Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Whiggery Pokery

So, David Brooks ("The American Renaissance is Already Happening"):
People who read this column know my political ideology: I’m a Whig. If progressives generally believe in expanding government to enhance equality, and libertarians try to reduce government to expand freedom, Whigs seek to use limited but energetic government to enhance social mobility.
Back in the 19th century, during their heyday, Whigs promoted infrastructure projects, public education, public-private investments and character-building programs to create dynamic, capitalist communities in which poor boys and girls could rise and succeed.
Last time Brooks announced he was a Whig, in January 2014, he was inviting Barack Obama to be a Whig too. I wrote:
I must say, I'm extremely stimulated by the concept of Obama as American Whig, in the mold of Clay and Webster and young Abraham Lincoln, a proponent of powerful Congressional government engaged in industrial planning through the massive expansion of publicly supplied education and government-funded infrastructure, and rejecting idiotic imperial adventures like the conquest of Texas. The only big thing missing is the bedrock Whig insistence on high taxes through the protective tariff, something Obama (and Brooks and Yglesias) would be unlikely to support (then again the old Whigs themselves might have turned free traders as the industrial economy matured, and probably would have warmed to the income tax as an alternative way of funding their big-government programs).
I don't quite get how Brooks sees himself as Whiggish in this sense, though, or how he gets to reproach Obama for failing to be a Whig, except that alcohol prohibition was a popular idea in segments of the Whig tendency, and Brooks has always been big on morals legislation.  Perhaps he is a little confused by the other, trans-Atlantic Whiggery, that of his beloved Edmund Burke, ancestor of the free-trade Liberals of 19th-century England.
Fictional history from the Ill Bethisad wiki.

Etc., etc. It was a pretty good post, though there's some awfully wrong stuff later on about Whig concepts of class conflict, projected back from my understanding of the radical Republicans who arose as the Whigs disintegrated in the 1850s; the original Whigs were small-r republicans who believed that in America at least there was an almost mystical common interest that should always outweigh our superficial divisions, whence Clay's and Webster's passion for compromise:
There were few conflicts of interest, according to Whig organic theory. Joint government-private corporations, even special government favors to certain monied or propertied interests, might be legitimate if services beneficent to the whole society could be provided. Whigs encouraged the development of purely private corporations as well. Whigs tended to think of such arrangements as victories for nonpartisanship and for intellect over prejudice and selfish interests (Political Culture, 52-53, 99, 104-05, 217). These measures served the object of the American Whig Review in uniting and harmonizing the parts within the whole (II, i, 2). Indeed, Whig organicism was such that differences in class interest were fervently denied. “Not only were the interests of the classes identical, but there were,” when properly understood, “no [real] classes at all in America.” As long as the paths of wealth were open to all, everyone was both workingman and capitalist. Webster said “the people are all aristocrats” (quoted in Van Deusen, 308). (Wesley Allen Riddle 1995, "Culture and Politics: The American Whig Review, 1845-1852")
It was this very Brooksian inability to recognize the reality of conflict that doomed the Whigs and the whole system, when they couldn't even find a way to take a stand on slavery. Whether the same thing has doomed the Obama coalition is obviously hard to say, but I'd like to think we've moved to the more meaningful task of finding compromise between "liberal" and "progressive" positions, in the face of the Trumpery.
And then I read James and Deborah Fallows’s book, “Our Towns.” Now I realize that Whigs are the most important political force in America today. It’s just that the people who are Whigs don’t call themselves Whigs and they are all on the local level.
Over the past five years, the Fallowses piloted their own small plane to dozens of cities, from Eastport, Me., to Redlands, Calif. They found that as the national political climate has deteriorated, small cities have revived. As the national scene has polarized, people in local communities are working effectively to get things done.
Well, that's nice. As Brooks himself notes eventually, these sweet demonstration projects (he focuses, of course, on the ones run by rich guys, really Tory projects, and bypasses the more properly Whiggish initiatives of local governments) will remain that until they are part of a national project, with tax-based funding, Whiggery in the good sense, against which he will mightily complain.

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