Déjà Vu

Tea Party candidates made a strong showing in primary elections yesterday, and as a conservative sort myself I can’t say I was sorry to see it happen. The American people are roused to righteous anger, and by all indications, there are going to be an awful lot of wigs on the green come November.

Of course, Islam, another terribly polarizing topic, has lately been front and center too.

Here’s something I’ve been thinking about:

As the power and range of the Caliphate began to decline after its apex in the late Middle Ages, and an ascendant West began to push back against the Islamic empire with growing vigor and success, a great debate arose within the ummah. How could this be happening? How could mere infidels prevail against God’s mighty armies? How could people living in darkness and ignorance vanquish the Light of the World?

The crisis produced two opposing factions. One held the view, however distasteful, that in order to restore the power and glory of the Islamic enterprise, it was necessary for the ummah to humble itself a bit — to study the infidels’ ways and methods, and to adopt those ideas, technologies, and arts of war that had lately, and increasingly, given the unbelievers the upper hand at Islam’s bloody borders. Yes, it was shocking to imagine that civilized Muslims have anything to learn from unwashed heathens, but the plain fact was that the heathens were getting on top, and if the ummah would not learn from its defeats, all would likely be lost.

Nonsense, said the other side. All that the Caliphate needed to regain its former glory, they argued, had already been given to its people by God’s last Messenger. In the Koran and the hadith lay the answer. The problem was not that the Muslim world had been too inwardly directed, too withdrawn into tradition, to learn needed lessons from the infidels, but rather that it had not been faithful enough, and so had grown apart from God’s sheltering heart, from His wise guidance, and from His mighty hand. The faith needed no increased exposure to, and contamination by, the damnable ways of the infidel — instead, what it needed was purification.

Long ago, when a youthful, vigorous ummah had been rightly guided by the Prophet and his companions, it had been invincible, but over time Islam had become distorted, diluted, and dissipated by the meddling, shortsighted leadership of lesser men. Only by returning to the true source of Islam’s strength could things be put right — and that meant paring away hundreds of years of doctrinary accretion, and bringing every aspect of Muslim life back into congruence with the only sources of guidance known to be perfect and complete: the literal words of God, as revealed in the sacred text of the Holy Koran, and the ideal model of the perfect Muslim life, as exemplified by the words and deeds of the Prophet and his companions.

This latter view, known as Salafism (from the word salaf, referring to the Prophet’s inner circle) generally prevailed, and Islam — its face turned backward toward its long-dead founders and its immutable, sacred Book — entered a long, slow decline, as Western civilization gradually, and then explosively, created the modern world.

*        *        *

The nation that in time rose above all others to dominate that modern world was the United States. By the late twentieth century it had achieved prosperity and military power far beyond anything imaginable in the ancient world.

But things have begun to change. By key measures of health, wealth, and power, America’s pre-eminence is fading, while the strength and influence of other nations has grown. Once the leader of the world by almost any standard, America now, it seems to many, is at best primus inter pares. In global affairs, we are mired in endless and unproductive wars. At home there is ennui, disharmony, sloth, and economic, moral and cultural decay.

The crisis has produced two opposing factions. On one view, the answer is to humble ourselves a bit: to approach the rest of the world not as leaders, but as equals; to talk less and listen more — and, softening our traditional American pride, to learn to act less individually, and more collectively; to become more like Europe, say, and less like the Wild West.

Nonsense, says the other side. All that America needs to regain its former glory, they argue, has already been given to its people by by the Founding Fathers. The problem is not with our core ideals and principles of individual liberty, limited government, free enterprise, personal responsibility, and English-speaking, Judeo-Christian culture; it is that we have failed to live by them. What is needed to restore America to its lost glory is not to surrender our political and social culture, but to purify them.

