Looking for Calvin Coolidge
I’m currently reading Garland Tucker’s book Conservative Heroes—recently reviewed for TAC by Thomas Woods—and happened upon this interesting thought in the chapter on Calvin Coolidge’s conservative legacy:
Coolidge began his political career in the waning days of Lord Salisbury’s career and developed a philosophy of government similar to that of the British prime minister. Salisbury often compared the English nation to a boat being carried downriver, with the function of a wise government being “merely to put out an oar when there is any danger of its drifting into the bank.” Paul Johnson has noted that Coolidge practiced a policy of “masterly inaction.” The historian Amity Shlaes agrees, writing in her Coolidge biography: “Most presidents place faith in action; the modern presidency is perpetual motion. Coolidge made virtue of inaction.”
Many contemporaries underestimated Coolidge as a politician and a president. They mistook his restraint and inaction for weakness. Coolidge realized: “The people know the difference between pretense and reality. They want to be told the truth. They want to be trusted. They want a chance to work out their own material and spiritual salvation. The people want a government of common sense.”
Walter Lippman, a leading political commentator of the day, wrote perceptively during Coolidge’s presidency: “Mr. Coolidge’s genius for inactivity is developed to a very high point. It is far from being an indolent activity. It is a grim, determined, alert inactivity which keeps Mr. Coolidge occupied constantly.” A key to understanding Coolidge’s philosophy of intentional inaction lies in the advice he once gave to Herbert Hoover: “If you see ten troubles coming down the road, you can be sure that nine will run into the ditch before they reach you, and you have to battle with only one of them.” Coolidge was consistently a minimalist, very much in line with Jefferson’s and Madison’s early writings on limited government and strict constructionism.
It seems that we’ve abandoned this idea of cautious executive power—or at least, it seems that the majority of the American populace has. We’ve lost an appreciation for prudence, and the accompanying slowness of movement that it necessitates. People complain constantly (and often rightly) about Washington gridlock—but forget to look with alarm on the growing consolidation and centralization of our various branches of government, particularly the executive branch. They call constantly upon their favorite brand of politicians to “do something,” to “bring change”—and seem open to the most radical of measures, if only those measures swing the pendulum in the direction they desire. They forget that Russell Kirk once wrote the following in his 10 conservative principles:
Liberals and radicals, the conservative says, are imprudent: for they dash at their objectives without giving much heed to the risk of new abuses worse than the evils they hope to sweep away. As John Randolph of Roanoke put it, Providence moves slowly, but the devil always hurries. Human society being complex, remedies cannot be simple if they are to be efficacious. The conservative declares that he acts only after sufficient reflection, having weighed the consequences. Sudden and slashing reforms are as perilous as sudden and slashing surgery.
Of course, it’s difficult to see how any president could be successful at embracing a policy of prudence and watchful “inaction,” as Coolidge did, in today’s world: there is an entrenched Washington bureaucracy that acts with terrible swiftness and independence, a Congress fraught with schisms and belligerent battles. Any president that tried to stand still and push back the flood would be likely to drown, right? Could we ever have a modern Grover Cleveland—a man who vetoed 584 bills over his two terms as president (still a standing record for any eight-year presidency, according to Tucker)?
It seems unlikely, at least in part because our populace is unlikely to push for doggedly restrained reform. As mentioned above, the clamoring call of the day is for a president who will “do something”—though what, exactly, is often unclear. For Republicans, it seems they just want someone who will do the opposite of what Obama’s done, though they don’t have an articulate understanding of what that might be. In supporting a politician like Trump, many are choosing to replace one overreaching, energetic executive with another. They can’t—or won’t—consider the importance of a prudent or minimalist president, a politician who makes a “virtue of inactivity” and a policy of “alert inaction.”
Coolidge wrote about an American populace who “want to be told the truth … The people want a government of common sense.” But do we still have that? Do we still have an electorate who want to be told the truth—or do they want to be told their truth, the version of reality that they find most compatible with their worldview? Do we still want common sense—or do we want entertainment, as Nicholas Carr argued for Politico?
It is, of course, a mixed bag. But it does seem that we’ve been wooed by the rhetoric of progressive, energetic presidents—and that we’ve forgotten there might be another way to be president: a more restrained, quiet way. A way that emphasizes what the president should not do, as well as what he ought to do.
The question is—what would that president even look like? And would he be successful in the Washington we have today? Could a modern Calvin Coolidge fight the Leviathan of centralized government we have today?