19th Century Flashback

What would Chesterton say?

“The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives,” G.K. Chesterton, the early 20th century English public intellectual, once said. “The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.”

Watching the hypocritical public displays orchestrated by our newly seated 112th Congress, we must ask, how might old G.K. explain all this?

Chesterton’s analysis of 1920s America doesn’t quite hold true today. Progressives of today weren’t the ones to systematically reduce federal revenues to post-World War II lows, all the while raising trillions to fight an undeclared war against an unthreatening country for untrue reasons.

Progressives didn’t sell Medicare Part D, the largest entitlement since the 1960s, by floating around cost projections that were intentionally understated, in support of a bill ensuring that American pharmaceutical companies would make hay. Some call this “doing right by doing well,” aka, “the American way.”

Progressives didn’t buy into the “voodoo economics” Laffer Curve. Nor did Progressives, 30 years ago, come up with the idea to deregulate Wall Street, a policy direction and mood that set the stage for the Savings and Loan scandal, followed by Enron and then AIG and then the bank meltdown and then a watered-down return to some measure of regulation (along with complaints from Wall Streeters that they no longer feel appreciated).

Nor was it Progressives who recently held hostage two important pieces of legislation to the extension of tax breaks for the wealthiest, thereby, making the debt problem much worse while exacerbating an income equality curve not seen since 1929.

To be fair about this, the Progressives were also culpable. It wasn’t the Conservatives who said, “The era of big government is over.” And it wasn’t the Conservatives who unconditionally surrendered to Wall Street by agreeing to kill the 1932 bank reform act, known as Glass-Steagall. This was the doing of Bill Clinton and his fellow “Progressives.” Lions all.

Chesterton was right about conservatives almost always making problems worse. Don’t like the Great Depression? Hey, let’s bring back the gold standard and cut federal spending. Yes, that was what they said 70 years ago. And guess what? Many of the recently elected are saying pretty much the same thing today.

Paul Krugman, in his Feb. 11 New York Times column, observes that while we always knew that conservatives wanted to demolish the New Deal, now we find that what they really want is to take America back to the 19th century. They want to abolish the income tax, abolish the Federal Reserve Board, dump the direct election of senators and gut almost all business regulation

If they had their dream of dreams, they would even toss out the 14th Amendment, which proscribes states from denying equal protection and due process of law. Utah’s new Tea Party senator, Mike Lee, is urging just this. No kidding: He wants to get rid of the 14th Amendment, which was cited (along with the Interstate Commerce Clause), as justification for the public accommodations component of the1964 Civil Rights Act.

Then-candidate Rand Paul, in an unedited moment, stated his support for just that element of Lee’s proposal — the return of pre-’60s states rights. Most dismissed Paul’s talk as so much “speaking to the base.” You know, got to rally the know-nothings. Under fire, he backtracked, but we now realize that he was serious.

Turns out all these people are serious. Back to the 19th century, marching to the past. They have zero tolerance for everything public except national security. They have no public philosophy; instead, they preach “individualism,” which, as Chesterton pointed out, “is the death of individuality” if for no other reason than it is an “ism.”

The only thing they lack is a new mobilizing issue. The “birther” demagoguery has played out, as have those “death panels.”

So how about this? Conservatives believe that Obama doesn’t support the idea of “American exceptionalism,” which makes him un-American, which means he must be … a conspirator! So if things seem to be heading south in Baghdad, why not accuse him of losing Egypt? It’s right out of their playbook. They accused FDR and Truman of “losing China” and then Truman for almost “losing Korea” — these got them some pretty good mileage. Then they accused the antiwar movement of “losing Vietnam,” then liberals for “losing Nicaragua” and Jimmy Carter for “losing Iran.” So if conservatives get some breaks, they could charge that Obama “lost Egypt” — because he intended to lose Egypt. Just like FDR and Truman and their commie dupes and symps intended to lose China and Korea. Swell, it fits.

Oh yes, that would be Head Dupe General George C. Marshall, Army Chief of Staff during World War II? And the Head Symp would be Secretary of State Dean Acheson, known as the father of Cold War strategy? They were in on the conspiracy back in their time, many conservatives believed.

“They sold us out!” our mindlessly mobilized mob of real Americans will yowl if properly provoked. “Just like our un-American president, Barack Hussein Obama, is doing today in Egypt.”

Logical conclusion? It falls to conservatives to save America — which is why they’re standing tall against Planned Parenthood and NPR.

Following his 1921 speaking tour, Chesterton published What I Saw in America. In it, he wrote: “There is one real advantage that America has over England. … America does not think that stupidity is practical.”

G.K. didn’t anticipate the 112th Congress. 

Juneteenth: A Celebration of Resistance @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Sat., June 19, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
  • or

About The Author

Robert Herold

Robert Herold is a retired professor of public administration and political science at both Eastern Washington University and Gonzaga University. Robert Herold's collection of Inlander columns dating back to 1995, Robert's Rules, is available at Auntie's.