A SPECTER IS HAUNTING AMERICA
while rampant Political Polarization continues as President
Obama enters his second hundred days in the White House
Thursday, April 30, 2009
by Richard E. Berg-Andersson
When the future historian surveys the political state of the world as it was on the eve of the cataclysm of the Great War [that is: World War I-- REB-A], he will record, as one of its most significant facts, that parliamentary institutions had become almost universal, either as the controlling factor, or at least as an important element, in the government of civilised states... [T]he only surviving non-parliamentary states of Europe had fallen into line with the rest during the decade immediately preceding the war; outside of Europe not only all the American republics, and all the self-governing British colonies, but also the Japanese Empire, had adopted this characteristically Western mode of government while even China and Persia had made experiments in the same direction. In every state except Britain and the communities which have sprung from her loins, these representative systems had been the product of the last hundred years, and in most cases of the last fifty or sixty years, immediately preceding the war; and even in Britain it was only during the last half-century that the bulk of the people had obtained the franchise. Our historian will note that in every case these systems had been modeled, directly or indirectly, on the British system. And he will observe, perhaps with some surprise, that the only developed communities in the world in which this prevailing fashion had not been fully followed were those of India and Egypt, although both of these countries were under the control of the Mother of Parliaments herself, and that the popular discontents which found expression in both of these countries largely turned upon the demand that they also should be endowed with the system of government now accepted as one of the marks of a civilised state. Both the universality of this movement towards the adoption of self-governing institutions, and the still surviving exceptions to it, will seem to our historian, we may be sure, to be highly significant. His conclusion will and must be that the necessity of an effective public control over, or co-operation in, the business of government had become with quite extraordinary rapidity an accepted principle of Western civilisation...
What we cannot yet venture to anticipate is his verdict on the results of the great ordeal. Will he have to say that the system of government by public discussion and under public control broke down under the ordeal and proved its inefficiency, at any rate for purposes of the war; that the states which emerged with most success were those in which popular control had been only formal, a mere mask covering the operations of an efficient centralised power; and that as a result of the war even the nations in which self-governing institutions seemed most deeply rooted had been driven in self-defence to change their systems? Or will he record that on the whole the struggle proved a triumph for the system of popular government, and firmly and finally established it as the governing principle of all civilised states? Or will his verdict perhaps be a mixed one? Perhaps he will conclude that in some cases the modern system proved its strength and efficiency, and in others not: that it answered every call better than could have been foretold in those communities which were, by reason of the training and habits of their citizens, capable of using freedom nobly, and of imposing wilingly upon themselves a discipline almost as effective as that elsewhere imposed by authority; that in other communities it broke down and led to disastrous results because the mass of citizens were not awake to their responsibilites, having been endowed with political power before they were ready for it; and that in yet other cases the tragedies and agonies of the war were to be attributed, not to the deficiencies of popular government, but to the fact that popular government had been unreal, and that members of these communities had not been allowed to exercise such a share in common affairs as their training and capacities would have justified.
Although it is impossible as yet to anticipate the final verdict of history upon these momentous questions, since the great ordeal will not end with the war, and the problems of reorganisation during the generation following the war will afford a yet more acute and searching test, it is equally impossible and even dangerous to avoid thinking about them.--
It is now more than 90 years since Professor Muir wrote the above words (words penned before the Armistice later in that same year in which his volume was published that effectively ended his 'Great War', although his "problems of reorganisation during the generation following the war" would merely devolve into what Sir Winston Churchill, in his six-volume Memoirs of the Second World War, would call 'the Follies of the Victors' and, thereby, only lead to another, greater, war- World War II- and the resultant Cold War beyond even that! [thus, or so it can perhaps be argued, the 'Great War' of Muir's time never ever really "ended" and, indeed, the current War on Terror- especially insofar as such Terror might be fueled by the furnace of Islamic Jihadism- can fairly be seen as a lineal outgrowth of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire accelerated by said 'Great War']). And we, in 2009, can certainly attempt to answer his questions as posed above (but this can only, in the main, be mere "attempt": for the "answers" we each might give to these will, for the most part, be tempered- where not actually colored- by our own respective political ideologies and concomitant biases respecting the very terminology Muir used in his questions). Indeed, we must make at least such an attempt because, no less than was the case in Muir's own time, and as impossible as it might be to most fully answer his questions, even now, indeed "it is equally impossible and even dangerous to avoid thinking about them"! Dangerous to not consider them precisely because the future success of popular sovereignty- that is: self- government- very much depends upon our willingness to continually so consider them.