Long ago, when a youthful, vigorous America was rightly guided by its founding ideals, it had been invincible, but over time the American system has become distorted, diluted, and dissipated by the meddling, shortsighted leadership of lesser men. Only by returning to the true source of America’s strength can things be put right — and that means paring away at least a century of governmental accretion, and bringing every aspect of American life back into congruence with the best source of guidance available to us in these troubled times: our sacred Constitution, and the correct understanding of its meaning, as exemplified for us by the words and deeds of the Founding Fathers.

The Tea Party, then, is essentially an American Salafist movement. The comparison may seem unkind, but it needn’t be seen that way, for there is no general truth as to whether rededication to founding principles is wise or foolish. It depends on the quality of the principles themselves, as well as the historical context — and, as is true always and in everything, it depends on one’s aim.

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  1. Dom says

    There’s a lot in the Tea Party that seems pig-ignorent. But one thing impresses me. The effect they are having on primaries is the effect of a group of people who have decided that American Democracy is sufficiently flexible to produce change.

    You don’t see anything similar to the idiotic antics of the yippies in 1968, or the shenanigans of both Democrats, who gerrymander districts, and Republicans, who engage in voter fraud. So they get points for that.

    And I think too that they have some loose sense that the free market is better than a command economy.

    If we can just get them to dump Sarah Palin.

    Posted September 16, 2010 at 9:13 am | Permalink
  2. Kevin Kim says

    I’m a bit chagrined to see conservative commentators now openly using the phrase “Tea Party Republican(s).” Seems to confirm the liberal spin on how the Tea Party is merely a wing of the GOP. (Which probably explains the unfortunate ubiquity of Sarah Palin.)

    Posted September 16, 2010 at 1:16 pm | Permalink
  3. the one eyed man says

    While the Tea Party loves to wrap itself with the American Revolution – showing up at their rallies in tri cornered hats with Don’t Tread On Me apparel – their Weltanschauung is about as far from the Founding Fathers as one could imagine. If you want to find a straight line to the revolutionaries, you would do better with Obama’s father. After all, they were all dedicated anti-colonialists.

    The Tea Party pretends that small government and low taxes are intrinsic to the Constitution, and by embracing them we are returning to our roots. The Constitution is agnostic on both the size of government and the level of taxation. It empowers Congress to levy taxes and provide for the general welfare. It is silent on how great the levies should be or what is included in the general welfare. That could be anything from taxes so low that Crazy Eddie would blush, up to confiscatory taxation. It could be a minimalist government or an all-embracing one. These decisions were left for future generations, as the transition from an agrarian society to an industrial and military super-power have created entirely different demands on government.

    The Tea Party types claim to be for individual liberty. I’m for individual liberty too, although my idea of liberty includes the State staying out of an individual’s decisions on abortion, end of life issues, and gay marriage. However, while the Constitution allows for extensive individual liberties, these liberties did not extend to women, blacks, or the indigenous population (who probably had a name for the white man: illegal immigrants). We are a far freer country now than we were in revolutionary times.

    However, I am very grateful for the Tea Party, as they are happily throwing a monkey wrench into the Republicans’ efforts to take over the government. The wackos they have nominated in Nevada, Delaware, and Kentucky have put these states’ Senatorial contests in play, when they could have been easy Republican wins. Moreover, I expect them to insure Obama’s reelection in 2012. As the Taliban wing of the Republican party, they will demand ideological purity in a GOP candidate. If they don’t get such a candidate, I would expect them to run a third party challenge which will siphon votes a la Ross Perot benefiting Bill Clinton. If they get it, the candidate’s views will be anathema to enough Independents to throw the election to Obama. Either way, like most extremist movements, their efforts will turn out to be counter-productive and, luckily, for naught.

    Posted September 16, 2010 at 8:50 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Peter, you never disappoint.

    However, aside from presumably having had the same number of chromosomes, it is hard for me to think of anything that Barak Obama Sr. — an avowed Communist and staunch opponent of individual enterprise (and even private property) — could possibly have had in common with the Founding Fathers.

