(written one week before the election)
November 1st, 2016
I remember Carlyle.
In this year of elections, of issues both general and passionate, of politicians declaring me important so that I might declare them important so that they, in their importance, might forget me; in this year of egregious immorality, morally to shoot the rival from the running; in this this year of shrewd advertising and persuasion, to be followed by the winner’s humble confession, “The people have given me a mandate;” in this year of Our Lord 2016, I remember Carlyle.
Thomas Carlyle, in that year of Our Lord 1843, wrote: That man gets himself appointed and elected who is ablest… to get himself appointed and elected.
Carlyle was a prophet. Some 170+ years ago, the English political system was preparing to grant voting powers to more of the middle class. Carlyle, a Scottish curmudgeon, was horrified.
One slogan supporting the expanded franchise was “An aristocracy of talent.” It argued that talent, not class or privilege, should govern the country; and it believed that people would, by free vote, identify and select talent. Carlyle, who had small faith in “people” generally, believed that exactly the opposite would occur.
He offered his own slogan: “Like people, like priest; Like people, like king.” It seemed to him that people would elect none other than themselves. If they, the people, lacked talent, they could not see it to elect it. If they, the people, were by nature base, they would elevate baseness to office and crown it. If the people’s personal ethics were compromised, the leaders would lead by a compromised ethic. “What,” he asked, “can the incorruptiblest Bobuses elect, if it be not some Bobissimus?” Some superlative of themselves?
“You Bobus Higgins, Sausagemaker on the great scale,” wrote Carlyle in Past and Present, “you who are raising such a clamor for this Aristocracy of Talent: what is it that you do, in that big heart of yours, chiefly pay reverence to?
“Is it talent, intrinsic manly worth of any kind, you unfortunate Bobus? The manliest man that you saw going in a ragged coat, did you ever reverence him? Did you so much as know that he was a manly man at all, till his coat grew better?
“Talent! I understand you to be able to worship the fame of talent; but the talent itself is a thing you never saw with eyes. Nay, what is it in yourself that you are proudest of … it is that bare Bobus stripped of his very name and shirt…? Or Bobus with his cash-accounts and larders dropping fatness, with his respectabilities … and pony-chaise? Your own degree of worth and talent, is it of infinite value to you; or only finite, measurable by the degree of currency and conquest of praise or pudding, it has brought you to? Bobus, you are in a vicious circle, rounder than one of your own sausages; and will never vote for or promote any talent except what talent or sham-talent has already got itself voted for!”
Politicking alone sets the politician apart from the people; otherwise, people and pols are remarkably similar, however the voters may disavow their choice in the future.
Further, the elected official is the image of the people as they were in that year of elections, since they’re voting by immediate passions—which passions are often reactions to recent events.
Thus: Richard Nixon, that aggressive terrier, was … us—when we were angry at the permissive despoilation of the ’60s. Someone deserved, we figured, a bite in the ankle.
Then Jimmy Carter, the homely, softeyed, dearly beloved bloodhound, was us—when we were ashamed of the bites bull terriers gave to save themselves. He was a momentary confession of sin, soon adjured and sooner embarrassing.
Ronald Reagan, then, that beautiful doberman tall as a horse and as muscled for fighting, was us—aggressive again, but happy in our aggressions and happier still to see them turned outward to a dirty, thieving, unprincipled world: watchdog for those with something to watch. That he did not watch his own administration we didn’t much know and didn’t much care. He was us. We liked ourselves in the ’80s.
So George Bush began as a lesser Reagan, yapping instead of that grander woofing, attaching shadows (threats to the flag, threats to prisoners released) charging, cornering, slipping on the polished floors, a badger-hound, but a watchdog still. We have been he, more angered by evils abroad than evils at home, hating Saddam Hussein but solving the S&L crisis, dividing the world ‘twixt them and us—since watchdogs are always justified by antipathies.
Who’s next? Who shall we be by November? More fearful than proud? More fearful of poverty—or of others?
I am convinced of the rightness of this democratic process: it checks the power of a few by the self-considerations of the many. Wisely, we admit original sin and balance every ego with another, that none should overmuscle the country.
Nevertheless, I remember Carlyle to keep us from ignoring the deeper revealings of this electioneering; for then we would deny our own responsibility. “Throw the what out,” Bobus?
Elections are not the decisions of saints nor the errors of others in distant capitals. Elections are us, the exercise of sinners in the finest means we’ve found to govern and to manifest ourselves.