Or, as I myself have often put it in my own writings for this very website- albeit only in direct relation to my own country, obviously- "We the People of the United States... do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America" by the very act of so "ordain[ing] and establish[ing]" it anew via our own participation as voting members of the polities (our respective State and its local governmental units, as well as the Federal Union as a whole) that, together, make up said United States of America. It is none the less as regards Free Peoples outside the United States: for you who are reading this who are not American- yet have the advantage of also residing in a political community enjoying such popular government- also renew your own Constitution through your own active participation in the common affairs of your own polity... the actual wording of the Constitution or equivalent Fundamental Law of one's Republican Democracy might be different from that of my own, yet the essential premise behind the efficacy of said Constitution/Fundamental Law remains pretty much the same!
To my own mind, Muir's "future historian" of his 1918- assuming, if only for the sake of this argument, that the future is. indeed, now- would have to end up with Muir's "mixed verdict" when it comes to the fate of Republican Democracy (even where that which is effectively a res publica- a "thing of the people"- is, in actuality, a Constitutional Monarchy) in the wake of World War I. In places relatively unscathed (at least directly) by the war, such as the United States- as would be the case again with World War II- Republican Democracy not only answered the call but thrived; yet, even in the United States- and certainly in Europe- indeed, wherever popular government did survive and thrive, "total war" also brought about, at the very least, more than a few elements of Muir's "popular control" as "a mere mask covering the operations of an efficient centralised power" and, what World War I could not do, the Great Depression and World War II and then the Cold War (or, rather, the reaction of governance based upon popular opinion and discussion to these) largely ended up doing (hence outgoing U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower's famous warning about the so-called "Military-Industrial Complex"). Ever since, there has been ever the very real, however ill-perceived, danger of "nations in which self-governing institutions seemed most deeply rooted [being] driven in self-defence to change their systems" (of which more later on in this very piece).
Meanwhile, defeated Germany- its Kaiser (who ruled over what can best be described as a quasi-constitutional monarchy, itself made up of mini-monarchies of varying stripes of constitutionality and representative governance) having abdicated- drafted what is, arguably, one of the most democratic of Constitutions at Weimar only to see that system give way to an executive despotism that, in turn, led only to the excesses of Nazism- itself an extreme perversion of that Fascism already prevalent in Italy and well "bubbling under" in Spain at the time Adolf Hitler took fullest power as Der Fuehrer ("The Leader") in 1934; meanwhile, another crude form of Totalitarianism had already emerged in the Stalinism of the Soviet Union. The former fell (interestingly, with the aid of Stalin's regime) with the end of World War II in 1945; the latter would linger, in its Cold War with Western Democracy, for another generation.
In fact, until the outright collapse of that Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the freeing up of its satellite States- both within and without what had amounted to a "second Russian Empire"- one could hardly see that Muir's "universality" of "government by public discussion and under public control" had all that well survived what Muir himself saw as a "great ordeal"-- at least not worldwide!
But, even in his own time (before all of the above had ever occurred), Muir's conception as regards his "universality" of national self-government had already cast much too broad a net; certainly his own notion of "representative systems" in that which I have quoted from him above cannot have at all contemplated near-universal, let alone fullest universal, manhood (since women as voters, even in the more advanced Republican Democracies, was still a comparatively rare thing in 1918 to begin with) suffrage!
