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The Curse of Politics

What was once a great human comedy has been moved beyond even tragedy.

Aristotle described politics, the business of what the Romans called res publica, “the public thing,” as an inherently human activity. Politics are like labor, to which God condemned the human race for its original sin. Not every sort of work is disagreeable to us: hunting, for instance, or agriculture. Nor is taking a partner of the opposite sex and raising a family. These are pleasant tasks because they are natural ones. The same is not true of politics.

For many centuries, politics has been the interest and enjoyment of politicians, a class of humanity that, so far from being superior to other men, has often been plainly inferior to them, intellectually and morally. It is doubtful that the private citizenry of ancient Greece “enjoyed” politics with their ceaseless contentions between the demos and the aristos, though participation in public affairs gave them a sense of social worth and human dignity. But for the aristocratic statesmen of classical Greece, politics was the proud vocation of great souls who fulfilled their destinies in it. Aristotle saw public affairs as the duty of a few men rather than an avocation for all or most of them.

Dante viewed politics as a higher type of criminal activity. For him, the politics of the medieval Italian states were not a part of the divine comedy but rather of Balzac’s all too human one. Against the classical pagan and Christian traditions, Machiavelli argued that the practice of politics is by necessity ruthless and amoral.

One wonders how Aristotle, Solon, Pericles, Pompey, Cicero, Dante, and even Machiavelli would view post-democratic politics in the 21st century, lately degenerated into a form of soft tyranny by politicians operating independently of the law they impose on citizens who are rapidly becoming their subjects, and know it. In our hyper-politicized society, the proportion of the American public that has replaced homo sapiens with homo politicus and cannot see beyond the clash of opposing ideologies and interests, to the engrossing human spectacle that politics really is, must be at least 90 percent.

A century ago, not even political journalists considered politics the élan vital that makes life worth living. The most famous journalist of the period was H.L. Mencken, whose political commentary owed its charm, authority, and richness to his extensive interests across the fields of  politics, literature, music, philosophy, philology, anthropology, theology, the natural sciences, and medicine. His interest in politics had scarcely anything to do with narrow issues of policies, bills, and legislation, the vast majority of which he dismissed as futile at best, utopian at worst, and above all an obscene waste of energy, time, and other people’s money. Like Dr. Johnson, Mencken thought all schemes for human improvement to be laughable things.

Mencken’s originality, his greatness as a political journalist, is explained by the fact that he was really a novelist working in the medium of nonfiction, anticipating by nearly half a century the less serious and learned New Journalists of the 1960s. Considered in toto, his reportage and criticism reflect a world intimately familiar to the reader, while bearing the unmistakable imprimatur of the author. This is what the great social novelists—Richardson, Thackery, Stendhal, Balzac, Zola, Dickens, Waugh, Dos Passos, Faulkner—did, and what their few remaining literary descendants still do.

The famous and not so famous public figures in Mencken’s work are recognizably the same people as reported by his more journalistic contemporaries, yet they also differ from them significantly: more vivid and intense, more carefully and intuitively observed, more imaginatively realized, and always fixed in a dramatic context. One thinks of Mencken’s Teddy Roosevelt, William Jennings Bryan, Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge, Franklin Roosevelt, Nicholas Murray Butler, and the second- or third-rate political hacks that swarm the quadrennial party conventions. All of them entered Mencken’s battered old Corona as journalistic subjects. Most of them emerged from it as characters in a vast and sprawling novel with neither beginning nor end.

For Mencken, the proper subject for political reportage and commentary was the vast and gaudy spectacle of the American political show, glorious, hilarious, outrageous, sweaty, and obscene in equal parts. In brief, it was the human pageant in its unique and inimitable 20th century American iteration, captured by a protean writer variously attacked by his critics as a German agent, an un-American naysayer and scoffer, an anti-democrat, an anti-Christian, an immoralist, a buffoon, a vulgarian, and an oaf. Walter Lippman captured what was essential to Mencken when he wrote, “He calls you a swine, and an imbecile, and he increases your will to live.”

Mencken’s reputation was at its peak during the 1920s, a decade of prosperity mainly unchallenged by crises at home and abroad, a culturally hectic and emotionally overstimulated period that, paradoxically, was socially and politically an easy and relaxed one. If Americans in those years paid scant attention to politics, that was chiefly because they saw no reason to do so. When the crises of the following decade arrived, public confidence was replaced by fear and anxiety, frivolity by seriousness, and cynicism by moral earnestness. Mencken’s palmy days were consequently at an end, and he returned to his study of the American language and the composition of his superb memoirs in three volumes.

