“The Lame Duck Versus The Hungry Bear”
“I do not say that democracy has been more pernicious on the whole, and in the long run, than monarchy or aristocracy. Democracy has never been and never can be so durable as aristocracy or monarchy; but while it lasts, it is more bloody than either. … Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy. It is not true, in fact, and nowhere appears in history. Those passions are the same in all men, under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty. When clear prospects are opened before vanity, pride, avarice, or ambition, for their easy gratification, it is hard for the most considerate philosophers and the most conscientious moralists to resist the temptation.”
American politics works very differently than every other Democracy in history. A two-party system, thus limiting the openness of public discussion, has made our way of life into one of opposing agendas, both sides right and wrong about everything. Our government is a petty, nit-picking stage show, a very serious thing we can no longer take seriously. We watch the very idea of a future crumble before our eyes.
Now I am not going to preach Armageddon here (plenty of other posts do that), and I do not wish to attack the nation of my birth, which I truly do love. But I will go after its institutions (something that has always been easy), and its political norms from the founding all the way to the present. Because I believe that American Democracy, as John Adams said, is on the verge of committing suicide.
There is a shuffling of power in America throughout the ages and, ever since the election of 1800, a nation which once came together to revolt against their outside rulers, has managed to rapidly split apart over differing ideas on what exactly freedom should mean. George Washington, who was never a member of any party, believed the very idea of partisanship to be anathema. Here’s what he said near the end of his time as President:
“However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”
And so we hear the ideas on political partisanship by two of the primary founding fathers, the first and second Presidents of the United States.
It was the eventual third President, Thomas Jefferson, alongside Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, who subverted Washington’s desires (George Washington died in 1799). Hamilton formed the Federalist Party, based upon his ideas expressed in The Federalist Papers (https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?isbn=9780451619075&n=100121503&cm_sp=mbc-_-ISBN-_-used), while Jefferson and Madison developed what was then known as the Democratic-Republicans. Each side embraced opposing views of power, and the ugliness that entered American politics began with brutal name-calling and dishonesty, culminating in Jefferson’s near tie with the incumbent John Adams, two heroic figures who were once and future friends. Each used everything distasteful they knew about the other to gain the upper hand in the election. The result was that both of these founding fathers were diminished. (See: https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?isbn=9780380977635&n=100121503&cm_sp=mbc-_-ISBN-_-used, https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?isbn=9780195167719&n=100121503&cm_sp=mbc-_-ISBN-_-used and https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?isbn=9780743293167&n=100121503&cm_sp=mbc-_-ISBN-_-used for three differing viewpoints on the significance of this election).
After Jefferson was handed the throne by the Congress of partisans, an undisciplined and selfish wanting began to overtake the American Political System, once so clean and pure with ideas only about freedom (not taking slavery into account which, as Jefferson said was “moral depravity,” and that the institution itself “corrupted both masters and slaves” and that total emancipation would lead to many more slave uprisings and “civil war.” This hypocrisy of thought can explain to a degree the hypocrisy of Jefferson’s life), had descended into a battle royal like out of other revolutionary periods of the past. It was a resumption of the violent holy wars both before and after the French Revolution. Individuals now saw politics as a potential career, a way to true power and prestige. Many wealthy landowners saw government service as a means to make even more money for themselves, manipulating a still not fully formed system to their own greed.
By 1828 the Federalist Party was in serious decline and the Democratic-Republican Party was fracturing, factions within the majority having different ideas for the future. Much of this division was focused on slavery as the primary example of human rights versus human dignity, of property and industry versus the concept of liberty. It became an increasingly ugly battle–a precursor to succession and the Civil War (succession was already being discussed by this time in various states that no longer wished to be united). And so the broken party system transformed into the rivalry of Henry Clay’s Whigs versus Andrew Jackson’s Democrats, the Federalists sinking pretty evenly into one way or the other.