For instance, Muir's "non-parliamentary states of Europe... fallen into line with the rest" were, specifically, the Russian Empire- which had instituted the Imperial Duma in 1905- and the Ottoman Empire- which, in 1909, adopted a fully parliamentary system (complete with ministerial responsibility) after Sultan Abdul-Hamid II had been deposed for supporting a failed counter-revolution intended to overturn the gains made by the so-called "Young Turks" the year before. But the Duma of the last dozen years of Czarism in Russia was chosen through a rather convoluted method so obviously intended to keep political power in the hands of those most supportive of that Czarism (and, of course, the rest of Russia's woes since the end of Czarism have already been recounted above) and, although Turkey transmogrified into a Republic in the wake of the end of Ottoman power in 1923, even today it has to fairly be considered (if only from American perspective, where not also bias) as something of a "quasi-Democracy" considering the considerable role its military constitutionally plays in maintaining the Republic's stability (although, to be fair again, this role is enshrined in Turkey's Constitution and, thus, may the more be reflective of Turkish culture [keep in mind, too, that Turkey is the only Muslim-majority country in which Secularism is specifically declared in its own Constitution]: as I have also often written on this website, Democracy will ever reflect the culture of a People-- therefore, a Turkish Democracy is not going to look much like an American- or, for that matter, a typical European [despite Turkey's evident desire to join the European Union]- Democracy in any event [and the same, by the way, can also be fairly said for Democracy in the Russian Federation where, even during the Yeltsin era [put aside the current Putin era], elements of old-fashioned Czarist Autocracy could well be gleaned: perhaps the current Russian system of governance is as reflective of Russian history and culture as it might be of any nefarious intent on the part of its leadership]; still, if we- if only for the sake of this particular argument- accept, as true, the answers to both questions as posed in the rather famous dictum of the 19th Century Prussian politician-scholar Martin Friedrich Rudolf von Delbrueck, to wit: Wherein lies the real power? It lies in arms. The question, therefore, by which to determine the essential character of a State is always the question: 'Whom does the army obey?', we must- as regards Turkish Republicanism as it is presently constituted- ever ask a third question: 'Whose is the sovereignty, then, where the army, in the end, only has to obey itself?'-- surely not, in the end, the People's!).
As for that Japanese Empire of Muir's time, its parliamentary system first formally instituted in 1890 may best be seen as the 11th Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, issued in 1910, so well put it-- that is: to the effect that the Japanese people point proudly [to their Constitution] as the only charter of the kind voluntarily given by a sovereign to his subjects. In other countries such concessions were always the outcome of long struggles between ruler and ruled. In Japan the emperor freely divested himself of a portion of his prerogatives and transferred them to the people. That view of the case... is not untinged with romance; but in a general sense it is true. Nevertheless, the Japanese emperor of a century ago still ruled and did not, as is the case with modern Constitutional Monarchy (including early 21st Century Japan itself), merely reign- for he kept a large chunk of his prerogatives for himself: the Cabinet of ministers was responsible only to him- and not the legislature- and, therefore, the institution of "this characteristically Western mode of government" could, in the end, do nothing at all to keep Japan from sliding headlong into an increasing militarization of governance (an intriguing foreshadowing of the dangers inherent in Western Democracy's "Military-Industrial Complex[es]" after World War II) that ultimately led it to become a part of the eventually defeated 'Axis' during World War II. Indeed, one dares state that Japan's post-World War II experience of Muir's "national self-government" has been a far happier one: irruptions of political corruption aside (which, in truth, make Japan no worse than the American State of Louisiana-- or, for that matter, my own New Jersey!).
As for what Muir saw as "experiments" in popular government by both China and Persia: China's proclamation of a Republic following the fall of its Qing Manchu emperors in 1912 lasted not all that much longer than the fading echoes of a public reading of said proclamation-- military dictatorship devolving into struggles between "warlords" became the rule of the day followed by the epic struggle between Chiang kai-Shek's Nationalists and Mao tse-Tung's Communists (with both contesting with Japanese invaders during the 1930s into the years of World War II) culminating in today's People's Republic; meanwhile, Persia- known as Iran after 1935- wavered between quite limited parliamentarianism and personal rule by the Shah which was replaced- as a result of the Islamic Revolution of 1979- by personal rule by the Wali Faqih (an Ayatollah- "sign of God"- serving as "Supreme [religious] Leader"), all secular, or at least quasi-secular, political institutions be damned! In addition, the "American republics" to which Muir referred back in 1918 include, mostly, the Republics of Central and South America and one need only read a good history- or even fairly detailed chronology of said history- of any of the Latin American Nation-States to know the struggle truest Republican Democracy has had down there, not only in the years and decades leading up to Muir's own writings, but also in the intervening years and decades since!
And even Muir had to admit that, on his own native "scepter'd isle"- what Muir's contemporary H.G. Wells, in his Outline of History, referred to as being, in reality already by that time, a "crowned Republic"- yes, "it was only during the last half-century that the bulk of the people had obtained the franchise"; this alone somewhat undermines Muir's own claim as to the "universality" of his "national self-government"-- on the other hand, the efficacy of "representative systems" was very much in the eye of the beholder in 1918, not to also mention the very definition of "representative-ness" in each country that had adopted at least the appearance of "parliamentary institutions".
