It’s likely that psephologists will discover from their postmortems on the recent primary election in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District that the barely victorious candidate, Conor Lamb, won by appealing to the “nice” Republican portion of this overwhelmingly Republican district. Nice Republicans are not necessarily the equivalent of the Republicans in Name Only despised by the party’s activist base, nor of the “country-club Republicans,” scorned by people from both parties, who wish to be liked and respected by the liberal elite they associate with professionally and socially, though the two types may in fact overlap. The nice Republicans are conservatives whose self-conscious gentility assures their political moderation, people with lowered opinions and quieted voices to match them. Nice Republicans used to have their counterparts in the Democratic and socialist parties as well, before it became not only fashionable but de rigueur among liberals to play the role of fire-eater, perpetually angry, offended, and on the offensive.
The tradition of niceness in America dates from starched 19th-century notions of Brahmin, Knickerbocker, and Quaker gentility in the Northeastern parts of the country, in particular those surrounding Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, and later in the Middle West, suffused in middle-class Protestant piety and driven by an eager determination to shed the social roughness of the Old Frontier and show the East Coast and Europe that it had grown up to the civilized standard at last. Taken together this amount- ed to the “genteel tradition,” most famously in American literature but also and more broadly in the American civilization of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This was the tradition against which the intellectual, social, and political avant-garde of the period, by no means all of it liberal, revolted. Foremost among the rebels was H.L. Mencken, who despised progressive politics as much as he hated the tradition of brittle gentility he spent the first part of his career attacking as a literary critic, before Franklin Roosevelt and his socialist New Deal redirected Mencken’s attention from literature to the conservative political commentary that derailed his career for the next decade. Gentility, and indeed niceness generally, lost their charm, socially and literarily, in the proletarian 1930’s but regained them (socially at least) in the self-consciously respectable 1950’s, to which they were nearly as well suited as they had been to the Victorian and Edwardian eras. They suffered again in the crude, rude, nude, and above all violent 1960’s, but made what was doubtless their most spectacular comeback in the 1980’s—and since. Political correctness is nothing if not the old American niceness in particularly aggressive and tyrannical, if silly and irrational, form. It is postliberalism’s version of the supposedly regimented codes and etiquette of the banal 1950’s that postmodern liberals believe “oppressed” their parents and grandparents. Nice- ness, in other words, has been inseparable from American democracy since at least the Civil War. Tocqueville would not have been surprised by this. Indeed, he predicted the thing in broad and general outline, having witnessed its beginnings for himself in the 1830’s. Niceness is the tribute that democracy—American democracy, at least—exacts from Americans whether or not they (as plutocrats, college professors, or Jacobin activists) really believe in democratic equality themselves.
But what could “niceness” have had to do in 2018 with a Republican primary and the Pennsylvanian Republicans who voted for the Democratic candidate Lamb over the Re- publican incumbent, Richard Saccone, who was fervently stumped for by President Trump, the man they had elected by a 20-percent majority less than two years before?
First, Mr. Lamb ran—whether honestly or not—on a platform that differed scarcely, if at all, from the one the President had adopted in his bid for the White House. He addressed his putative constituency as a conservative, not as a liberal. He promised them what he knew they wished from him, and so he did not alarm them. In fact, he was almost soporifically noncontroversial. Noting the rhetorically violent atmosphere in which American politics are being conducted today, Lamb spoke of a need, in Washington and across the country, to calm tempers and modify language and debate, to smooth over political differences, and to legislate with the aim of solving the nation’s problems rather than deploring them, and the people responsible for them. He stressed what politicians call “results,” and played down the ideological disagreements that supposedly prevent “results” from being achieved. Probably the majority of Americans—Republicans and Democrats, right and left—still think of themselves as pragmatists more concerned with “results” than as people interested in “ideas,” or “ideology.” Probably also, more Republican Americans than Democratic ones view themselves this way—nice Republicans, especially. And so Lamb won his primary by behaving almost as if he were a Republican running for national office in the far more consensual 1950’s. The problem with this anodyne approach to American politics in the second decade of the 21st century is that the mood of America today is much closer to that of the 1850’s than that of the 1950’s, and that it cannot effectively be addressed by pre- tending otherwise.
Boswell reports a conversation between Dr. Johnson and a solicitor-general of Scotland, a Mr. Murray, who had praised the good humor with which the members of the ancient philosophic sects argued with one another.
JOHNSON. “Sir, they disputed with good humour, because they were not earnest as to religion. . . . [W]hen a man has nothing to lose, he may be in good humour with his opponent. . . . Every man who attacks my belief diminishes, in some degree, my confidence in it, and therefore makes me uneasy; and I am angry with him who makes me uneasy. . . . No, Sir, every man will dispute with great good humour upon a subject in which he is not interested.”
