The horde shambles into its third night. Last night, Chris Christie clawed his way through a modern day witch trial, a pseudo-legalistic prosecution that would have made Roland Freisler blush.
Said Steven Colbert, “Chris Christie: Promising terrifying show trials before a screaming mob with no representation for the defense!”
Radiohead even made a video for the convention:
Shortly after the screams reached their fever pitch on the television scream, in the skies outside a shockingly severe lightning storm tore through the DC area. As in a work of 19th century literature, the weather exploded in a powerfully violent reflection of the passions within the human hearts below. Damaging winds and lightning strikes seemed to forecast the damage this political psychosis promised to unleash across the country. (Just that night, Christie revealed that Trump was already planning a political purge of the civil service taken directly from the 1933 playbook. Across the world, Erdogan smiled.)
It was a dark night without sleep or rest.
But storms pass, and passions cool. The fundamentals are still strong for neo-fascism’s defeat. So tonight I want to post something more long-term, more reflective of the greater historical forces that cross generations and shape political landscapes over the long term. We’ll stick to the same themes of transgressive politics that have been the subject of the last few days, but let’s let’s bring in some 19th century history along the way.
Last fall as the primary season shambled toward its horrifying result, conservative stalwart David Brooks made the rounds lamenting that the Republicans are no longer a conservative party in the Burkean sense that has grounded a certain type of conservatism since the turn of the 19th century:
“By traditional definitions,” he writes, “conservatism stands for intellectual humility, a belief in steady, incremental change, a preference for reform rather than revolution, a respect for hierarchy, precedence, balance and order, and a tone of voice that is prudent, measured and responsible.”
Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France in many ways continues today as the foundational document of this type of conservatism. It embraces tradition, respects institutions, lauds gradualism, and distrusts efforts at social change that it believes merely unleash uncontrollable passion and unfortunate side effects.
Death of the Princesse de Lamballe, Leon Maxime-Faivre (1908)
I think most observers of politics from both left and right would agree that the mood dominating the Republican party at present is far removed from such Burkean foundations. This is not a value judgment — you can support or oppose Republican policies and you can support or oppose the Republican mood. They are two separate issues.
To bring in another 19th century political philosopher, John Stuart Mill wrote in On Liberty that “In politics… it is almost a commonplace, that a party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life”
These parties, however, do not stay the same over the generations.
At the beginning of the Sixth Party System, in the mid to late 60s, the Republicans claimed the badge of Party of Order. They opposed the radical faction of the democratic movement that resisted the war in Vietnam, agitated for racial justice, rode the wave of student activism, and generally made its demands in ways much of the rest of the country found loud, aggressive, and obnoxious. The Democratic Convention of 1968 was the perfect flash point here — street violence and convention-floor chaos tabbed the Dems as a party of disorder and led to Nixon’s victory as a supposed agent of authority and order. (It’s more complicated than that of course, but that’s kind of the standard historical memory we have of that era—Nixon’s stance as Party of Law and Order, the avatar of the Silent Majority inaugurated a new era of the Republican coalition that endured for decades. Of course, as Corey Robin pointed out in response to Brooks, that coalition began with its own inherent radicalism.)
Now we see the opposite: Republican political and media figures regularly speak in apocalyptic, violent rhetoric, sometimes blending into actual violence by their followers. In both the House and Senate, they destroy longstanding parliamentary traditions (routine use of the filibuster and refusal to confirm appointment including even the Supreme Court), issue insults in formal settings (“You lie!”), and engage in diplomatic slights that previous generations would have thought unthinkable (undercutting U.S. diplomacy with foreign officials). They have chosen an outsider presidential candidate for the express purpose of smashing the system. None of these are political judgments or accusations on my part — their supporters back them because of these actions, which they see as necessary to destroy a corrupt system.
Meanwhile, the Democrats have chosen a technocratic centrist who aspires to make the existing system work better. Her problems securing her left flank result from a lack of anger and destructive ambition, while conversely she attracts some support from the center right because she seems to reassure that no matter the policy differences, she will still embody continuity of the system itself.
Again, this is not a value judgment from me (although certainly Nietzsche and Zarathustra embraced value judgments). No, this is merely a neutral description of how both parties perceive themselves.
So in the sense Mill meant, this concept is not about moving left and right on a policy spectrum, instead it describes the methods and tones a party uses, its relationship to the political establishment, and its engagement or enmity with the long-term structures of society and politics.
Though the Republicans may frequently proclaim themselves the Party of Order, anyone can see that they in fact sow chaos. They are proud of it. They embrace it. And they will use it to destroy the old order, and create one anew.