'Tis true this is at least somewhat less true in our own day and there is, by now, much more to be said about Muir's claim that some sort of representative (at least in some sense: if only in appearance, where not reality) legislative assembly is, indeed, that which is "accepted as one of the marks of a civilised state". Nowadays, very few Nation-States fail to provide for one (only a relative handful of Absolutist Monarchies in the Middle East, along with Brunei and that special polity known as "the Holy See" [the Vatican], still do not have at least one ostensibly legislative body); yet one has to seriously question just how much real constitutional power the legislators in, say, Zimbabwe might actually have and, in addition, just how representative of the people they really are permitted to be in contradistinction- not to also say contraposition- to the political executive (meanwhile, no one can seriously claim that the Democrats holding a majority in the House of Representatives of the current 111th Congress of the United States are merely just such a "rubber stamp" for all the policies of the 56th Administration of fellow Democrat, President Barack Obama! [though this, of course, does not at all stop someone "out there" who opposes the Democratic Party US, along with its predominantly "liberal" political ideology, on general principle from so claiming and, in addition, having quite a number of persons amongst the electorate agree with him or her]).
Therefore, in our own time- no less than in Muir's- "universality" of "representative systems" of "popular government" AKA [DBA? ;-)] "national self-government" (to here apply Muir's own terminology) is still very much in the eye of the beholder, despite the apparent spread of true Republican Democracy to such places as an Eastern Europe only a generation ago having been well within the Soviet grip and at least the more recent attempts to implement at least some aspects of this political system (one- again, to quote Muir- "now accepted as one of the marks of a civilised state") in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan (however incomplete these attempts might have. as yet. been and may, ultimately, unsatisfactorily progress).
We in the West ourselves are currently facing our own "great ordeal"- or, rather, the word should be made plural: thus, "ordeals"- these being the seemingly ongoing Global Economic Meltdown, as it has come to be called in popular parlance, and the continuing efficacy of that War on Terror principally resulting from the attacks of 11 September 2001. Here in the United States, the very direct target of that 9/11 terrorism, tests involving both of these ordeals are perceived at home as well as abroad and, thus, it might well be in order to consider that about which Ramsay Muir wrote as World War I was still ongoing in the context of what we, in our own time, have so lately faced and continue to face. Once more, as Muir himself wrote, "[a]lthough it is impossible as yet to anticipate the final verdict of history upon these momentous questions,... it is equally impossible and even dangerous to avoid thinking about them".
Therefore, think about them I now shall!
Ramsay Muir postulated the following in his National Self-Government, that
Popular representation in government is in natural accord with the essential Western ideas of Liberty, and of Rational Law reflecting the public conscience... But this is not to say that Liberty and Rational Law can only exist, or will even under all conditions thrive best under its shelter. To make such a claim would be to deny the value of all that has been achieved for civilisation in most of the great states of the world... [L]iberty of conscience, liberty of thought, liberty of speech, liberty of the press, liberty of action may exist in the highest practicable degree under a non-popular government... on the other hand, they may be, and sometimes have been, denied by representative governments...
Nevertheless it is the natural tendency of all peoples among whom the seminal ideas of Western civilisation have taken root to strive towards self-government, and accordingly the history of Europe is full of experiments in that direction. But most of them, interesting as they are in themselves, have little or no bearing upon the problems of government of the great modern states. The little city-republics of ancient Greece and of mediaeval Italy, Germany and Flanders were on so small a scale that they afford practically no guidance for the government of the nation-state.
Muir went on to point out that Aristotle held that no state could be healthy which had more than ten thousand citizens; and Rousseau, with the model of Geneva in mind, could maintain that democracy was impossible in a large state, and that the system of representation was a denial of its very essence...
But there is one respect in which the experience of the small city-states, where every citizen directly and constantly shared in the work of government, concurs with the experience of the great modern states wherein any such participation is impossible. Both alike point to certain essential conditions without which government by discussion and agreement must be impossible or disastrous in its results. These conditions are two.