The future of the United States is not a subject in which any American who disputes it is uninterested, and it is not just foolish but politically irresponsible to suggest other- wise. Great issues raise great tempers, and great tempers do not naturally or easily express themselves by mild manners and restrained debate, nor are they much susceptible to political compromise. And just as the issues on which the War Between the States was fought could be neither dodged nor fudged, no matter the cost of confronting them directly, so the ontological disagreements that divide the American people in two nearly equal parts (which was very far from being the case in 1861) and produced the most emotionally violent election in the country’s history, being unavoidable, must be acknowledged for what they are and dealt with accordingly. This is especially the case with the traditionalist half of the population. The leftist one would doubtless prefer to avoid civil war in any way, shape, or form, so long as its vision for the country seemed certain to prevail as it has so far by establishing its hegemony over American culture, high and low. Time is on its side, as it has been from the be- ginning. The left continues to work, as it has always worked, by stealth, deceit, guile, satanic temptation, and—above all, perhaps—the creation of a false sense of assurance. That is how it has come as far as it has in America, and that is how it expects to go all the way, while compromising nothing of its agenda. “The worst thing in the world to be,” Joel Kotkin, a fellow at Chapman University in Orange, California, said recently, “is the red part of a blue state” like California, whose governor she calls “fundamentally authoritarian,” having “not a lot of tolerance for any kind of economic or political diversity,” and taking the attitude that “We know the truth, we know what’s right, and it has to apply to everyone.” (This bold conviction has not prevented the California legislature from recognizing two parallel legal systems, one for American citizens, one for illegal aliens.) The right, on the other hand, after decades of cultural revolution, is out of time. And it has no alluring utopia to offer, no dream of hope and change to give a country that has been devoted historically to progress and self-betterment—only the prospect of a return to moral and political sanity, to social stability, and to religious truth, should the right half of the nation gird its loins to fight for these things. Right here, indeed, the enemy is at a disadvantage, perhaps a profound and possibly even a fatal disadvantage. Having been obsessed for centuries with the dangers of interreligious wars, it has overlooked entirely the certainty of eventual war between traditional theocratic religion and the postmodern atheistical one, once the former sees itself facing its Last Battle against militant secularism. This would be a war for which the liberals are unprepared, for the plain and simple reason that, unable to grasp the nature either of faith or of the religious mind, they don’t believe such a thing could actually happen in the metaphysically sanitized world they have built.
But to return to the hairsbreadth victory of the new young Democratic representative of Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District, who would surprise no one but the nice Republicans south of Pittsburgh to whom I am supposing he owes his seat, by voting for all those things he opposed in the course of the campaign—gun control, abortion, free trade, leaving the Affordable Care Act intact, etc. While “bipartisanship” and the “search for common ground” may appeal to, and reassure, nice people of every political party and persuasion, Conor Lamb’s approach to contemporary political life would be disastrous for the opposition party, should it choose to take his advice and follow his example. Whether Lamb or anyone else likes it or not, the country has already committed itself to civil war, though not yet of the shooting kind. It is, one might say, a “civil” war rather than a civil “war”; and the difference between the two, great as it is, must not be allowed to conceal the depth of America’s irreconcilable divisions. Ultimately, the possibilities for the future seem to be four. The first is that the left will finally prevail and establish a monstrous tyranny of one sort or another over the United States. The second is that, the utter rout of either party being seemingly impossible, we stumble on together, perhaps for some time, as we are—one side alternately gaining and losing the upper hand over the other, while the country declines economically, socially, politically, and militarily, until at last some foreign enemy swoops down to put it out of its misery. The third is that the United States sorts herself out along geographical lines, partly through the creation of new states from old ones as the Constitution permits and as Vermont created herself from New York State, Maine from Massachusetts, and West Virginia from the Old Dominion—or by secession, as some Californians are threatening to do and as Vermont tried a few years ago to bring off. And the fourth is that America “blows up” (whatever that might mean), as Mencken predicted 90 years ago she would. Already movements are afoot in California, Washington, and Oregon to subdivide the state along regional and political lines, while a number of the vast rural portions of broadly conservative states tyrannized by their huge, and hugely liberal, cities (New York, Portland, Seattle, and Chicago) are discussing the possibility of separating from their oppressive metropolitan centers.
The United States has—or have—diverged too far, philosophically and politically, to be pulled together again through compromise and conciliation by the country’s more sane and sensible one half with the Jacobin other half. The left never surrenders, gives ground (except tactically), or forgets in its unceasing campaign for totalitarian control. And so the American right must shape itself up as the legislative war party; and if the Grand Old Party lacks the nerve for the job, it must be replaced by a new party or coalition that is. When the Democrats regain control of Washington, D.C.—as sooner or later they will—retribution against their political foes is certain to be as ruthless, un- compromising, and total as they can make it. In fact, they have already begun the counterrevolutionary effort to reestablish their just and rightful authority (as they see it) as the entrenched liberal career bureaucracy, led by two major and once-trusted federal agencies, in Washington plots to overturn the results of a national election and depose a sitting President who threatens their public and private interests. (The Deep State, too, has its dual legal system: one for establishment figures, chiefly Democrats and liberals, another for their opponents.) A government that will go so far as that is capable of going anywhere, and doing anything. The storm clouds are gathering above America as they gathered over Europe in the 1930’s, and the country today is in need of a legislative Churchill willing to name the threat and shore up the nation’s political and administrative institutions to face the worst.
Originally Published by Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture -
April 5, 2018