by Gary North
Al Gore is boring. George W. Bush is boring. Bob Dole was boring. Bill Clinton successfully avoided being boring, but in terms of the public's memory, he will be probably remembered more for the Lewinsky affair than for anything else, unless something even worse becomes public knowledge. Clinton was touted as an excellent speaker — an opinion I never shared — but his rhetorical legacy will be limited to two phrases: "I feel your pain" and "I did not have sex with that woman." These will enter the lexicon of political howlers right below Jimmy Carter's "Trust me" and George Bush's "Read my lips: no new taxes."
(Note: the all-time American political howler was Nixon's line to reporters in November, 1962, after he had lost the California race for governor to Edmund G. "Pat" Brown: "You won't have Dick Nixon to kick around any more.")
Across the Atlantic, there was John Major. Remember him? There was Helmut Kohl, the one politician of our era whose name perfectly matched his persona. In German, "kohl" means "cabbage." (It is conceivable that Mexico's President-elect may match Kohl's name-persona relationship: Fox.) Kohl served as Chancellor for 15 years, longer than any major politician of our era, including Mrs. Thatcher. Under him, Germany was reunified. Nevertheless, a kind of public amnesia spreads regarding his career.
Japanese premiers come and go. No one notices.
Reagan, Thatcher, and Gorbachev seem to be the last of the memorable world leaders. They were the last ones who had anything to say and the rhetorical skills to say it.
When was the last time any important American political figure gave a really confrontational speech? Pat Buchanan's speech at the 1992 Republican convention on the culture war was delivered eight years ago, and he has been excoriated by political analysts of all shades of opinion ever since. This year's Republican convention was choreographed to avoid any trace of confrontation.
Economic times are good. Voters are happy. Soccer moms drive SUV's. Bush offers tax cuts as his campaign promise, and everyone ignores him. "Keep more of your money," he says. Yawn. Why the yawn? Is it because voters think, "Read my lips, too"? Or because they are content with the present tax system? I think it's the latter.
Leonard E. Read, the godfather of the American libertarian movement, used to say in his "old faithful" speech that American voters in less than one lifetime, 1910 to 1970, went from a system of civil government that extracted about 5% of their wealth to over 40%, yet they could not tell the difference.
I honestly believe this is the heart of the political problem. Voters understand so little of what liberty means that they cannot tell the difference.
Christians and Jews read the account of Joseph in Egypt, when Joseph placed the Egyptians in bondage to Egypt's official divinity, the Pharaoh, by imposing a 20% income tax on them (Genesis 47:24). Today, it would take a tax cut of 50% in every Western nation to bring the tax burden back to Egyptian tyranny status. And as for a "liberating" 10% flat tax, that was what the prophet Samuel identified as kingly tyranny in Israel (I Samuel 8:15, 17). The faithful in the pews do not relate what they read to what they are required to pay. They do not make the connection. They cannot tell the difference.
The Bland Leviathan and Its Agents
If I were asked to identify the greatest social theorist in modern history, I would name Alexis de Tocqueville. He wrote two great books, The Ancient Regime and the French Revolution (1856) and Democracy in America (1835, 40). He predicted that the West's lust for equality would overwhelm all other political goals. So far, that prediction has held up.
Tocqueville was elected to the French Parliament in 1848, in the aftermath of the revolution of 1848. He was imprisoned in 1851 by Louis Napoleon Bonaparte for opposing Bonaparte's coup. While he was serving in Parliament, he provided a description of the modern state as a leviathan, but a mild and bland one. He saw the state as a usurper, but a seemingly benign one. (See Robert Schuettinger, "Tocqueville and the Bland Leviathan" The Freeman [Jan. 1962].)
Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the reigning liberal ideological idea has been the convergence of all ideology-based political systems. Francis Fukuyama's 1989 post-Hegelian Hegelian essay in The National Interest, "The End of History," sounded this new theme: the irreversible triumph of liberal democratic humanism. No more thesis-antithesis-synthesis. The synthesis is here to stay. It's all over but the shouting. But what about Islam? Christianity? Racism? Regionalism? The implied answer: they will all succumb to liberal democracy. (Fukuyama has more recently written Trust, which is quite good, unlike the essay that launched his career.)
The convergence theme was an aging one in 1989. America's foreign policy establishment had been assuring us since the late 1940s that there would eventually be a convergence of the USSR and the United States if both sides were patient, but the image of Khrushchev pounding the United Nations' podium with his shoe, coupled with his "We will bury you" remark — another classic saying to include in the political lexicon of howlers — made that idea hard to sell in Peoria.
Convergence in ideology is producing convergence in politics. What we are seeing today is the continuing evolution of the species: the bland candidate. Tom Dewey, Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, George Bush, and George Bush are all prime examples.
Al Gore is trying very hard not to be classified as one of them, but as a living fossil, this is not easy for him. The man reminds me of a Nintendo video game: "The Tennessee Waltz." His kiss on national TV was an attempt to switch the game to "The Tennessee Stud." Just insert this week's updated program chip, as the manual recommends, and he looks brand new, until you use the game stick to try to get him to move. The image jerks across the screen, doing high-fives as it goes. Then you know: this is basically a modification of the old "Michael Dukakis" game, but with all of the virtual charisma removed.
The bland virus is spreading, east and west. Think of Putin. Think of the Prime Ministers of France, Germany, and Italy. You can't, can you?
Voters prefer it this way. Noisy dissent violates etiquette during the days of wine and roses. Fair economic weather favors the bland over the confrontational.
When Bad Times Reappear
This will change when the Federal Reserve's fiat money policies tighten, and the economy moves from boom to bust, as it always does. The reality of Chapter XX of Mises's Human Action will once again reassert itself. Then we shall see the return of the older species, the name-calling, finger-pointing, revenge-seeking, head-banging, values-affirming, deficit-running, pump-priming homo politicus.
Through it all, the bland leviathan remains dominant through the business cycles. It feeds voraciously on millions of hosts who do not perceive the difference between freedom and servitude. It has been in growth mode for over two centuries. Until its hosts at last feel the pain and identify its source, the malignancy will continue to expand. And the bland will continue to lead the bland into the ditch.
September 25, 2000
Gary North is the author of a ten-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible. The latest volume is Sacrifice and Dominion: An Economic Commentary on Acts. The series can be downloaded free of charge at www.freebooks.com.