In the first place, the mass of active citizens who take a share in the direction of affairs must be in some degree educated, not merely in the formal sense, though that is important, but still more in the sense of having been trained in the co-operation in common affairs. No community can become self-governing whose members are not capable of appreciating the complexity of political issues, or have not learnt by practical experience the need for compromise, for give-and-take, for the loyal acceptance of results arrived at after discussion, and for the willing subordination of self; and these things can only be acquired by training. Where these qualities are lacking, the institution of self-government must lead either to anarchy, or to the enthronement of unscrupulous intriguers who play upon the ignorance of the voters and their lack of political intelligence... The creation of this political aptitude among a people is not to be easily or rapidly brought about. It takes time. The best system of school-instruction is by itself quite insufficient to produce it. Only the formed habit of co-operation and discussion in minor matters can bring it fully into being, and the number of societies whose conditions of life have made it easy for its citizens to acquire this habit has been small.
I might also add- now nearly a century after Muir first wrote the above- that, even once acquired, this first essential condition for self-government can rather easily be- to here borrow from Abraham Lincoln's phraseology in his Second  Annual Message to Congress- "meanly lost", rather than at all "nobly saved"!
But Muir went on to note that [t]he second condition of the successful working of self-government is that there must exist a real unity of sentiment in the community which attempts it. When a community is divided by deep and irreconcilable antipathies, by the unconquerable distrust and dislike of one element in it for another, discussion becomes futile and agreement impossible.
This is very much along the same lines through which another Britisher, Herbert Agar- in the Preface to the Second Edition of his book on American [national] Political History, The Price of Union- contemplated the Presidential Election of 1964, which had taken place not all that long before this Second Edition was prepared for publication. Making a shrewd comparison between the seizure (since it cannot much better be described otherwise) of the Republican Party by the conservative forces behind that year's GOP nominee Barry Goldwater and the very similar seizure of the Democratic Party in 1896 by the populist "Cross of Gold" forces behind William Jennings Bryan in 1896, Agar noted:
"Goldwater never explained what his base was, aside from nostalgia and a bitterness against the compromises of life. So he could not broaden what he could not define, and was beaten far more cruelly than Bryan. But they were both beaten for the same reason: they both, in their rash enthusiasm, forgot that a successful American political party must be a non-ideological affair, accommodating many points of view and speaking at times with many voices, a true federation and thus the true accomodator of all the interests of a continent."
I might also add, if only for purposes of fairness, that the nomination of George McGovern by the Democrats a mere eight years after the Republicans had nominated Barry Goldwater did much the same as regarded that Party: as I myself pointed out in my reviewing the battle over Democratic National Convention delegates in 1972 (which I was relating to a similar battle- one that was, in the end, never fully joined [for, apparently, the Democrats of 2008 had learned at least some of the most necessary lessons!]- potentially shaping up as I wrote about all this back in March 2008), the liberalism of the McGovern forces was no more in synch with the mainstream of the Democratic Party (or for that matter, the Nation as a whole) than Goldwater's had been re: the GOP and, again, the Nation eight years before (if nothing else, the respective ensuent landslides enjoyed by both incumbent Presidents Lyndon Baines Johnson and Richard Nixon- despite their respective political downfalls later- well shows where the political heart of the Nation most strongly beat in each of those Presidential Elections!)
I will come back to Agar shortly, but first let me note that Muir next, after having outlined his second condition for well-working self-government as noted above, went on to acknowledge that [i]n the great modern state unity of sentiment is indeed a hard thing to create. It has, in fact, been created only by one force- by what we call the national spirit... Where it is once firmly rooted, the national spirit can not merely survive, but can even turn to good ends, differences of party, creed and class. For these differences produce a deepened sincerity and a greater pith and force in discussion, so long as those who hold them are thinking primarily of the welfare of the nation of the whole, and so long as the mass of men can continue to believe that their opponents (however mistaken) are genuinely desirous of national advantage as they conceive it...
But where the national spirit does not exist- where the state consists of acutely hostile groups, each permanently suspicious of the others... self-government in any real sense cannot exist; and if its institutions are established, their effect will be nullified by the clash of conflicting and irreconcilable factions, or they will afford to the better organised [group] the means of imposing its ruthless dominion upon its recalcitrant subjects.
Muir was thinking more along the lines of ethnic conflict when he wrote this last and, in relation to this, he specifically cited Austria-Hungary (for he could not know, as he penned the above nearly a full year before the implosion of the Habsburg Monarchy- the last vestige of that which had once been the Holy Roman Empire- as World War I came to an end, that this multi-ethnic conglomeration would split into several newly independent states, a few of which- most notably Yugoslavia- would only end up [if eventually] taking a lack of heed to Muir's warning to its extremes]); yet, as his very reference to "differences of party, creed and class" shows, his words could very well apply to these other sources of potential political hostility.