    Adding to your horrifyingly generous enumeration of the Federal government’s powers (do you imagine there is anything at all that it isn’t empowered to do?), one other thing the Framers had in mind when drafting the Constitution was to give the people a way, when the apparatus of government began to suffocate the new nation’s core principles of liberty and individual enterprise, to throw the bums out.

    It is a pleasure to see the system working the way they intended.

    Posted September 16, 2010 at 9:03 pm | Permalink
  5. the one eyed man says

    Partisans like to make the Founding Fathers as they wish them to be, not as they were. Hence we have some social conservatives claiming that they were deeply religious and the Constitution enshrined their faith in a Christian democracy. This leads to sometimes hilarious results, as when Texas schoolbooks minimized Thomas Jefferson’s role because he was an atheist. Sort of like the Tea Party equivalent of defriending someone on facebook.

    Whether the Founding Fathers would have been Marxists is anyone’s guess, as they pre-dated Marx by a few generations. However, let’s not forget who they were: violent revolutionaries who overthrew the existing government. If John Adams and Thomas Paine were contemporaries of Obama pere in Kenya, they would likely have been doing the same things he was doing: overthrow an illegitimate colonial government. The American revolutionaries were radicals in every sense of the word, and it is more than likely that they would have participated in other revolutionary activities had they lived in a different time and place.

    There are plenty of things the government is not empowered to do. Congress’s powers are limited in Article I, Section 9, the Bill of Rights, the 14th Amendment, and so forth. However, as far as the Constitution goes, it is empowered to do pretty much everything else, as long as it involves the general welfare. Whether it should do one thing or another is a different matter – but as far as the Constitution goes, the government is empowered to do anything it is not specifically forbidden from doing.

    Posted September 16, 2010 at 9:59 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    By the time Obama Sr. chose sides, there were two sides to choose from: the Kenyatta faction, which was all for bringing prosperity to Kenya through foreign investment, and the Odinga faction, which was a hard-core Marxist movement aligned with the Soviet Union. So let’s not have any of this about his being just a slightly updated Jefferson. Next you’ll be telling me the Founders were all really no different from Pol Pot. Yes, these men were radicals, as you say, but they were radicals in the cause of self-determination and individual liberty, not soul-deadening Marxist collectivism. You say “Partisans like to make the Founding Fathers as they wish them to be, not as they were”, and that is exactly what you are doing here: imagining them as men who might just as easily have been Communists.

    Do you actually have any idea what sort of country they thought they were creating, or what sort of view of liberty they had? Do you really think that they intended to create a government that would be able to arrogate unto itself unlimited power, simply by invoking the “general welfare”? (It appears, of course, that you do, because you just said so.) The point was made again and again, in the Federalist and elsewhere, that the government would be, must be, limited to specifically enumerated functions.

    The limitations in section 9 of Article 1 are paltry things. The real meat is the Tenth Amendment. On your view, though, the amendment doesn’t even make any sense.

    Obviously there is a reasonable difference that must be acknowledged between the role of government in a small, agricultural 18th-century nation and what is needed to administer a 21st-century nation of nearly half a billion people. David Brooks, a “conservative” who is certainly far to the left of the Tea Party, made this point very nicely in his Tuesday column, and I agree. But if you are wondering why there IS a Tea Party movement in America today, it is precisely because of the attitude you display in your original comment — that it is entirely proper, through the invocation of the Commerce clause, and the General Welfare clause, the wholesale appointment of unelected “czars”, etc., to expand the size and power of the Federal government utterly without limit, as we see happening today.

    If the Constitution is to be stretched and distended in this way by our ruling elites, expanding the scope and power of the central government at repugnant cost to the public weal and to basic liberties, then the citizens have only two avenues of recourse. One is revolution. The other is the ballot box.

    So far, at least most of America still seems willing to try the second approach.

    Posted September 16, 2010 at 11:17 pm | Permalink
  7. the one eyed man says

    The Constitution does not limit government to “specifically enumerated functions.” You may wish it did, but it doesn’t.

