Alexander Hamilton. Macro ten dollar bill. Flickr/ Eli Cristman. Some rights reserved.As an aged Benjamin Franklin rose at the Philadelphia convention in 1787 to cast his vote for the new American Constitution, he also cast a warning that should be heeded by conservative devotees of the document’s ‘original intent’ and by other readers of American conservative websites and members of the Federalist Society and of business-corporation funded entities such as The American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Conservative Political Action Committee, and American Legislative Exchange Council, the William F. Buckley Program at Yale, the Tea Party, and dozens more such conservative think-tank and ‘popular front’ organizations.
“I agree to this Constitution with all its faults,” Franklin said, adding that it “can only end in despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other.… Much of the strength and efficiency of any government, in procuring and securing happiness to the people, depends… on the general opinion of the goodness of that government, as well as of the wisdom and integrity of its governors.”
The rest of Franklin’s remarks make clear just how worried he was. And he was far from alone. As I showed here in openDemocracy recently, the founders were reading Edward Gibbon’s account of how the ancient Roman republic had slipped into tyranny, degree by self-deluding degree, as its powerful men titillated and intimidated its citizens into becoming bread-and-circus mobs.
"History does not more clearly point out any fact than this, that nations which have lapsed from liberty, to a state of slavish subjection, have been brought to this unhappy condition, by gradual paces," wrote founder Richard Henry Lee. It could happen not with a bloody coup but with a smile and a friendly swagger, if the people had grown tired of self-government and could be jollied along or scared into servitude.
Even Alexander Hamilton, whose bold innovations we’re hearing so much about lately (the Broadway hit musical "Hamilton" is coming to London), saw the enormity of the gamble the founders were taking. Campaigning for the new Constitution, he wrote that history seemed to have destined Americans, "by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force." He was skeptical enough about that to have considered calling for an American monarchy. He was skeptical enough … to have considered calling for an American monarchy.
Today’s conservatives may be equally worried about freedom’s prospects, but they tend to blame the overbearing state and its pensioners and pandering politicians, not the rapacity of the rich and their other investors and managers, who are even more guilty of corrupting the state. John Adams was wise enough to blame both predators and prey:
“Obsta principiis, nip the shoots of arbitrary power in the bud, is the only maxim which can ever preserve the liberties of any people. When the people give way, their deceivers, betrayers, and destroyers press upon them so fast, that there is no resisting afterwards. The nature of the encroachment upon the American constitution is such, as to grow every day more and more encroaching. Like a cancer, it eats faster and faster every hour. The revenue creates pensioners, and the pensioners urge for more revenue. The people grow less steady, spirited, and virtuous, the seekers more numerous and more corrupt, and every day increases the circles of their dependents and expectants, until virtue, integrity, public spirit, simplicity, and frugality, become the objects of ridicule and scorn, and vanity, luxury, foppery, selfishness, meanness, and downright venality swallow up the whole society.” “" The nature of the encroachment upon the American constitution is such, as to grow every day more and more encroaching. Like a cancer, it eats faster and faster every hour.”
So here we are. It has come to this. And please think carefully about who Adams had in mind when he wrote “seekers.” He didn’t mean the pensioners, whom he’d already mentioned.
True enough, were he alive today, Adams might denigrate Franklin D. Roosevelt and Bernie Sanders and their 1950s Labourite counterparts as the people’s “deceivers, betrayers, and destroyers.” But it wasn’t only big, corrupt government, conservatives’ bete noir, that was challenged by the American rebels' original Boston Tea Party (led partly by John Adams’ cousin, Samuel Adams). To the former's oft-expressed delight, the Tea Party acted directly against a multi-national corporation, The East India Company, that the rebels insisted had corrupted the government. They seized that corporation’s property, as their would-be emulators have yet to do with Pfizer’s drugs, for example.
The founders honored the Tea Party and denigrated corporations whose practices had driven small business-people and consumers to desperation worse than that of today’s Tea Partiers, who don’t want anyone tampering with their government-provided Social Security and Medicaid.
Yet Donald Trump, who holds so many American conservatives in his thrall, has criticized the overbearing state but not the omnivorous markets that corrupt it. In his Inaugural Address he proclaimed that “For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished – but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered – but the jobs left, and the factories closed.”
He didn’t acknowledge that those politicians prospered because they were paid off handsomely to pass laws that permit others to really prosper in ways whose costs the people are bearing, trapped like flies in a spider’s web of 800-numbered, sticky-fingered, pick-pocketing and surveillance machines.
A few years ago, a propane deliveryman installing a new tank to replace an old rusted one told me that the new one “is really junk” because the government had written substandard regulations on its size and composition. “Who do you think really wrote those regulations?” I asked. “Your own employer wrote them, through a national association of propane dealers.”
