A History Of The Present And The Dying Thing


I’ve never hidden the fact that some historians dislike my approach. They say I’m too quick to link the past to the present, the present to the past. I won’t rehash my view on that now. I do, however, want to continue to apply my view. The chips can and will fall where they may.

We are seeing a thing die in front of us. We see it on television, the internet, in our living rooms and on our mobile devices. The dying thing is the Republican Party.

This assertion isn’t unique to me and I won’t pretend that it is. My better claim to uniqueness, to offering you (I hope) an added value, is to remind you that this is the past once present and the present before past. We are living again what others have lived before.

Think about the years leading up to the American Civil War. The major political parties–the Democrats and the Whigs–convulsed to the point where one of them took on a grotesque form and the other of them exploded into little fragments. This is exactly where we are right now. We’re feeling the same confusion, anger, exhaustion, anxiety, passion, excitement, vindication, optimism, pessimism, and bewilderment that they felt more than a century-and-a-half ago. For those of you who love history and imagine “what must it have been like?”, look no further than your own mirror. It was like this.

And so it was too before then, when the prior set of political parties were born. It was the 1820s with the rise of the Whigs and Jacksonian Democrats. Wild, raw, mean, literate, ignorant, noble, courageous, grasping, giving, small-minded, and large-souled, they were all colliding, bouncing off each other, generating friction and heat. The only thing new was that it wasn’t new at all, having happened before with the onset of the very first group of like-minded interests organizing around interpretations, understandings, expectations, and extrapolations about what the Constitution was, is, and ought to be. Who better to argue the matter than they who wrote it, thought it, dreamed it. They were the parties of Jefferson and Hamilton, the mystical apartisanship of Washington stretched taut between them. Yet were they really the first at all? Wasn’t it true that the particles of a republic’s big bang Creation could be found in the smoke of Lexington, the tea of Boston, and the blood of patriots? Didn’t they do what we do? Most certainly yes, it was the life lived then as well.

Sure there are differences, some of which produce a difference in degree that become a difference in kind. Absolutely. But at the foundation of this human experience, the similarity is strong, the continuity is striking. I’m not sure the result of such knowledge is reassuring. One might conclude that a certain amount of discouragement is there, the type felt by the solitary mouse running on the metal wheel.

Our best cousin would remind us there is woe in the options. Churchill would say that it is truly the worst form of government, governance, and body politic than all the alternatives. I agree.

I’ll close with a true story. A middle-aged woman and an older man were having a conversation about the state of America. She was insightful, interested, keenly curious. She asked him for his view on where the nation seemed headed. Her name was Elizabeth Powell. The old man looked at her and replied, “A republic if you can keep it.” His name was Benjamin Franklin. It was the summer of 1787, eleven years after the Declaration of Independence.