Here again, we can- in relation to all this- cite that which Agar wrote nearly half a century later in his The Price of Union: immediately after stating, as I quoted from him above, that "a successful American political party must be a non-ideological affair, accommodating many points of view and speaking at times with many voices, a true federation and thus the true accomodator of all the interests of a continent", Agar went on to note that "[s]uch Parties should never allow themselves to feel, and preach, that the opposition is not only mistaken but wicked. Bryan did this. So did Goldwater..." And, indeed, where McGovern later did not himself do so, his supporters surely did!
Muir's argument, meanwhile, is- essentially- that national self-government is seriously damaged, where it does not altogether disappear, where admonitions such as Agar's are ignored. For, as Muir goes on to state: The unifying force of the national spirit is the only factor which has yet been discovered that can make self-government as real a thing in the large state as it was in the little city-state.
Here in my own United States of America, however, the whole concept of what Muir calls "the national spirit" is complicated by a number of factors, each of which creates levels best described as varying "degrees of difficulty" when it comes to the efficacy American self-government per Muir's definition of same:
Above all else, there is the rather obvious issue that the USofA is a federation.
Now, a federal system of government- in and of itself- is not, by any means, a barrier to a national feeling. For instance, do Germans feel any the less German because of their Bundesrepublik? But it is true that federations are very often the result of a nation-state being, in fact, multi-national (for example, the multi-ethnic reality that underlies the Russian Federation) and America's neighbor to the north, Canada, being a federal entity is- at least in part- due to the continuing echoes of the long-ago 'Carleton's Paradox' which, if now stated in modern form, might best be said as "in order for Quebec to remain part of Canada, it has to be allowed to be more Quebecois" as much as it might also be due to the distance British Columbia was from the Atlantic Provinces in relation to 19th Century transportation and communications technology (the very same reason California could become a constituent State of the American Union at a time when it was not at all contiguous to its sister States).
Still, a Canada- or, for that matter, an Australia (also a federation)- seems more a nation coming out of the usual wellsprings of nationhood than does the United States!
Muir touches upon this himself in his description of the origins of the American Union, where he notes that the mutual jealousy of the states (which is another way of saying the incomplete unity of sentiment in the nation) necessitated a strict definition of the spheres of the federal and state governments. Broadly speaking, certain general functions were allotted to the central government, but all the undefined residue of power remained with the states. This meant that common action for the whole nation was made extremely difficult in every sphere which was not actually foreseen by the framers of the constitution. They could not foresee the complex economic system of the twentieth century, or the vast power which was to fall into the hands of organised finance. But, as we to-day recognize, these things demand a firm control by the organs of state; and America has found herself seriously handicapped in establishing this control by the inelastic provisions of her eighteenth-century constitution.
Now, Muir was writing this well before the Great Depression and the New Deal in America and, thus, it should also be fairly noted that the notion of "control" in the economy to most political scientists of Muir's time (except for those who, quite unlike Muir, had become enamored of the works of Karl Marx) did not mean what it might seem to imply nowadays- that is, actual government direction of the economy; rather, Muir's "control" in the above was directed not towards the general economy as a whole but only at the workings of what he called "organised finance"-- in other words, Muir was talking about regulation of financial institutions.
Muir did note that the ingenuity, good sense and moderation of the American mind have found ways of partially escaping from the difficulty. But it remains true that the constitutional restrictions upon the power of the nation as a whole to deal with its problems on a national scale have created difficulties in the past, and are likely to lead to greater difficulties in the future.
And it remains ever thus! Although, to be sure, Muir's perception as regards said "difficulties" has been mitigated by two things:
First, there is the notion best expressed in the late historian Shelby Foote's famous dictum that "before the Civil War, one would say 'the United States are'; after the Civil War, it was 'the United States is' ": thus, even by Muir's time, the chilling effect of that brutal War Between the States was already driving America further into the arms of "the national spirit" (though, yes, there would still be the Democrats' "Solid South" for at least a couple generations yet to come [indeed, it might well be argued that much of the same South is still rather solid- only for the Republicans nowadays, not the Democrats!])
