just the practical application of a given philosophy.  

Democracy as It Will Be?
Where is all this taking us?  The obvious answer is all the way to November 2nd.  If you are interested in politics or the election, but don’t feel you have enough background or experience, that’s no excuse.  As Tocqueville said, everyone was involved in politics in one form or another, and not only did they learn from it, they became better citizens and built a better republic as a result.  For my part, the recognition that the system is, if not broken, far from perfect has made me recognize the need for balance in future policies that may emanate from the political realm, particularly regarding campaign finance.  

But the real big picture we see is something more than just “man a phone bank” or “knock on doors” or even “here’s my new wonkish policy solution.”  What all of these things paint is a picture of our Country Class as an active political society, diverse and unique in every way imaginable, independent-minded, and interested in any number of important and practical subjects.  Corn prices matter.  But so do elections.  Maybe we shouldn’t be as afraid to say so.  


  1. This reminds me of what has been running through my head lately: Democracy only works if we aren't lazy. I've been guilty of it. The voting booths even have those handy buttons to choose only Republican or only Democrat candidates.

    Also, somewhere along the way, personality has trumped beliefs as for who we vote for. It's just one big popularity contest. While I do think a politician's bedside manner is important, we have compromised our own beliefs to vote for someone more likeable than the other.

    The belief that it is rude to talk politics or religion has hurt democracy more than any other in this country. Why is freedom of thought so taboo? This undermines the history of our country. People should feel free to say what they want regarding politics and not feel as though they are offending anyone. The problem is that people turn their political differences and start attacking the opposition personally. There is no place for that in healthy debates.

    Finally, I'm reminded of a conversation we once had regarding Bill Whittle's topic of why people like us don't run for office. What's up with these lifetime politicians anyway? The 'machine' has made it so that we the people fear to run for office. It is clear that we are out of our league when it comes to strategy and funding. That is what is so intriguing to me about the Tea Party. It seems to be shifting that aspect a little. I love your comment that our lack of experince is no excuse for our lack of involvement. This is our country. It's time we stop being lazy and start fighting for it.

  2. Jon,

    I am a college friend of Jamee's. I am also a progressive. Jamee and I were discussing this post on Facebook and she told me to share my thoughts with you.

    I still don't know what to think about the whole Tea Party movement. I recall just a few years ago when a similar grassroots movement, lead by progressives and fueled by blogs, lead to Democrats winning control of Congress and the White House.

    I think your idea of "the machine" is fitting of the entire political landscape, not just progressives. I too hope to someday see corruption, greed, etc. removed from politics and make it "for the people" as opposed to "for the business". I'd like to point out that there are several Tea Party lead 527 groups.

    I look at the Tea Party and can't help but think that they are a little blinded. By that, I speak mostly about how the ultra right-wing has corrupted what I think the heart of the TP really is. All the talk of Obama being a Muslim or not a citizen, that Sharia Law is going to take over, that we are going to become a socialist country, etc. is downright scary...to me.

    Seriously? This outrageous propaganda is not healthy. And to think that there are several TP folks that think these things are true (as evidenced by the attendance at Glenn Beck's rally), I become ashamed of what our country has become. I may not have liked President Bush, but I still respected the office of President. I know there are extremes to both sides, but the vitriol I hear about Obama on a daily basis is nowhere near what I ever heard about Bush.

    You seem like a very educated and reasonable person and would like to get your thoughts.

  3. Andy, thanks for spending the time to read and comment. I agree 100% with Jamee when she says that the concept that discussing politics and religion is somehow rude is harmful to a free society. So long as we can be civil about our disagreements and respectful of others' opinions, it's a good thing.

    (I suspect that it's a Continental custom, and precisely what Tocqueville was referring to when he made the conversation vs. discussion distinction.)

    My disgust with the 527 system is not just that there's a progressive machine, it's that it's so lopsided. Political parties and campaigns can only receive limited individual donations, and have to disclose who gives them, while 527s can amass millions without any disclosure at all. It's going to destroy the political party system in America.

    You might be tempted to say "good," but when you notice how many of the disgustingly negative ads are from 527s (also a function of the rules), you might think again. I know that was my reaction.

    My description of a progressive "machine" stems from the coordination those groups did in developing the "Colorado model." A vaguely-named 527 makes a big attack on a candidate, the candidate tries to defend his position, Media Matters (a coordinating 527) criticizes the reporting of opposition defense, and any groups who try to do the same from the other side of the aisle get sued by another "Ethics Watch" 527. It was devastatingly effective, and bankrolled almost entirely by super-rich political "venture capitalists." (Read The Blueprint, if you're at all interested. You'll probably be less despairing than I was, but it's an eye-opener to be sure)

    It was unquestionably a machine. While the tea party is organizing into various 527s, they're almost never coordinated, and really just take that name as a result of how they sit under tax code. It's a completely different setup.

    You mention a lot of extreme elements you associate with the "tea party." I'd like to first note that the only uniting factor for those who consider themselves "members" in a non-group-group is a dislike for runaway government spending, bailouts, and massive expansion of the government into the economy. Everything else, as those old t-shirts used to say, is just details.

    A similar thing happened to the anti-war movement. I'm not sure if you've ever seen zombietime.com, but it's a site where an unidentified individual in the SF Bay Area goes to various protests and takes pictures of the various "interesting characters" he or she finds there. As you can imagine, there are unrepentant Communists, raging anti-Semites, and everyone in between at nearly every single demonstration. Does their presence negate the message in the demonstration? Clearly not. Although it certainly detracts from the overall message.