    Nor do I wonder why there is a Tea Party. There is about 20% of the electorate which goes for nativist, regressive candidates and policies. These people formerly flocked to a Ross Perot or a Pat Buchanan, but now the Tea Party is the flavor of the month.

    Is the Tea Party the spearhead of some vast popular uprising? Of course not. Talk about citizens resorting to revolution as their only recourse because they are aghast at “the scope and power of the central government “ is pure nonsense. The vast majority of Americans are perfectly happy with their Medicare, Social Security, and the rest the social welfare system which government provides. If you can get a Tea Party candidate to actually say what spending they would actually cut – instead of mouthing platitudes about reducing the size of government – the more they talk, the more votes they would lose. They are noisy and disruptive and angry, but they are a small minority.

    When candidates like Christine O’Donnell (you can race bait, you can gay bait, but you can’t masturbate) get nominated, it shows that an energized group can sway low-turnout primaries, but she will get squashed in the general election. In the process, they are turning the Republicans into a niche party. For all the noise and heat which they generate, they are unable to put a dent in Obama’s popularity, which remains constant at around 45%. He will get reelected in 2012, and not long after that the Tea Party will be relegated to the dustbin of history.

    Posted September 16, 2010 at 11:57 pm | Permalink
  8. the one eyed man says

    Disgusted with the previous administration, the nation elects a new President in a landslide victory, taking the White House away from the opposing party. His coattails increase his party’s numbers in Congress. He then faces the worst economic crisis since the Depression, with unemployment at nearly 10%. The pundits predict a huge loss of Congressional seats in the mid-term elections, which comes to pass.

    The year is 1982, when the Republicans lost 27 seats. Reagan came back to win a landslide victory in 1984, despite the fact that the unemployment rate was higher than it is now. I think history will repeat itself now – Democratic losses this year with a resurgence in the next Presidential election – with one twist. While Reagan will go down in history as a mediocre President, Obama will be regarded by future generations as one of the best Presidents we’ve been lucky to have.

    Posted September 17, 2010 at 12:21 am | Permalink
  9. Malcolm says

    Well, Peter, as always when the subject is politics, we hardly even see the same reality. Of course, there are ignoramuses on both sides (like this one), but I don’t think you’d have the least trouble finding Tea Party supporters, and of course other conservatives, who’d be glad to list for you more than a few items of recent government expenditure that they’d prefer we hadn’t signed on for — as well as reminding you that the real issue at this point isn’t about which program to cut so as to contract the government (hopefully we can get to that later) as much as doing whatever we can to rein in in its accelerating expansion.

    To you, and most others on the Left, this groundswell is nothing more than gross impertinence on the part of stupid, hateful people who ought to know their place, and should be content to let their betters look after their interests for them.

    All I can do at this point, I think, is to wish you a nice November. Readers will, I’m sure, be interested to see if your predictions are accurate, especially that last one.

    Posted September 17, 2010 at 1:01 am | Permalink
  10. Dom says

    Malcolm, your “this one” link in the previous comment doesn’t work.

    Posted September 17, 2010 at 7:26 am | Permalink
  11. Malcolm says

    Thanks, Dom. Should be OK now.

    Posted September 17, 2010 at 8:30 am | Permalink
  12. the one eyed man says

    Doubtless the Tea Party leaders can produce lists of things they would prefer the government not do. My point is that when they do, they will be unable to attract voters outside their ranks. If you ask people if government spending should be cut, everybody will say yes. If you ask if Social Security should be cut, or health care rationed, or the military budget shrunk in half, then you won’t get much support. Thus far, the Tea Party hasn’t had to deal with specifics like this, and they haven’t had the responsibilities of leadership where they actually have to vote on something (with one exception: Scott Brown, the only Tea Party supported Senator, who has voted with the Democrats more than any of this GOP colleagues in the Senate). As long as the Tea Party deals with abstractions, they will have a message which appeals to a fair number of people. Once they have to deal with specifics, their appeal ends.