A fleeting look of surprise and then understanding crossed his face. He’d probably been watching too much Fox News and needed to be reminded of realities like that of the conservative, corporate American Legislative Exchange Council, which writes such bills for dozens of state legislatures controlled by Republicans.
But what have neoliberal Democrats done to prevent such corruption? Not enough to have given Hillary Clinton credibility with the people who are bearing the costs. If breaking a corrupt structure’s glass ceilings doesn’t also involve breaking up its walls and foundations, it will produce too many glass-ceiling breakers such as Theresa May (Trump’s new friend), Elaine Chao (U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s wife and Trump’s transportation secretary), not to mention the late Margaret Thatcher, and Carly Fiorina, Linda McMahon, Sarah Palin, Sheryl Sandberg, and on and on.
So much for the raiment of “diversity” that liberal Democrats have draped over structures of inequality that they’ve done little to challenge. But Trump’s promises to restore jobs that, even if they do come, won’t come with the kinds of overtime pay, health benefits, workplace safety protections, and unions that ensure them, are equally hollow. Instead he’ll give his supporters more of the scapegoating and “bread and circus” hate-fests and spectacles that drew so many to him in the first place. That kind of politics has a history that no honorable conservative wants to repeat.
Some might answer that Americans have been here before and that the republic recovered when the Civil War sparked what Lincoln called “a new birth of freedom” or when the roaring nationalist capitalism that drove World War I and the rampant consumerism of “The Roaring ‘20s” met its inevitable implosion in 1929 and sparked the New Deal and, in time, the civil rights movement at its best.
But today’s Tea Party conservatives are so named because they’ve vowed to revive and defend the original, small-“r” republican faith of the Revolution and Constitution against what they think have been the hollowness of the post-Civil War Reconstruction and the New Deal, which they blame for inducing the dependency and weakness that Adams lamented. If they really want to recover the spirit of liberty that Adams cheered, why aren’t they taking on Pfizer and the Goldman-Sachs billionaires in Trump’s cabinet?
But if they really want to recover the spirit of liberty that Adams cheered, why aren’t they taking on Pfizer and the Goldman-Sachs billionaires in Trump’s cabinet? Why is their William F. Buckley Program at Yale putting 19- and 20-year-old students into tuxedos and ferrying them to receptions and dinners at posh hotels such as the Pierre in New York, where, over fillet mignon and seven-layered chocolate cake, they dine out on the follies of liberal elites whom the program’s director Lauren Noble holds responsible for the “disconnect between elite institutions like Yale and the American people. As long as our elite institutions remain so close-minded and uncharitable to the anxieties and aspirations of so many of their fellow citizens, the outlook of our civil discourse is grim.”
Isn’t there a less-than-faint irony in staging these lavish affairs to call out anyone for disconnecting from fellow-citizens? Why aren’t more conservatives disowning the grim reaper of civil discourse, Trump himself, and shedding their black ties for the dress and posture of Nathan Hale a 1773 Yale graduate and hero of the American Revolution, who stood up against the established but corrupted British monarchy of his time on behalf of a nascent republic and who was hanged for it after saying, “My only regret is that I have but one life to give for my country”?
Yale's Nathan Hale statue. Flickr/Erin Pettigrew. Some rights reserved.
Every member of the Buckley Program has passed Hale’s statue outside Yale’s Connecticut Hall, where his likeness stands, bound hand and foot, above an engraving of his last words. In 1967, I watched Ronald Reagan pay homage to that statue in person as I looked out from the second floor room in Connecticut Hall where I was sitting in a seminar on the Constitution. That same year, as I recounted recently, I watched living Nathan Hales, Yale students of my own time, resist the government in the name of the republic, risking their future fortunes and public honor by refusing conscription into the Vietnam War.
Why don’t conservatives stop dining out so on the follies of liberals that they abandon the kitchen to Donald Trump? The reason is that, by trading on hatred and fear, he has swept the Republican Party to power in ways that will enact enough of its anti-government agenda to roll back the New Deal (and possibly even Reconstruction) even more than Reagan was able to do, and enough to sap their readiness to defend the Constitution against him. They'll owe him. They'll fear him. They'll bow to him, as the Roman Senate did to Augustus. Why don’t conservatives stop dining out so on the follies of liberals that they abandon the kitchen to Donald Trump?
American conservatives who recently and loudly championed “free speech” against “cry-bullies” of campus political correctness will melt like snowflakes before Trump’s encroachments on the First Amendment. Touting the liberation of a “market economy,” they’ll remain silent about the original Tea Party’s assaults on crony-capitalist corruption of government. They’ll keep on seducing and rewarding legions of young students who seek to prosper, not to emulate the courage and citizen-leadership of Nathan Hale.
Ben Franklin, Richard Henry Lee, Alexander Hamilton, and the Adamses will be writhing in spectral agony.