    On the other hand, there are also likely a lot of "interesting characters" at tea party rallies. As was recently noted, however, a UCLA study of the 9/12 march in Washington found only 6% of signs were "controversial," and even that was a broadly-defined concept, and 1% were of a "Birther"/racist, etc. bent. I would suspect that the amount of "interesting" signs and literature "zombie" recorded vastly outnumbered those the UCLA study did.

    But when you think of anti-war protest, do you think of people dressed in Palestinian kaffiyehs with a sign about killing Jews? Of course not. When you think about tea party rallies, do you think about white people holding signs calling the President a Nazi-crypto-Muslim? That's closer to yes, isn't it?

  4. My greater point is that you don't need to fear the tea party movement as a whole. It's merely a bunch of folks who disagree with bailouts, stimulus plans, and government takeovers of entire sectors of the economy. You may not agree with their Austrian (rather than Keynesian) economics, or their austere plan for various other government interventions, but it's hardly a destruction of the public discourse.

    As for the more fringe view points, I think a few are actually fairly sound objections. The concern for socialism is a real one when the government takes over automobile manufacturers without challenge (although I'd argue it's closer to fascism, that is government control of the privately-owned means of production, when they're directing what private employees will be compensated and how private insurers will behave). I'd even argue that the S-word isn't exactly all that extreme, when there are major parties in Europe that are less bashful about their politics. Where do you think the "Social" in "Social Democrat" comes from?

    And, speaking of Europe, there are elements there that are indeed kowtowing to the practice of Sharia law within their own borders. We're less likely to have such a problem, as they have much more immigration from the Muslim world than we do, but the diversity-without-criticism regime of political correctness still allows for such a weakness here. It's a concern, to be sure, especially in certain parts of the country, but not one that ought to be discussed on a federal level.

    The initial "Birther" charge, I think is a valid one, inasmuch as it returns Constitutional discussion into the national discourse. I would have expected the same discussion regarding the natural citizenship of a President McCain, who was born on an American Base in Panama. Once it's proven to be a false allegation, though, you're right, it's time to stop.

    There can also be serious criticisms regarding the President's philosophy and its origins. Dinesh D'Souza, after all, isn't exactly a wing nut, and knows a thing or two about foreign-born philosophies.

    But it does distract from the great fiscal and economic problems that face this country. That is definitely true.

    I hope that was civil enough. I think for coming from different places (you're concerned about politics "for the business," and I'm concerned about politics "for the government," for example), but I think we can find some sort of common ground. I'd love to hear more inputs from you, Andy. Thanks for taking part.


    (If you think President Obama is subjected to insane vitriol, you really need to check out the Zombietime link and look at some of the "back-issues" of anti-Bush rallies. Very, Very, VERY NSFW. Yikes.)

  5. Jon, I really enjoyed this post. Good idea to focus a little more on the "Republic" half of the equation for a while. Frankly, I can definitely see myself talking policy specifics over wings, but only with a select group of friends. Most people I know are probably the "polite company" with whom you're not supposed to discuss religion and politics. I would note, though, that politics comes up fairly often in our morning office bull sessions, and I have really good discussions about such topics almost every morning with our exchange student, Gabi, and about every evening with Lori. So, the country class has awakened somewhat (although I definitely saw the dichotomy Codevilla talks about in college and especially in law school).

    By the way, I loved the section of David McCullough's book that was the basis of the scene you mention, especially Adams's discomfort with how well Benjamin Franklin fit in with the obsequious French dandies. Thanks for reminding me of it!

  6. Bret, I was wondering what your take on Codevilla's split between classes was, and if it was as pronounced as implied while you were in law school.

  7. It's a helluva thought-provoking article, Jon. Thanks for bringing it to my attention (it's weird that I had missed it up to this point). I think it's a useful way of thinking about party, ideology, and influence-peddling. You can certainly point to examples that support Codevilla's observations, from W. and Kerry both being Skull and Bones boys to this Denver Post story that (in amazingly approving tones) describes how Senator Michael Bennet would probably have been passed over for every job he's held since coming to Colorado if not for his father's connections. http://www.denverpost.com/election2010/ci_16175968

    However, I do have a couple of critiques. First, the correlation with government employment or funding is a little simplistic. Having worked in several settings which were either directly governmental or totally dependent on government for funding, I would argue that most bureaucrats are as much wards of the state as the stereotypical "welfare mama." Most government jobs are redundant enough that the primary purpose of the position is not to get work done, but rather to provide make-work (and a loyal supporter of growing government). You can go up quite a few levels in the chain of command and still not meet anyone who has significant influence with anyone with any power.

    In addition, I think he de-emphasizes wealth too much. While it is true that there are outsiders who are quite well-to-do and insiders who are not especially rich, money goes a long way in gaining access (whether it's personal wealth, as in the case of someone like Warren Buffett or George Soros, or control over large collective wealth from an organization such as a labor union). The other side of the equation is how lucrative being well-connected can be. See, for example, the steady flow of cabinet-level officials into speakers' circuits or thinktanks.

    That being said, he is right to place more importance on connections than wealth. Attending a private, liberal-arts college, diffences in socio-economic background were often pretty pronounced... but were usually greeted with a shrug or even amusement. Differences in access to people in high places during law school, on the other hand, were a matter of career life and and death. Networking opportunities were greeted with steely-eyed resolve and predatory smiles by most students, while those who already had an "in" were almost physically identifiable by their different attidudes. While there are, of course, plenty of exceptions, I think the legal profession could be the ultimate "It's not what you know, it's who you know" environment. As such, I don't think it's coincidental that both legislatures and lobbying firms are heavily populated with lawyers.