As the new party system got underway, the ideologies between the two were not that far removed, sort of like the early Christians and the Jews, wholly in agreement except on one very significant issue. The Democrats, which were nothing like the party that shares its name today, were all about federal and presidential power and the idea of service to the people, who would elect legislators who knew what was best for them. They were also against the idea of Federal Banks, consuming themselves with the idea of profit over absolute freedom.
The Whigs, however, who were vilified by the much more popular and self-interested Democrats, favored Congressional dominance over the Presidency, believing that the many should set the agenda for the few. The idea of Democracy itself was going to war, and government would get increasingly brutal as the days of this division continued.
The Whig party was shattered following the passage of The Compromise of 1850, which vastly expanded the size of the United States, while simultaneously creating Congressional warfare over which new states should be allowed the right to slavery. The Whigs themselves were split over this and there was a mass conversion of many into the grasping clutches of the Democratic Party.
Two of the most significant partisan issues of those days were the admissions of both California and Texas, gigantic patches of land, both bordering shipping ports that could open up the conquest of much of the rest of the world. There was a war with Mexico in 1848 and Texas never looked back. The same thing, the same war, happened over California, and Mexico has never been the same, reduced to the United States’ “ugly step-sister,” as President Millard Fillmore called the southern nation.
One of the more controversial issues that came out of The Compromise of 1850 was the passage of The Fugitive Slave Act, a drastic expansion of a similarly titled law from 1793. Now individuals in the free states were ordered to turn runaway slaves back to their Southern owners or face a thousand dollar fine and the possibility of six months in prison. And so, from this outrage, a new party was formed. The Republicans.
Both the Democratic Party and Republican Party have ever since undergone numerous transitions of belief. In those days the Republicans, former Whigs, were suddenly converted to the idea of absolute presidential power, while the Democrats, afraid of losing office, became convinced that Congress was their only hope to save the nation. Congress became a bitter chamber by this time, people shouting at one another and screaming each other down. Sometimes riots broke out. One time a congressman bashed another in the head with his thick wooden cane.
There was a great fear that the political winds of the nation were changing and this caused panic and absolute terror. What if we lose the white house? What if Congress changes hands? What will we do if we lose the majority, in those last few months before the other guys take over?
This is what finally led to the Civil War, the election of a perceived abolitionist as President, as well as the admission of crusading anti-slavery advocates into Congress, all new Republicans (The “Grand Old Party”). What the Democrats feared most was the idea that the Republican party was in favor of modernization, of new laws and progressive ideologies that would end their way of life. All of those wealthy and comfortable Southerns, and conservative pro-business Bourbon Democrats, former northern Copperheads (free state representatives who were more interested in profits from southern cotton and tobacco, than in ending slavery), as well as the slate of new Catholic immigrants who were evangelizing all over the nation, all of them saw the nation slipping away from them. Was this even America anymore?
After the Civil War, after the death of Lincoln, much of the function of the government reverted back to the old days, slavery no longer legal (except as a form of prison sentence), but former slaves being offered no opportunities for advancement and often terrorized, raped and murdered by the new Ku Klux Klan, an embittered and proud secret militia trying to re-ignite the war in order to return to the old ways.
There were rumors among the slaves, and the more liberal Republicans, that there was an effort to overturn the Emancipation Proclamation. Of course this led to more panic, more violence (the sort of violence where if a black man defended his family against a gang trying to murder him, he would be sentenced to death and publicly hanged to the jeers, taunts and hurling of rotten vegetables by people who had fought to free them).
There was another ‘compromise,’ this one of 1877, which ended the period called Reconstruction, when the reunited nation briefly began trying to repent for its sin against the Africans. This time even saw several of them reach full access to the government, some black men being elected to Congress (women did not yet have the right to vote), and as state representatives, in places like Ohio and New Jersey. There was an offer made of 40 Acres and a Mule to former slaves, a sort of pay-off apology that was hardly ever realized.
