The only way America could produce a true populist, a home-grown demagogue that could rise to the top of national politics, would be through the media.
Dudes and Pharisees. Mugwumps. Those were just some of the names that party regulars called the disaffected Republicans who refused to support James G. Blaine for President in 1884.
That contest, which pitted Blaine against Democrat Grover Cleveland, was one of the nastiest in American history. And it has much to teach us about Senator Jeff Flake’s indictment of American politics today.
According to their critics, Mugwumps were overly scrupulous and had a “holier-than-thou” attitude when it came to their own political party.
The reason for their heresy? They believed that Blaine was unfit for the presidency. And rather than support him, they bolted the GOP and backed Cleveland instead. The Democrat went on to win the election, in large part by carrying New York by approximately 1,000 votes. Historians believe that Blaine’s failure to rebut an anti-Catholic slur uttered by a speaker at one of his campaign events in New York City the week before the election delivered the state, and the presidency, to Cleveland.
Like 2016, the 1884 presidential campaign was consumed by scandal and personal attacks. These were hurled back and forth between the two sides in Twitter-esque style. For example, a common refrain among Democrats was,
Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine,
Continental liar from the state of Maine.
And Republicans seized on allegations that Cleveland fathered a child out of wedlock in one of their favorite refrains:
Ma, Ma, Where’s my paw?
Gone to the White House
Haw, haw, haw.
There are many parallels between 1884 and 2016. But the one most relevant to politics today is that between the Mugwumps and their 21st century counterparts, the Never Trumpers. Like the Mugwumps before them, Never-Trump Republicans did not support their party’s nominee, Donald Trump, because they believed that he was unfit for the presidency.
Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) is a Never-Trump Republican. He opposed Trump during the Republican primary and in the general election. Flake has remained a persistent critic of the President over the course of his first year in office. He even wrote a book, The Conscience of a Conservative, denouncing Trump and the politics of destruction for which he holds him responsible. In the book, Flake also criticizes his fellow conservatives and Republicans for being complicit in Trump’s rise.
Flake’s opposition to Trump damaged his standing among Arizona Republicans. Amid falling poll numbers and facing a pro-Trump primary challenger, Flake announced last month in a dramatic speech on the Senate floor that he would not seek re-election.
The surprise announcement triggered several different reactions, ranging from praise to condemnation to mockery. Common among the disparate takes was that nearly everyone agreed something highly unusual had happened.
But intra-party conflict of this sort is not unprecedented in American political history. The Mugwumps are proof that similar schisms have happened before.
Putting Flake’s actions in historical context makes it possible to get beyond sensationalist interpretations to consider the underlying substance of his indictment against Trump and Trumpism. And when viewed historically, it turns out that politics today is not as revolutionary as Flake suggests.
Flake’s speech frames the choice confronting conservatives and Republicans as whether to be complicit in an “alarming and dangerous state of affairs” or to stand up against authoritarianism in defense of “the norms and values that keep America strong.”
But this is a false choice. The situation is not as dire as Flake suggests. That is, we are not at risk of normalizing a politics of chaos and instability because the historical norm in American political history has not been a stable politics of civility. To the contrary, political conflict and instability have been pervasive in our history, especially during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
This does not mean that we should resign ourselves to an uncivil discourse, in politics and elsewhere. Rather, it is to say that conflict is inescapable in a large and diverse nation like America. It can serve a useful role in signaling to political elites that they are off-track and that they need to take popular concerns seriously.
This presents a problem for Flake’s indictment. Inherent in it is a warning that Trump’s “degradation of our politics,” if left unchecked, will eventually lead to authoritarianism and tyranny. The abnormality he attributes to Trumpism serves to heighten the sense of impending danger.
Yet by casting politics today as unprecedented, Flake avoids having to explain why even more contentious periods in American history did not lead to authoritarianism and tyranny. Contrary to his assertions, the historical record shows that in such moments, new political coalitions emerged, not dictators. And politics became more contentious as the existing power structures were challenged.
Political conflict is thus not a bad thing in American politics. It makes our system work. Separation of powers, bicameralism, federalism, regular elections and indirect representation all channel conflict between different groups in our extended republic to safeguard our liberty and keep tyranny at bay. Ambition cannot counteract ambition without it.
Flake’s indictment overlooks this aspect of our political system. In appealing only to the abstract ideals of the Declaration of Independence he misses completely the messy realities of governing in accordance with the Constitution. That leads him to argue that “the values of our founding” have been “compromised by the requirements of politics.” However, in doing so he ignores the vital role played by the Constitution’s institutional foundation in harnessing the conflict inherent in politics and putting it to constructive use. It is that foundation that makes preserving the values of our founding as expressed in the Declaration possible.
His abstract conception of American politics leaves little room for the views of those with whom he disagrees on the issues he considers foundational. The implication is that anyone who holds those views is a threat to our system. In this way, Flake’s indictment reduces the sphere of what’s considered legitimate political conflict to the point that it encompasses only those differences he is willing to tolerate. This allows him to establish the ground rules for those wanting to participate in politics and to bar those who would challenge his overall construct.
Take, for example, the way in which he defines the constellation of issues associated with America’s global engagement (trade, immigration and foreign affairs). Flake refers to the policies he supports in these areas as America’s “articles of civic faith.” He asserts that engagement in these areas has “been central to the American identity for as long as we have all been alive” and it’s “our birthright and our obligation.”
In elevating these issues from the policy realm to articles of civic faith, Flake conveniently places his preferred positions beyond politics. When defined in this way, policy disagreements on those positions become “betrayals of fundamental obligations.”
Lost in Flake’s indictment is an awareness of the American people. Flake acknowledges their frustrations in passing. But instead of affirming the legitimacy of their grievances and identifying ways to address them consistent with his policy views, he dismisses them as a series of -isms (nativism, populism) and unacceptable viewpoints (xenophobia, extreme partisanship). He then administers the coup de grace by admonishing those frustrated with the status quo that “anger and resentment are not a governing philosophy.”
Flake’s indictment of Trump and Trumpism is based on policy just as much as temperament. He disagrees deeply with Trump on issues like trade, immigration and foreign affairs. These issues have divided both parties and the American people for decades, if not longer. Indeed, the Party of Lincoln that Flake mourns held decidedly different positions on these issues in the days of Lincoln, and for a long time afterward.
Similarly, Flake’s portrayal of his brand of conservatism as the only true conservatism conveniently writes out of history the different strands of conservative thought that have animated the movement since its beginning. And there has long been a division among intellectual conservatives, if not political conservatives, on trade, immigration and foreign affairs.
In the end, the fatal flaw in this indictment is that its substance does not match the significance of his actions. His tragedy is that even he rejects the false choice he posits, opting instead for a third choice to retire from the field of battle. If Flake really believes that a creeping authoritarianism threatens to destroy America as we know it, he should stand in defense of “the norms and values that keep America strong.” That he does not suggests that things are not as dire as he asserts. However much one may disagree with Trump and Trumpism, America is not on the road to despotism.
The lesson we should take from Flake’s indictment is that neither we nor our politics are infallible. The present moment won’t last forever. But before we can usher in a new era of civility and stability, we must first engage in a contentious debate over controversial issues like trade, immigration and foreign affairs. To the extent that doing so challenges entrenched interests and cuts across the two major political coalitions, there is going to be a lot of conflict. But that is entirely normal. After all, the price of liberty is a messy and contentious politics.