Monday, September 04, 2006

2006 --> 1796

Poking around the blogosphere I stumbled upon, a Flappy Bird in the TTLB whose blog is graphics intensive and really a lot of fun to look at. I particularly liked his Yellow Dog Democrat logo, which I have appropriated for my sidebar just because I like dogs and it's so damn cute. If you click the dog, it'll take you to, where Geiger is selling a line of T-shirts, coffee cups, bumper stickers, etc., all based upon this theme:
Our goal is to provide you with merchandise that you can use to send a message to Republicans, conservatives and the Religious Right:

No prisoners...
No compromise...

No more reaching across the damn aisle!
There are plenty of Republicans who feel the same way, especially the Christian Right, which regards itself as engaged in an all-out war against powers and principalities that are dragging our uniquely blessed nation straight to H - E - double toothpicks.

In other words, you've got a political environment where neither side regards the other in terms of a legitimate, loyal opposition. I don't think we're there yet, but we're moving in the direction of the 1790s, when the concept of a loyal opposition did not yet exist.

The original founders believed that if citizens would exercise civic virtue and look beyond their narrow self-interest, they would apply republican principles, discern what was best for the commonweal, and vote and act accordingly. The Constitution was barely ratified, however, than it became obvious that citizens did not share a consensus view. Two groups emerged, the Federalists, headed by Alexander Hamilton, and the Democrat-Republicans, headed by Thomas Jefferson. (Democrat-Republican is a little confusing, given our modern party names, so when I teach the US history survey I just call them "Jeffersonians.")

The Federalists believed that they correctly applied republican principles and knew what was best for the country. That the Jeffersonians did not concur struck them as morally, willfully wrong: the Jeffersonians were behaving as a faction. The Jeffersonians felt exactly the same about the Federalists. The Jeffersonians, for instance, were philosophical about the excesses of the French Revolution and continued to admire the revolutionaries' slogan, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. TheFederalists considered the radical phase of the French Revolution (essentially 1792 onward) as clear evidence that liberty was leading to license -- the cardinal sin in a republic. That the Jeffersonians failed to see this could only mean that they, too, were prone to license. The Jeffersonians, in turn, regarded the Federalist reservations as clear evidence that the Federalists were a pack of closet monarchists.

George Washington was able to keep a lid on things during his two terms as president, but in 1796 the conflict broke out into the open. It got so bad that the Federalists seriously thought the Jeffersonians might welcome a French invasion and the Jeffersonians believed the Federalists were creating a New Army officered exclusively by Federalists and whose purpose was probably less to defend the country than to squelch internal dissent. It was a horribly divisive time in American history, and it damn near derailed the republican experiment in its infancy.

The republic survived, of course, and it's now the oldest and most successful republic in the world. Americans take that too much for granted. They think they can coarsen the political process as much as they want and it won't really do any harm. They think they can treat politics as war, demonize the opposition, "take no prisoners," and somehow it won't all end in a train wreck.

Well, they're wrong. Plenty of other republics have gone down the tubes -- it is, in fact, the most common fate of republics -- and there's nothing that exempts our own. We came close to blowing up our republic in the 1790s and even closer in the 1860s. And we may yet succeed in failing.


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