Playing Politics

The Parties: Republicans and Democrats in this Century.
by Henry Fairlie.
St. Martin’s. 236 pp. $8.95.

Long before Watergate, Richard Nixon, and Spiro Agnew, politics ranked low on opinion scales of admired professions in American life. It is easy enough to understand why this has been the case. The American Constitution was carefully structured to exclude from the political realm fundamental questions of morality and purpose. When the system is working as it should, politicians concern themselves not with such issues as power and justice, truth and purpose, virtue and consent, but with the finding of proximate means to modest ends. Because we have generally enjoyed freedom and tranquility, and elected officials have succeeded one another peaceably, we have tended to focus on the unheroic aspects of democratic politics, giving little thought to the question of how institutions are sustained or to the talents needed by those who sustain them.

This focus on the mundane and material aspects of our common life operates to defuse the destructive potential of political conflict and to protect the nation against the more riotous political passions. Unfortunately, however, it also encourages the chronic devaluation of political institutions and politicians. More important still, it tends to obscure the fundamentals of the political enterprise. It is therefore good that we be reminded from time to time of the nature of politics in a free society. Henry Fairlie, the most prolific foreign commentator on American life currently residing in our midst, comes bearing precisely such a reminder. His work during the last decade—which has treated such diverse events and phenomena as the Kennedys, Watergate, anti-Americanism, permissiveness, political parties, and political leaders—is devoted essentially to a celebration of the “at once sublime and ridiculous process by which free men contrive to govern themselves.” So unexpected is this theme in political writing that it has been generally overlooked or ignored by Fairlie’s reviewers, who have tended to concentrate instead on his numberless opinions—occasionally incisive, occasionally perverse—about specific men and events.

Although The Parties is not a good book, it does make a contribution to Fairlie’s ongoing study of politics in a free society. While most contemporary writing conceives politics in terms of allocation (who gets what, when, and how), Fairlie operates from an architectonic conception of politics as the master science which orders the whole. Politics in this sense consists in reconciling the diverse interests and wills characteristic of a free society; it does not seek ultimate solutions or perfect order; does not attempt to eradicate differences; does not force citizens to be free. It is the antithesis of totalitarianism. Yet so conceived, politics is a noble activity.

“There can be no morality in politics,” Fairlie wrote in an earlier essay on Watergate, “and no possibility of it—if those who hold the highest positions (including their servants) have no sense of amicitia”—which is that sacred bond of trust that limits conflict, breeds restraint in the exercise of power, and binds the individual to shared purposes. Fairlie argued that Richard Nixon floundered because he trusted no one—not his colleagues, not the people—and the absence of trust encouraged and permitted his abuse of power. Nixon’s failures, that is, were rooted in his character—but also, Fairlie believes, in the weakness of the Republican party and its inability to constrain a President governing in its name.

To dramatize the inadequacies of that party, Fairlie in his new book imagines a toast to its standard-bearers since Theodore Roosevelt: “I give you, ladies and gentlemen, the party of”—Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Alf Landon, Wendell Willkie, Thomas Dewey, Dwight Eisenhower, Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford. Although he has a good opinion of Eisenhower and respect for Ford, Fairlie considers the Republican record as a whole unworthy of a great party. The root of the trouble, he thinks, is that the party has never felt “at home” in the 20th century, and this is the reason it lacks firm direction, cannot command the loyalty of its adherents (who are always threatening to form third parties), and is so vulnerable to personalist and ideological movements. While the whole Republican scene strikes him as dismal, Fairlie has a higher regard for the party’s conservative wing, and especially for Robert Taft, whose perseverance, political tenacity, and “principled stubbornness” gave him a certain integrity, though it also reinforced his limitations.

Like Taft, Everett Dirksen and Barry Goldwater fare better at Fairlie’s hands than do representatives of the Republican party’s liberal wing. In describing these latter, Fairlie gives full rein to his talent for invective: Wendell Willkie was “one of the most preposterous figures ever to lead a major party,” Thomas Dewey was a man who “struts sitting down,” Charles Percy has “raised vacillation to the level of a moral principle.” Fairlie’s harshest words are reserved for Nelson Rockefeller, here presented as the prototype of the failure of liberal Republicanism: “the most ineffably incompetent politician on the national scene, the All Star of Born Losers, the black hole of the Republican universe.”

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But if the Republican party cannot look to its establishment liberals for leadership, neither can it hope to find salvation in the Sun Belt, because that political region exists only in the fevered minds of despairing Republicans who have been overly influenced by academic political scientists (of whom Fairlie thinks almost as little as he does of liberal Republicans). There is no emerging Republican majority, only a shrinking minority comprising conservatives who “distrust, dislike, and fear their own time.” The Republican situation is, quite simply, hopeless; the party lacks leaders and followers, lacks vision and compassion, and is incapable of governing even when it controls the White House. The sickness of the Grand Old Party is one reason why this is a Democratic century.