But by 1877 the United States was done asking for forgiveness. The children of the soldiers, and the younger Union lieutenants, had come to power, and they were having no more of this senseless giveaway of money and power. The elections began shifting back the other way, the Democrats once again gaining a majority and they were like hungry bears trying to devour the lame ducks that were finishing out their terms in office after being roundly defeated.
Government warfare got even more vicious in 1896, at the dawn of the so-called Progressive Era. The Republicans once more gobbled up control of the White House and Congress, electing the curiously conservative William McKinley. The chief tactic of the Republicans during the election was the blame the Democrats for the Panic of 1893, which was at the time the gravest financial collapse in the history of the nation. The campaigns became increasingly vitriolic, outright lies being told from both sides in hopes of disgracing whoever was in or running for office. Candidates who had never been involved in politics before were promoting themselves as ‘outsiders’ who wanted to ‘drain the swamp of Washington.’ These were the Progressives, a drastic new generation of liberals who, it was feared by the Democrats on the right, were stepping closer and closer to Socialism.
But the Republicans now controlled the government. They used their Congressional majorities to block every Democratic proposal, to mock their opposition, and to employ their much broader public platform to personally destroy as many of the old world conservative hangers on of the Democratic party as was possible. People claimed that America had become a one-party system. Many citizens feared the end of America, led and inflamed by former Senators and Governors and failed Presidential candidates who went on tours and seemed to be constantly engaged in provocative campaign rallies. This also included the still lingering Democrats in office, who, instead of wasting their votes as a minority, made speech after speech to the frightened and disaffected, playing on their fears, latching onto their doubts and exploiting their economic and professional hardship (these were “the working class people,” those who refused to be unionized because they were terrified that big business would destroy them).
At this time there were efforts to develop a Labor Party in America, but it did not catch on. The Communist Party of Eugene Debs was somewhat popular as the nation was building towards World War I and the eventual Great Depression, but was finally crushed by rumors and conspiracy theories–especially after the Russian revolution in 1917. There were enemies here at home, people of different political ideas, and they were foreigners, and they must be spies because three or four of them were actually plotting the overthrow of the government. All liberal fellow travelers were being looked upon as a danger to Democracy.
It became a Constitutional crisis. And that was when Warren G. Harding died in office in 1923 and the series of increasingly disastrous scandals of his administration were exposed by political enemies in his cabinet and the press. This ruined the Republican party. The vice-president, Calvin Coolidge, also a Republican, remained, mostly silent (he was nicknamed ‘Silent Cal’) throughout the last years of the term he took over from Harding, and he was even re-elected by the still slight majority Republican party in the United States.
The Republican party was desperately searching for a new identity, for a new way to define itself. Coolidge was unoffensive and could be used as an easy shield against the lingering doubts and anger, but many liberal Republicans had grown disgusted with their party and saw the Democratic Party as modernizing. They left the party of Lincoln and returned to the faith of Andrew Jackson, who had been elevated to one of the all-time greatest presidents in American history by this time, the yearning for the past, for the legend of the good old days, enacting a new sort of conservatism that wanted a future of past-tense greatness. They wanted to make America great again.
The last Republican President until Dwight Eisenhower was Herbert Hoover, who barely won his election. He was loudly trashed in the press throughout his whole term and he was crushed in the 1932 election by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a new kind of Democrat. A liberal Democrat who had emerged from the muck that had transformed both parties.
By now American politics had become a game, more about money and controlling the press, than any forgotten notions of Democracy. There was an economic collapse. There was the rise of Fascism, of the Nazis. The Japanese declared themselves a master race and attacked Pearl Harbor. Partisanship was up in the air. There was a war to fight. It was time to put those differences on hold.
Only that didn’t happen. Big Business, the giant industries filled with greedy, selfish cowards, shifted their support to the newly evolved Republican Party, and the old Democrats of yesteryear, those who fought for slavery and who had the traitorous instinct to succeed from the Union in favor of their personal interests, they became the basis for yet another political shift in government.
