The Wigs Come Off
The GOP ticket in the ’08 Presidential election was a bizarre spectacle. Under normal circumstances, it would be difficult to imagine John McCain having the patience to tolerate, much less share a dais with the likes of Sarah Palin. But party stalwarts made clear to McCain, as they had done to Romney during the primaries, that they would tolerate no ticket that lacked a bona fide relationship to their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. These were shoes (sandals?) that McCain’s first choice, Joe Lieberman, could never hope to fill, even if he stopped keeping kosher and vowed to act as a human shield in the way of every potential abortion in America. In the end, Palin was the most McCain-ian choice left open to him – bold, risky, and game-changing.
The gamble failed miserably. Watching the two of them attempt to campaign together was painful. He was staking out a modernist, pragmatic approach to America’s future. She was a political tourist on the trip of a lifetime, setting off partisan pipe-bombs, singling out whole regions of the country as ‘Anti-American’ and just generally pursuing her own post-election agenda. ‘Ya know, just Sarah being Sarah.
The only accomplishment of the campaign was to shed a glaring light on the ideological muddle that is the GOP. Some have described the party as torn between traditional libertarians and post-modern fundamentalists. Looking at that monster of a Presidential ticket, I see something more basic. I think that the Party is straddling a uniquely American philosophical divide as old as the republic itself.
The great original rivalry in American politics was between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. It was around those two figures that the country’s first political parties hardened. Jefferson can be counted the short-term winner, gaining along the way a hallowed position in our national mythology as an inspirational statesman, philosopher, and leader. But Hamilton’s vision would linger. And though his legacy is seldom acknowledged, it is his America, not Jefferson’s, which we live in today. What complicates the ideological battle inside the GOP is a failure to understand what it is really about. Though Jefferson’s ideals inspire us, it is time to find Hamiltonian solutions to our problems.
Jefferson saw America as a republic of free landowners. To Jefferson, the best government was the one that governed least, and most of its authority ceased at your fence-line. Hamilton on the other hand wanted to see the country embrace the emerging revolution in industrial production and trade. He wanted a strong federal authority capable of fostering development. He wanted ports, canals, and a central bank. He wanted reliable systems for trade regulation and capital development. Jefferson wanted to build a rural nation of free farmers. Hamilton wanted to build an urban nation of merchants and capitalists.
For Jefferson, religion, or the lack of it, was a personal matter entrusted like most other serious questions, to the educated mind of a free individual. For Hamilton, religion was an essential element of national identity to be fostered, though not dictated by the central government. Jefferson was accused of being an atheist. Hamilton was accused of being a monarchist. Though resembling modern religious fundamentalism existed in their time, it’s deeply individualist strains are, somewhat ironically, most closely tied to Jefferson’s worldview.
Today Jefferson’s vision remains for most of us the more inspiring of the two. But its relevance, at least in the way it has been traditionally understood, has diminished greatly. Even in Jefferson’s lifetime, the processes that would transform America from a rural to an urban nation were beginning to take shape. That transformation accelerated globally in the latter half of the last century to the point that Jefferson’s rural republic can be declared soundly dead.
I grew up in Texas and I learned to shoot in my backyard. Don’t think for a moment that this means I was raised on a farm or a ranch. Like most white people in the South I lived in a rough version of that special zone carved out for us – the suburb. My children are growing up in a suburb of Chicago. It’s not yet clear to me how they are ever going to learn to shoot, much less where. What’s more, I am challenged to explain to my lovely wife why they must learn to use a firearm in the first place.
This is a fine illustration of how the Jefferson-Hamilton divide is affecting the GOP. The traditional expressions of our rights and liberties that we so cherish, the ones that most inspire the party rank and file, make less sense in a modern, Hamiltonian republic. It is emotionally important to me that I be able to do as I please on “my own land.” But when my own land is a quarter-acre plot in a county I share with almost a million other people, I must accept some reasonable constraints.
How do we preserve the ideals and beauty of the Jeffersonian vision in Hamilton’s country?