    I did not say the Tea Party was hateful. I don’t think those who carry posters of Obama qua Hitler at Tea Party rallies are representative of the whole, and I wouldn’t smear them with that brush. However, It is comprised almost exclusively by middle class older whites, so naturally one has to ask why their message fails to appeal to other groups. Much of this probably has to do with the “I’m all right, Jack” mentality which pervades the Tea Party and the right wing in general. For example, I seriously doubt whether those who vehemently oppose health care reform ever gave much thought as to what they would do if they were uninsured and had a child with a life-threatening disease. My guess is that if they found themselves in this situation, their ideology would change quicker than an anti-abortion zealot who finds out that his sixteen year old daughter is pregnant. Other groups in society are more likely to find themselves needing health insurance and lacking access to it, so naturally they are less likely to be congenial to the Tea Party’s fend-for-yourself mentality. I think it is heartless to take those in society who are weakest and most vulnerable and throw them to the wolves, but I don’t think it is hateful.

    Nor did I say that Tea Party members are stupid. I don’t do ad hominem. I think their positions are based on a distorted view of American history and what it means to be an American, but I don’t know whether they are smarter or dumber than the average Joe. The issue is whether they ought to have access to the levers of power, and they provide the answer themselves: just look at the candidates they have nominated. Pretty much without exception, they are manifestly unfit to govern. There’s no need here to enumerate the wacko views and antics of people like Sharon Angle, Michele Bachmann, Joe Miller, Rand Paul, or Christine O’Donnell; they are so far outside the mainstream as to make them unpalatable to all but the most hard core Tea Party supporters. They will pick up seats in places like Utah and Alaska, where Vlad the Impaler would win if he ran as a Republican. However, I think the more lasting effect they will have is to marginalize the Republicans as a fringe party which is unable to attract anyone outside their core following.

    Posted September 17, 2010 at 10:34 am | Permalink
  13. Malcolm says

    Doubtless the Tea Party leaders can produce lists of things they would prefer the government not do. My point is that when they do, they will be unable to attract voters outside their ranks.

    As Mr. Banks said in Mary Poppins, “We’ll just have to see about that, then, won’t we?” I think you are in for a bit of a surprise. (I agree with you, though, that Christine O’Donnell may have cost conservatives a seat in Delaware.)

    Regarding who has access to the levers of power, let’s just say that a great many people in America have begun to think it would nice to turn it over to people who seem inclined to yank on them a tad less vigorously.

    As for government largesse: if you will forgive an overused metaphor, people are starting to understand that you can’t have more and more people sitting in the wagon, and fewer and fewer pulling the wagon — that a system that penalizes industriousness and incentivizes sloth must fail. That “fend-for-yourself mentality” you so derisively wish away had traditionally been thought of, until essential American traditions began to rot, as “taking personal responsibility for oneself and one’s family”.

    Nobody is suggesting that society should not spread a net over the abyss for those who truly cannot care care for themselves. But society benefits far more from ladders than it does from capacious and ruinously expensive nets.

    Benjamin Franklin (one of those “could-just-as-easily-have-been-Marxist” Founding Fathers we discussed above) said:

    “When the people find they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic.”

    Posted September 17, 2010 at 11:52 am | Permalink
  14. the one eyed man says

    While I would be surprised if I were surprised about how warmly the electorate will embrace Tea Party candidates, I think your surprise will be how eager they are to eliminate the net over the abyss you refer to.

    Since Marxism didn’t exist when the Founding Fathers fathered and founded – not to mention economic theory in general – trying to divine what sort of economic system they would have adopted had they lived in a different era is one of the sillier discussions I have been involved in lately. However, many of the revolutionaries who fought for socialism did so out of a genuine belief that it was a better system than capitalism and would lead to better lives for all. The fact that they have been proven wrong by history is another matter. The world looked different when unbridled capitalism ran amok and before there was a Stalin. All I’m saying is that many of the rabble rousers who participated in the American revolution would have felt at home with this bunch.

    Posted September 17, 2010 at 1:03 pm | Permalink
  15. Malcolm says

    Economic theory didn’t exist? Pah.

