Victor Nuovo: Two-party system in serious jeopardy
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of essays about political liberalism and conservatism and the two-party system.
The 2016 presidential election has been described as an epochal moment in American history, a turning point, although where our nation is headed seems uncertain. After the stunning defeat of the Democratic candidate and her party, pundits pronounced liberalism dead. But liberalism is the heart and soul of the Democratic Party; so, if liberalism is dead, so is the Democratic Party.
On the other hand, it looks as though the conservative party, the Republicans, have fared no better. Their standard-bearer is not a conservative; rather he is a vulgar populist, an immoralist, a narcissistic celebrity, whose only interest is in self-aggrandizement. He is now the President of the United States and titular leader of the Republican Party. He has put the Republican Party in crisis by ignoring its conservative principles, subverting its moral stance, and smothering its spirit. It is likely that soon pundits will also pronounce conservatism dead.
But if liberalism and conservatism are dead, the two-party system may be in mortal danger and the political future of our nation in jeopardy.
It has often been observed that the stability of our civil society and its government relies on two sources, the Constitution and the two-party system. The key to their reliability has been their facility in managing competing political ambitions and interests. These causes of discord are not repressed, rather they are channeled into an adversarial system, where they are enabled to flourish in constructive ways, unified by our constitutional system.
To visualize this, imagine our civil society as a great bird. Its body is “the People”, which is sovereign; its soul is the Constitution; its head is the government; its tail embodies the manifold statutes and regulations enacted by the legislature, which represents the People. On the left and right are its wings, the two parties. They are rival expressions of the public will, liberal and conservative.
Explaining how this system evolved would require reviewing the political history of the United States. Suffice it to say that the two-party system evolved through trial and error as a means of controlling divisive factions by providing them living space under two broad wings, thereby enabling the “bird of state” to maintain a steady course, at times veering off to the left or right, although never too far.
With apologies to ornithologists, the wings of this “bird of state” have minds that must be routinely restored and replenished with political wisdom, so that they may continue to perform their vital functions. This is my purpose.
If liberalism and conservatism are dead or dying, a major cause of this is ignorance. No one seems to know what liberalism and conservatism really are. As citizens, we are accustomed to classify ourselves as liberal or conservative, although if asked to define what this means we would be hard-pressed to give an answer.
There is a reason for this uncertainty; it resides in the very nature of the thing.
Liberalism and conservatism are complex historical ideas; they encompass morality, politics and economics. Unlike mathematical ideas they are not suited to precise or exact definition or pure expression; they are not simple abstractions that can be grasped in timeless moments of intellectual clarity. Rather, they pertain to public affairs, they are often conceived in social crises, and they are messy.
Like all human things, they are inconstant. Their parts often separate themselves and reverse sides, so that what counts as liberal today, becomes tomorrow’s conservatism. For example, John Stuart Mill, who is regarded as the chief architect of classical liberalism, defined liberalism as a program whose goal was greater liberty for the individual and less government overall. Most current liberals tend to favor of the opposite policy; they are mostly advocates of a welfare state and they worry that the unregulated exercise of rights can subvert social programs.
Conservatives generally subscribe to the rule of law, but when the law is used as an instrument of social and cultural change, they are not so sure.
Perhaps it is change that separates liberals from conservatives, for liberals are progressive, and conservatives, as the name suggests, want to keep things as they are. But even one’s attitude to change is not a sure indicator of what distinguishes conservatives from liberals. Steve Bannon, the self-anointed prophet of a new conservatism, who claims Edmund Burke as his inspiration, advocates changes in government policies and social practices that are radical if not revolutionary.
To understand the ideas “liberal” and “conservative” requires historical understanding. We human animals, who are afflicted with self-consciousness and memory, can neither live nor think only in the present, rather we must plumb the depths of the past in order to live responsibly now and hereafter. The remark of the great Spanish-American philosopher, George Santayana, is pertinent here: “Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.”
In this instance, the past to be recovered is the history of the ideas of liberalism and conservatism. If the viability of the two-party system and its ideologies are essential to the stability of the American republic, then it is critical that we study these histories and learn from them.
I conclude this essay with a preview of what comes next.
Modern conservatism and liberalism have their roots in the European Enlightenment. Edmund Burke (1729–97) is surely the archetypical modern conservative thinker. His Reflections on the Revolution in France, first published in 1791, is a classic of conservative thought. The book is a spirited defense of what has come to be known as the ancient constitution and of traditional rights to property, inheritance and an individual’s place in society. He saw these swept away by the French Revolution. He attributed the intellectual justification for such violent actions to leading philosophers of the Enlightenment, chief among them Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78), whom he singled out for special condemnation and ridicule.
To understand his argument, one must become familiar with Rousseau, which should be a pleasant task. However, regarding liberalism, Rousseau was on the fence. He advocated human freedom and equality, great liberal ideas, but doubted they could be achieved. His sometime friend and contemporary Denis Diderot (1713–84) was the more consistent liberal, and a realist. In his writings one finds the intellectual foundations of liberalism clearly laid out.
Political liberalism found its perfect expression in the life and thought of Nicholas de Condorcet (1743–94), a proponent of Voltaire, who became a victim of the Terror following the French Revolution. These three provide a background for understanding Burke.
What is often called Classical liberalism is supposed to begin with John Stuart Mill (1806–73). Mill drew all the parts of liberalism together and fashioned a definitive idea, and so he can serve in this series as a liberal counterpart to Burke’s archetypal conservative. More will follow.
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