Second, we must look more closely at Muir's own notion- as I have already quoted him earlier in this piece- that "[w]here it is once firmly rooted, the national spirit can not merely survive, but can even turn to good ends, differences of party, creed and class. For these differences produce a deepened sincerity and a greater pith and force in discussion, so long as those who hold them are thinking primarily of the welfare of the nation of the whole, and so long as the mass of men can continue to believe that their opponents (however mistaken) are genuinely desirous of national advantage as they conceive it". For, in truth, the original "nations" that made up the nascent United States of America were, in fact, the very States themselves: only when a significant number of persons from different, where not also disparate, parts- demographically as well as geographically- of the same Commonwealth of Massachusetts could come to feel their "weal", their well-being, was one they, indeed, actually shared in "common" would "embattled farmers" then so willingly stand shoulder-to-shoulder in support of, say, a wealthy Boston merchant like John Hancock...
in other words: the original American "national spirit" was- and much of this survives even now- State spirit!
And only once the Americans of the Colonial Period had learned ('been trained" in Muir's parlance) to feel such "national spirit" on this Colony-becoming-State level (keep in mind that the American Revolution was fomented by perceived threats to the Rights of Englishmen enjoyed by the colonists on this side of the Atlantic as, literally, the People of their respective Colony) could what became the American States actually be the very self-governing polities which would, in turn, join together to form a new Nation-- but only, at the start, within a federal system (for the reasons Muir himself outlined).
Now, while the average citizen of today's United States of America certainly feels more "American" than- say- "New Jerseyan", "Texan" or "Californian" (Muir himself would likely have argued that the generations of Americans now alive in 2009 have been trained to so think), the fact remains that Americans still are- and, therefore, very often act politically as- citizens of, again, New Jersey, Texas or California as much as- if not, at times, more than- they operate in a genuine spirit of "We are, after all, Americans all". Thus, there yet remain regional and sectional differences here in America of no little significance and, despite the oversimplification within the notion of "Red State" vs. "Blue State" which even now-President Obama himself once decried during his Keynote Address before the 2004 Democratic National Convention, the fact remains that we here in the USofA are not always- indeed, all too often, aren't- truly united States. In addition, in the larger States- interestingly, seemingly more so in States rather large in population even where relatively small in size (as opposed to States large in geographical extent, regardless of population)- there are also sub-State regional differences worthy of note (for instance: my own State of New Jersey is very clearly divided politically between its geographical sections; some of this actually has historical antecedents [the one-time division of New Jersey into separate East and West Provinces during the Colonial Period] but much more of it is more recent, as well as economic and cultural in nature [the fact that 'North Jersey' is very much oriented towards New York City, while 'South Jersey' is far more affected by its proximity to Philadelphia], although even this overlays the earlier historical foundation and there is, in the final analysis, much interplay between these two prime influences).
This is, indeed, something that must regularly be overcome and the point of all I have noted in this piece so far is simply to make clear that "the national spirit"- even in those cases where the "nation" in question might, in reality, be the State- is truly something that must ever be actively cultivated, over and over again, in order for popular governance here in America to have anything approaching efficacy: where such spirit might, instead, prove lacking, the self-governing order here in the United States threatens to break down as regards dealing with the given issues of the day.
In the end, Barack Obama's so regularly, and forcefully, declaiming- in that famous '04 Keynote Address- that "we are the United States of America" is as much ideal yet to be achieved as it might be anything approaching reality: for the most part, the average American in his or her everyday experience rather vacillates between the two!
But there is something even more sinister at work within the American polity than any such long-held subcultural and political differences between sections and regions of the country and even portions of at least our larger States: in truth, this has, if only since the conclusion of the Civil War, actually been the more responsible for the deepest divisions here in the United States than mere geography has ever been- and that is the tendency, hinted at in the words of both Ramsay Muir and Herbert Agar I have already cited, to fall prey to the easy (I am actually sorely tempted to here, instead, use the word "lazy") politics of labeling the opposition to one's own views as being- to use Agar's phraseology- "not only mistaken but wicked" and we've certainly seen this very thing very much at work within the overall reaction to the defection, earlier this week as I type this, of Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania from the Republican to the Democratic Party.