Other reasons are found in the strengths of the Democratic party. To that party, Fairlie ascribes most of the virtues missing among Republicans. While Republicans distrust politics and fear power, the Democrats “instinctively” acknowledge the preeminence of politics and of government over other social realms. While Republicans concentrate on narrow economic interests, Democrats understand that men need and want to feel like moral members of a moral society—not in the pinched Puritan sense of “thou shalt not,” but in the sense of taking responsibility for the whole community and especially for its less fortunate members. While the Republican party was throwing away the black vote (in an action described here as an astonishing, almost incredible, error), the Democratic party “instinctively” and “resolutely” identified with “this subject minority” and assumed the responsibility of incorporating blacks into full membership in society.

As the reader will have guessed, the Democratic party which Fairlie celebrates is the party of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and, yes, Lyndon Johnson. Spearheaded by the labor movement, which has provided a steady “sense of direction,” the Democratic party has elicited voter support in elections at all levels because it has spoken “to the gut economic issues that still determine the lives of millions of ordinary people.” It has been a missionary party, at home and abroad; its Presidents have put their stamp on the century.

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But politics takes place in history and history is flux. The capacious Democratic party contains elements which, if not precisely hostile to the party’s traditional composition and direction, bring to it different interests, a different style, even a different conception of the times and the public agenda. Fairlie has a sharp eye for the contradictions contained in the bosom of American liberalism and a marked distaste for the well-educated, well-off, fastidious reformers whose privilege, self-righteousness, predilection for style, and “smirking sense of superiority” have repeatedly threatened to deflect the Democratic party from its historic economic concerns to those cultural issues which are so much more interesting to the “literate liberals” who “go to politics for theater.” This literate liberalism of the privileged professions (John Kenneth Galbraith and Fred Dutton are special targets) “might indeed be called effete; one might even say that it is Eastern: certainly it is the Establishment.”

In addition to all these faults, Fairlie sees in purist liberals another deadly vice: dislike of politics and disdain for the tasks of politicians. Thus, Adlai Stevenson had his charm, “but in the end one cannot sympathize with a politician who does not like to be on the stump.” Fairlie’s political heroes do not—à la Common Cause or Ralph Nader—seek to silence the articulation of all interests but their own in the political arena. They do not imagine that reason and grace have put them above the clash of interests. They do not imagine political questions can be dealt with as though they were problems of mathematics, administration, or metaphysics.

What, then, does Fairlie think of Jimmy Carter, the President who ran against Washington, who imagined that in winning he incurred no debt to any “special interest,” who promised to use the methods of engineering to solve the problems of government, who presented himself as, above all, an administrator? Obviously, Fairlie has questions. The questions are raised, but never dealt with. In the final chapters, however, a judgment is vouchsafed: Carter is a man with a “capacity to govern strongly,” and this in the end “set him firmly in the tradition of his own party in this age.”

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Fairlie’s judgments of particular politicians are less bothersome than are his standards of judgment in general. Without doubt the Democratic party, sparked by its powerful labor component, has provided most of the nation’s leadership in this century. Its conceptions of the use of public power have been more compelling than those of the Republicans. Its vision and policies have been more inclusive and generous. As compared to the Democrats, Republican leaders in our time have been more resistant to sharing wealth and power, and less ready to use government to secure minimum well-being for all; more inclined to espouse doctrines of self-interested materialism, and less prepared to assume responsibility for the whole. With all these judgments of Fairlie I fully concur.

But it is less clear that these Democratic virtues derive (as Fair-lie suggests) from an “instinctive” understanding of the preeminence of politics, or that Republican failures stem from the desire to preserve the primacy of economics. And although it is obviously undesirable that government should be the agent of any single part of the society, it does not follow that government should be the master of the society and all its institutions.

Ultimately, Fairlie’s Tory enthusiasm for strong government confronts the liberal conviction that dispersion of power is a precondition to the protection of liberty. The issues involved here transcend welfare-state liberalism; they reach back to the struggle to limit royal prerogative and forward to the temptations of totalitarianism. Just as Fairlie believes there is a case to be made for King John (of Magna Carta fame), he is impressed, too, with the case for socialism. Taming the power of the great corporations seems to him “the” next task on the American agenda, whereas containing the power of government over the lives and resources of citizens appears hardly to concern him at all.

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Fairlie’s admiration for strong leaders and strong government renders him as tolerant of the successful as he is brutal to those who fall short of achieving the power required to impose their vision of the public good. It is not exactly that, for Fairlie, might makes right. But it helps. Nor is it necessarily that whatever is is right; but it frequently turns out that way. There is present in Fairlie’s interpretations—of Jimmy Carter, Wendell Willkie, Lyndon Johnson, Adlai Stevenson, Republicans, Democrats—a kind of neo-Hegelianism in which political virtù (of the Machiavellian variety) results from an alliance of power and the Zeitgeist. Perhaps at some other time and place Henry Fairlie will spell out for us the version of English idealism that informs this book on parties. Perhaps he will sometime give us a more systematic statement of his views of the relations among leadership, choice, and history. In The Parties he has given us mainly opinions and prejudices, too often uninhibited by those virtues of restraint he finds so laudable in the exercise of politics.

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