    From Adam Smith’s Reception among the American Founders, 1776–1790:

    Indeed, the American founders were among the earliest readers of Smith’s Wealth of Nations, and their readings constitute a significant episode in the history of the book’s reception. In addition, a specific connection between Smith and Federalist No. 10 clarifies the role Madison saw for society, as opposed to government, in shaping individual behavior.

    And the idea of collectivism goes all the way back to Plato.

    Posted September 17, 2010 at 1:12 pm | Permalink
  16. the one eyed man says

    You’re picking nits here. Economic theory wasn’t non-existent, but it was in its infancy. Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was published four months before the Declaration of Independence. Wikipedia reports that it had some influence on the Founding Fathers, although it wasn’t unanimous, as Alexander Hamilton wrote a book opposing it. However, this misses the point. When the Constitution was written, Marx, Ricardo, Keynes, and the rest of the major economic theorists were pre-natal. There weren’t alternatives to laissez-faire capitalism, as they hadn’t been articulated yet.

    Posted September 17, 2010 at 1:50 pm | Permalink
  17. Malcolm says

    This isn’t picking nits. I am simply making clear an essential point that you seem all too eager to sweep under the rug: namely that the Founders were very consciously building a nation in which individual enterprise was to be the engine of prosperity.

    They were about as far as one can get from being statists or collectivists.

    Posted September 17, 2010 at 1:55 pm | Permalink
  18. the one eyed man says

    That’s an arguable proposition. Doubtless you would disagree with Charles Beard and his Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, but there is a school of thought which holds that the Constitution was structured to protect the property interests of the Founders.

    Posted September 17, 2010 at 2:34 pm | Permalink
  19. Malcolm says

    Which of course is, again, about as far as you can get from enormous government, confiscatory taxes, redistribution of wealth, etc.

    Posted September 17, 2010 at 2:46 pm | Permalink
  20. the one eyed man says

    Beard makes the opposite argument: far from a level playing field where individual enterprise is the engine of prosperity, he argues that the Constitution is structured to protect the personal interests of the signers and the other elites. Hence states could make property ownership a criterion for suffrage, slavery was kept legal to protect Southern land owning interests, etc.

    Beard wrote the book in 1913 and his thinking has gone in and out of favor since then. My point is simply that what you posit as established fact has been fodder for debate among historians for about a century.

    Posted September 17, 2010 at 3:52 pm | Permalink
  21. Malcolm says

    I also wouldn’t reject the idea that the Founders thought it wise to restrict suffrage to property owners; it is a way to avoid the very problem that Franklin mentioned above.

    But that doesn’t mean they didn’t intend to create a nation in which individual enterprise as the path to prosperity; it only means they were leery of handing the masses the keys to the public treasury.

    And of course it is diametrically opposed to the collectivist direction the Left is taking the nation today — the point being that the modern Left’s plan for America is completely at odds with anything the Founders could possibly have envisioned. You can say that what they had envisioned was evil, and should be replaced — but don’t pretend (“Partisans like to make the Founding Fathers as they wish them to be, not as they were”) that people on the Right are misrepresenting their intentions.

    Posted September 17, 2010 at 4:07 pm | Permalink
  22. JK says

    I’m following along guys, good debate. I wonder though Peter, are you a fan of Rasmussen polling? Are their results likely to verify or doom this post’s posits?


    Posted September 17, 2010 at 5:56 pm | Permalink
  23. the one eyed man says

    As Chiang Kai Shek said when asked about the French Revolution: it’s too early to know.

    Posted September 17, 2010 at 6:28 pm | Permalink
  24. That’s said to be Zhou Enlai’s quip . . . if it was a quip.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted September 17, 2010 at 7:38 pm | Permalink
  25. the one eyed man says

    Right you are. It was Zhou Enlai, not CKS.

    Let’s try aphorisms for $400, please.

    Posted September 18, 2010 at 11:19 am | Permalink