“Redefining the basic nature of the American polity”

 Patrick Deneen has written a column for The American Conservative that is worth reading. In two paragraphs near the end he captures America’s political malaise; in one sentence (which I have bolded ) he nails the only viable solution to her woes:

We are, of course, all prone to explain contemporary debates in terms of electoral strategy and personality dysfunction. But if, in fact, we are in the midst of a re-definition of the basic nature of the American polity—from a republic to a banana republic—then we should not be surprised to witness some inevitable political disruptions, dislocations, and even wild and undisciplined opposition to the unfolding arrangement. While the Tea Party receives unending scorn from the chattering classes, forgotten in the mist of time (well, in the course of only five years) is that the anger of this uprising was fomented by the not-unsubstantiated suspicion that there was a deep collusion between government and economic elites in the nation (and beyond) that existed to assure that their growing take would be sustained by policies and even government fiat. This fact, often hidden from plain view by political coverage worthy of ESPN, was exposed in 2008 to ordinary Americans who “played by the rules,” and suddenly plainly saw that their betters had brought their casino to the brink of catastrophe but that access to the levers of power and wealth assured a soft landing, while ordinary citizens were increasingly stripped naked and exposed in a ravaged landscape.

 Five years later, with economic disparities growing and social mobility shrinking, the elites regard these voices as unwashed rubes, while cheering for the brief but wholly confined movement of “Occupy Wall Street” that succeeded in—nothing. The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street have been wholly shorn of a language and tradition by which they could properly protest the current arrangements. Such a tradition would be found in democratic populism, stressing decentralized political and economic arrangements in which policies and national priorities are first and foremost oriented toward the dignity of self-government, not get-rich-quick schemes in which the winners win and the losers move to Texas. But instead we debate whether government or corporations are to blame, while our betters increase their take and enjoy the show. [1]

We have discussed before what these “decentralized political and economic arrangements” might look like. The following two posts are a good introduction: 

T. Greer. Far Left and Far Right – Two Peas in a Pod?.The Scholar’s Stage. 10 April 2013.

T. Greer. America 3.0. The Scholar’s Stage. 9 June 2013.

We have focused less on the “dignity of self government” — though it is clearly an idea that underlays some of the Stage’s longer essays (like this one). I look forward to developing the theme in future posts.

In the mean time I encourage you to read Mr. Deneen’s full essay. 


[1] Patrick J. Deneen. “Two Nations Under Mammon.” The American Conservative. 4 October 2013.

Leave a Comment


From a 19th C. novel I happen to be reading:

"Why, you fools,' said I — that 's the way I talk to 'em, Annie ; I call 'em pet names ; they like it ; they 're used to 'em ; they … What do you want to break the laws for, when you can make 'em. You idiots, you ,' said I, ' what do you putter round for, persecuting non-union men, that have as good a right to earn their bread as you, when you might make the whole United State of America a Labor Union.

What interests me is that final phrase — the idea of a Union Labor party to represent the interests of ordinary working families. Of course third parties rarely succeed displacing one of the two major parties in the United States. The last success was when the Republicans replaced the Whigs in the decade before the Civil War.

On the other hand, third parties can and often do swing elections by draining votes disproportionately from one of the two major parties. Think Ralph Nader in 2000, Ross Perot in 1992. Such threats can influence the priorities of the party most threatened.

Also, there is always the possibility of intra-party insurgencies to gain control of one of the major parties. Has this ever happened? I do not know. But one way or another political power in this country needs to be freed of the controls of the donor class. Then, and only then, in my opinion, the kinds of reforms you describe might have a chance.

re: what these "decentralized political and economic arrangements" might look like.

here is my idea on the subject.

I also explore the political dimensions of this idea — not sure how well though — in the later chapters of this little book I wrote several years ago.

"there is always the possibility of intra-party insurgencies to gain control of one of the major parties. Has this ever happened?"

Yes, it has happened. Those insurgents did not just capture one of the major parties; they captured both of them.

Probably the best essay on how this was done shows is Robert Putnam's chapter on the subject in Bowling Alone.

To "free political power from the controls of the donor class" you need to have a group of people with organizational know how and (more importantly) social capital to pull the feat off. It was where the last insurgents started and it is where modern insurgents must start today.