On The Spirit Of Partisanship

On The Spirit Of Partisanship

by digby

A friend reminded me yesterday of this post I wrote some years back and when I went back and looked at it I realized that it's even more relevant now that the Democrats are in power than when they weren't:

Tooth And Nail, Might And Main

As we think about the relentlessness of the Republican machine and its propensity for playing hardball, it pays sometimes to remember that their ruthless tactics are actually a matter of temperament rather than ideology. Conservatives have always been this way. The problem today is that they are operating with a radical agenda, an incompetent president and a country with much too much power to be allowed to run wild with either.

This interesting post from Steamboats Are Ruining Everything takes us back to 1820 and reminds us that brutish conservatives are nothing new:

William Hazlitt explained the nature of it in his 1820 essay, "On the Spirit of Partisanship."

Conservatives and liberals play the game of politics differently, Hazlitt wrote, because they have different motivations. Liberals are motivated by principles and tend to believe that personal honor can be spared in political combat. They may, in fact, become vain about their highmindedness. Hazlitt condemns the mildness as a mistake, both in moral reasoning and in political strategy. "They betray the cause by not defending it as it is attacked, tooth and nail, might and main, without exception and without remorse."

The conservatives, on the other hand, start with a personal interest in the conflict. Not wishing to lose their hold on power, they are fiercer. "We"---i.e., the liberals, or the "popular cause," in Hazlitt's terminology---"stand in awe of their threats, because in the absence of passion we are tender of our persons.

They beat us in courage and in intellect, because we have nothing but the common good to sharpen our faculties or goad our will; they have no less an alternative in view than to be uncontrolled masters of mankind or to be hurled from high---

"To grinning scorn a sacrifice,
And endless infamy!"

They do not celebrate the triumphs of their enemies as their own: it is with them a more feeling disputation. They never give an inch of ground that they can keep; they keep all that they can get; they make no concessions that can redound to their own discredit; they assume all that makes for them; if they pause it is to gain time; if they offer terms it is to break them: they keep no faith with enemies: if you relax in your exertions, they persevere the more: if you make new efforts, they redouble theirs. While they give no quarter, you stand upon mere ceremony. While they are cutting your throat, or putting the gag in your mouth, you talk of nothing but liberality, freedom of inquiry, and douce humanité. Their object is to destroy you, your object is to spare them---to treat them according to your own fancied dignity. They have sense and spirit enough to take all advantages that will further their cause: you have pedantry and pusillanimity enough to undertake the defence of yours, in order to defeat it. It is the difference between the efficient and the inefficient; and this again resolves itself into the difference between a speculative proposition and a practical interest.

It is not fair play, and Hazlitt thinks that liberals who decline to fight fire with fire are fools. "It might as well be said that a man has a right to knock me on the head on the highway, and that I am only to use mildness and persuasion in return, as best suited to the justice of my cause; as that I am not to retaliate and make reprisal on the common enemies of mankind in their own style and mode of execution."

Hazlitt was right. And never more than today when the stakes are so high.

As I said, we have been fighting this beast forever. Conservatives are just more inclined to fight and more serious about winning. But I have seen the Republican agenda change from conservative to radical in the last 30 years and their candidates from steady, stolid leaders to firebrands and incompetents. America is the most powerful nation on earth. If the modern GOP boasted prudent, tested leadership and a simple desire to avoid radical change, I would still oppose them but I would not be worried. But, these people want to wildly experiment on a global scale and their track record of the last three years is devastating. History proves that bad things do sometimes happen. Being barely left standing to say "I told you so" will be no compensation.

They've gotten even crazier. Being "right" is not going to help us.