Neither side of the political aisle comes to this event with anything approaching the proverbial "clean hands", by the way. The Democrats have generally acted as if they not only wanted to be able to spike the football after scoring a go-ahead touchdown but also were sincerely hoping the ball, thus spiked, would end up slamming into the gut of the last defender the ball-carrier passed before crossing the goal line! Meanwhile, to the Republican Party, it is as if the most unrepentent sinner in the congregation had finally- and, to the rest of the congregants, mercifully- decided to stop attending weekly worship services; the prevailing attitude within the "bell curve" of the GOP is that Specter was "never really a Republican in any event" and- therefore- it is all "good riddance".
But why has Senator Specter been so viewed by members of what was until now (and despite their complaints to the contrary) his own Party? Precisely because he is- and he certainly will remain thus as a Democrat as much as he was this very thing as a Republican- a political moderate: or, to use a turn of phrase that was until so recently- if it now might not be- all the rage, a "raging centrist".
One should not forget that hard-core liberals have long remembered Specter as the man who came off as the "grand inquisitor" of Anita Hill during the rather odd- where not also altogether bizarre- second series of hearings, before the Senate Judiciary Committee back in the Fall of 1991, regarding the Senate confirmation of eventual U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas (in case anyone out there does not know about all this, allow me to remind the reader that Ms. Hill had claimed that Thomas had sexually harrassed her while she worked for him about a decade before): many such liberals have never, to this very day, fully forgiven Specter for that-- while others, such as a friend of mine who happens to be a liberal Democrat, expressed surprise- during the time George W. Bush occupied the White House- that, to use this particular friend's own words, "Specter has become such a moderate of late" (to which I could only respond: "He always was a moderate!"-- a claim my liberal friend found somewhat surprising).
Meanwhile, four years earlier, Specter had been just as much the "grand inquisitor" of ultimately unsuccessful U.S. Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork and many hard-core conservatives have themselves never ever forgiven Arlen Specter for that, holding him largely responsible for the failure of a judicial nomination by, in this case, a Republican icon of a President named Ronald Reagan.
Seems as if, all along, Senator Specter has been "damned if he did, damned if he didn't" and, therefore, perhaps the best explanation for how Specter could now feel so free to switch Parties would be the words of singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson: "Freedom's just another word for 'nothing left to lose' "!
In the end, however, it is the reaction of the jilted Party in the whole Specter defection that is currently most telling, for it well indicates an essential weakness in the GOP of 2009 on the national scale (whatever support the Grand Old Party might well still have in some sections and regions of the country) and that is the continuing propensity of the Party, as an institution, to so devalue its own moderates-- again, by branding them "wicked" as much, if not more so, as it might also brand them "mistaken". Whether or not this is merely a temporary condition and might actually be corrected by the time we are entering the 2012 Presidential Election cycle- if not that of the 2010 Midterm Federal Elections- has yet to be seen, of course; nevertheless, it is rather apparent that- whereas the Republicans are so obviously still in the usual Stages of Grief either Major Party goes through after a particularly onerous defeat (and '08 following on '06 is clearly just such a loss!)- the GOP seems to be, as I type this as April becomes May 2009, all too stuck somewhere between the first two of these Stages: Denial and Anger, both of which (as anyone familiar with the Kuebler-Ross model could well tell you) only serve to heighten Isolation...
then again, I suppose Bargaining can only begin with the actual campaign, out on the hustings and before the American People (that is: bargaining for votes), for Congressional seats and most Statewide races come 2010! ;-)
But, all sarcasm aside, all the comment- whether Pro or Con- surrounding the recent Specter spectacle is merely a symptom of an even greater disease that has been going on in American Politics for some time now, whether in the form of anti-Iraq War liberals so vociferously claiming that now-former President George W. Bush is a "War Criminal" (which only serves to insult the victims, living and dead, of actual War Crimes- whether these be those who suffered the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust or the more recent Ethnic Cleansing in the former Yugoslavia or, for that matter, what amounts to Genocide in Darfur as well as Terrorism inspired [where it is not actually sponsored] by the likes of Al Qa'eda) or dyed-in-the-wool conservatives referring to current President Barack Obama as a "European socialist" (which only serves to insult Europeans- which is, however, very much the intent of those who so preach the, in the main, "Action confused with Accomplishment" that is their rather strange brew of what might best be described as "isolationist Internationalism").
Neither such declamation on either side of the political divide (and, yes, it is a "divide"!) is at all the stuff of Critical Thinking and- as Ramsay Muir would himself surely note, were he still around nowadays- none of this serves to all that much advance American Self-Government!