The Republicans evolved slowly after this, the war keeping many of their desires quiet, but also giving these brilliant industry strategists enough time to plan their next take-over of the United States. They even thought of it this way–a coup, an overthrow, the opposite and yet the same thing as the Communist Revolutions or the rise of National Socialism in Germany. And after the war, after the atom bomb, once the Cold War got underway and there was a new enemy to defeat, the nation shifted its interests again. There was yet another new generation of hungry bears devouring lame ducks. A new system was put into place.
Things would never be the same again.
The next forty years were consumed by a growing paranoia and an increasing conservatism among both of the major political parties and the battle for civil rights that saw the last confederate Democrats (“Dixiecrats”) finally give up on the party and head further to the right. There was an effort to form additional parties after the World War II, independent minds seeing an opportunity for revolution in the exhaustion and dissatisfaction of a nation newly wealthy and momentarily free from turmoil.
Politics became even bloodier. People were accusing each other of being enemies of the state that they never were. The memories of Presidents past were altered, revised for the coming generation, and the split in the culture became even more distinct, angry shouts resembling the senate chambers prior to the Civil War. The division became so hostile that opposing parties began calling each other traitors to American ideals. True hatred was being spread. There would be no more compromises. It was now a fight to the death.
Ronald Reagan managed to convert many of the former liberals, grown fat and comfortable with suburban life, making them into a diversely born-again faction that would soon overtake the Republican Party and ride themselves to glory. Reagan won his elections by some of the widest margins in the history of the nation. By the end of the latest Conservative era, when the new generation once again took over, Reagan and Bush had become popular villains of the imagination, and the vacuously moderate Bill Clinton, a true corporate Democrat, the sort of politician who resembled a Republican just after World War II, could now be painted as an amoral, sniveling left wing stooge, helped by a growing partisan media and the fact that he really was something of a charming a creep.
The Republicans fired back and elected George Bush Jr., who was an affable guy utterly unprepared for the task of his job, then upturned by 9/11. And after that terrorist attack the nation moved even farther to the right. Fear was at an all time high, even worse than the nuclear drills during the early cold war when the threat of nuclear annihilation was taught as a likely possibility. And as those terrified children grew older and started raising their own under the light of born-again Reagan conservatism, the hatred they felt towards the world increased year after year.
Now people were no longer willing to accept the blame, had no interest in asking what they could do for their country. With the world growing smaller and with the rapid advancement of communications technology, people were increasingly alone, more trapped in a vision of the world they had compiled among a few stray facts for themselves. Opinions became reality. It was all that mattered. Everyone was out to get us, out to get America and every other liberty loving person the whole world over. Somehow these people who were several generations removed from the traitors who broke away from America, those Democrats of another era, were able to paint themselves as the actual patriots, those who wanted to transform the nation into a far more imperial place than it had been even before the Revolution.
The Democrats could do no better. They helped to elect a very important historical figure in Barrack Obama, whose importance in history will likely have more to do with the increased divisions caused by his race, and the ever conflicting media reports on what his policies were, an argument on every news channel, in every newspaper and on every website, finally just a bar fight between two people who didn’t really know what they believed.
And we latched onto this animus, enhanced by our growing fear of this shrinking world filled with increasingly extreme viewpoints. Even the moderates were now being painted as radicals. The nation, once more, was starting to resemble the dire, chaotic state that preceded the Civil War.
Then came Donald Trump, a man who certainly understood the collapsing belief in the American ideal, never having believed in anything himself. He was able to convince enough people that we were in need of a brand new revolution that could bring us back to those fraught and divisive days of many years gone by.
So history returns to its endless cycle. And we are all lame ducks, awaiting the rise of the next generation. They will turn we soon-to-be old-timers bitter and terrified by the new ideas we refuse to understand. They are all hungry bears in the future who will take whatever it is they believe from the lame ducks of yesterday.