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The new political climate that came in with the New Deal extinguished the spirit of the Roaring Twenties, and journalism like everything else adjusted itself to reflect the subsequent climate of unease and anxiety that has persisted, through its acute and chronic phases, since 1929. The economic fear of the Thirties was followed by the fear of military catastrophe in the Forties. That was replaced in succession by the anti-Communist panics of the Fifties, the civil violence and unrest of the Sixties, and the economic insecurity of the inflationary Seventies. Had recession deepened into depression in that decade, it is possible that the New Journalism—free, easy, iconoclastic, inventive, original—would not have developed further from its beginnings in the mid-Sixties.

The 1980s saw a return to a national mood of relative confidence and optimism, but following Reagan’s second term, the divide between the Democratic and Republican parties, the left and the right, deepened and widened. In the next decade, Washington’s unpopular commitment to unwinnable wars further separated government and the American establishment from the mass of the American people. So did the establishment’s determination to accept—indeed, encourage—mass immigration from around the world. So did the ruling and owning classes’ export of American jobs overseas. And so, finally, did the Great Recession in the second decade of the 21st century and the emergence of two Americas, the majority nation becoming increasingly poor, the minority one steadily richer.

Donald Trump’s successful populist campaign in 2016 split the country almost evenly between two ideological camps. The frequently violent and always uncompromising Resistance that organized itself even before Trump’s inauguration, the bitter partisan anger that dominated the four years of his presidency, and the incendiary riots of last summer that persisted up to and beyond last November’s elections fixed and hardened the divide that now appears to be a permanent one. In these circumstances, politics become a matter of survival in an existential civil war with no end in view.

The world of politics has ceased to be an object worthy of civilized interest, curiosity, and appreciation for any save the people who participate in and profit from it directly and indirectly, the politicians  and public officials themselves. Politics have been severed from their social, historical, sociological, anthropological, and philosophical interest, and reduced to the sheer struggle for power. They have been separated from the whole of the social comedy and thrust into a dimension beyond comedy—and tragedy.

Mencken’s type of journalism had healthy and wholesome precedents in the 19th century, before and after the Civil War. Politically as in every other way, antebellum America was a vigorous, rambunctious, unconstrained, and self-confident society, qualities that Tocqueville captured in Democracy in America. In those days, politics were a vital part of American life and culture, not simply the civic contribution citizens made to the business of self-government by exercising their rights under the suffrage laws. Americans felt at home in the life of the nation by making politics  an integral part of their culture, together with their religion, their literature, and their entertainment.

They believed, correctly, that their opinions and their efforts counted for something in the political world. They felt neither ignored nor marginalized by the men they elected to public office. They refused to be intimidated or threatened by them, and so they were able to enjoy and join in the political show. The wide proliferation of newspapers and the flourishing journalistic profession attest to this fact, and so does the grandiloquent and frequently extreme, even violent, political oratory enjoyed by popular audiences and even more by the orators themselves. The elaborately conceived and executed political cartoons between the 1790s and the Great War, too, reflected the exuberant political culture that produced them.

Today Americans who are not politicians, placeholders, civil servants, and bureaucrats follow politics in the same way they follow the weather reports—grimly, defensively, and with foreboding as they watch for approaching hurricanes. Nor can they take relief from the journalistic media, print and electronic, which since the 1930s has become progressively more staid, sober, humorless, buttoned down, professional, and “responsible” in the sense that establishmentarians understand the word. Now journalists are politically correct, fearful of insulting or otherwise offending anyone, with the notable exception of the Deplorables.

From the New Deal on, the liberal establishment has viewed politics and policy making as a quasi-sacred business aimed at bringing down heaven to earth, removed and protected from the profane tragicomedy of ordinary human life and properly beyond popular ridicule and contempt.  The media, who consider themselves a crucial adjunct of government, have sided instinctively and almost unanimously with the progressive establishment that has radically transformed national politics and the national culture in the image of the aggressively anti-popular elite that has committed the United States to a progressive project which, for the non- or anti-progressive  half of the country, has become an ideological nightmare from which there is no awakening: a second curse by the Almighty on the sons and daughters of Adam.

Chilton Williamson Jr. is former editor of Chronicles and author of many books including the novel Jerusalem, Jerusalem!

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