It Began To Go Wrong Politically

Tea Party Economist

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The battle for America’s political soul is always fought on the battlefield of federal politics. That’s why conservatives lose, generation after generation.”

Dr. North, would you please elaborate on this, why you believe the battle for America’s political soul is fought in Federal politics and why it is that conservatives continue to lose, generation after generation?

From the time of the ratification of the United States Constitution, American politics shifted to the national level. One of the things that I realized late in my career, even though I had been trained as an historian of the colonial period, was this: it is virtually impossible to write a history of the United States after 1788 without dividing it into four-year segments. Presidential election years set the tone for the direction of the country, and this has been true ever since the early 19th century, when the federal government’s share of the economy was minimal. It is not a matter simply of money; it is a matter of political legitimacy. Issues of legitimacy are much more important than issues of taxation. Legitimacy tells what the taxes will be spent on. That is far more important than the amount of taxes collected.

The problem is this: voting for the President, who is the only representative of all the people, is functionally a covenantal act. People ratify a particular President, and in doing so, they transfer authority and legitimacy to him and to his administration.

Prior to the ratification of the Constitution, these events were limited to state and local governments, and before that to colonial governments that were technically under the authority of the King of England. Politics was local, and the great issues of the day were also local. These issues differed from state to state, or from colony to colony.

There was no national civil government. There was no national political issue that confronted citizens in every region. Because there was no national government, there was no means of covenant ratification, which first took place in 1788. There was no means of covenant renewal nationally. So, people did not think of themselves as Americans; they thought of themselves as residents of their particular state.

It is difficult to write a history of the United States politically prior to 1775. Other than the American Revolution, there were no national political events. There were so many different colonies, and so many different issues, that the focus of the historian of necessity moves to issues of economics, social institutions, literary trends, political theory in general, marriage patterns, church planting, and basically nonpolitical issues. These are what conservatives regard, at least in theory, as the central issues of civilization.

The problem with political conservatives today is that the Constitution created a national government, and this national government has the power to tax. It has grown systematically and without reversal since 1788. The issues of the day are increasingly those of national politics, because the federal government extracts a greater percentage of the public’s wealth than any other single institution. When there is that much loot to be divvied up, everybody wants to get his hands into the pile of loot. In taking this money, the government legitimizes certain activities of the government, and these activities steadily replace private institutions and local governments. The money that the government collects baptizes the various proposals that special interest groups have for national renewal. Renewal is seen as political. It takes a lot of money to redo the whole nation.

Conservative social thought de-emphasizes politics. This is why conservative social thought never gains much of a hearing in the modern world. The modern world is so obviously political, and the power of central governments is so great over every area of life, that all issues become politicized. The traditional conservative opposition to the very suggestion of political salvation is co-opted by their enemies. Conservatives over and over go out to vote as if their votes will fundamentally change the nature of American society. Ultimately, this cannot be true if conservative social theory is correct. Ultimately, the political institutions represent the people, and the great issues of daily life are not political; they are social, ethical, economic, ecclesiastical, and educational. The great issues of life are not political, yet at the same time the central government is pushing its way into every area of life. It is politicizing that which was not political prior to the Enlightenment.

So, the conservative faces a dilemma. He wants to make the case for a particular national political candidate in terms of conservative values, but conservative values tell him that no political candidate can do much of anything to make the country any better. If the essence of social life is nonpolitical, which is what the conservative says is the case, then how can an election every four years fundamentally change the foundations of American life?

I always quote the letter written by political activist Paul Weyrich in 1999, in which he specifically said that we have lost the culture war, which ultimately is an ethical war. He did not see how politics could roll back the debauchery that America has become. He did not think that anything that could be done at the federal level through politics could fundamentally reverse what Robert Bork called slouching towards Gomorrah.

The liberal believes in something like political salvation. He believes in political healing of every area of life. He believes that federal power, coupled with federal money, can make society better. Therefore, he is active in politics, he puts faith in politics, and he puts a whole lot of money in politics. He sees political mobilization is the heart of social transformation. He becomes highly skilled at getting votes. He becomes a master at political fund-raising. He has all of the skills that a professional has in any field, and he is up against conservatives whose very philosophy of life militates against political salvation and hard-core political mobilization.

So, every four years the conservatives go off to vote, telling themselves that this is going to change something fundamental in the country. It never does. It can accelerate certain trends. But, given what George W. Bush did to the budget deficit, and given what he did in Middle Eastern wars, it is hard to make a case that the election of Al Gore would have made America far worse than it is today. The great thing about Al Gore was that he was indecisive. He did not trust his gut in the way the George W. Bush trusted his.

I suppose the best example in my lifetime was Franklin Roosevelt’s decision in 1944 to replace Henry Wallace with Harry Truman as Vice President. Henry Wallace was the most radical political figure ever to advance to national politics. He was further to the left than Huey Long. He would have replaced Roosevelt in April of 1945. Had he done so, America would be a far better place to live in. Harry Truman personally imposed the modern national security state. It was Truman who created the CIA. It was Truman who created the foundation of the Department of Homeland Security. It was Truman who expanded America’s Empire around the world. It was Truman who got us into the Korean War, and would not even call it a war, never gaining congressional approval. Wallace would never have been able to get that through Congress, because conservatives in Congress would have opposed him. Everybody knew how far to the left he was, and he had no national constituency of his own. Conservatives looked at Truman as preferable to Wallace. They make that sort of mistake all the time.

So, the conservative movement by its own nature is not an effective political competitor. Because local issues are far more tied to social issues, where conservatives say a country is established, they are better equipped to fight political battles of the local level than liberals are. Liberals look to Washington for salvation; conservatives ought to look to county government as a barrier against the expansion of the federal government into their lives. But they do not know the philosophy of local government which undergirded the foundation of this nation, beginning in the colonial era, and extending even through the period immediately preceding the ratification of the Constitution. That legacy has got to be restored, and conservatives have got to adopt it. If they do not adopt it, we are simply going to get more of the same, until the federal government finally goes belly-up.

Sadly, I think that is what is going to happen. I do not think most conservatives are going to spend the time, money, and effort to build up local resistance governments at the county level to step in when Washington’s checks bounce. They will have to do it after the Great Default.

Reprinted with permission from the Tea Party Economist.

April 23, 2012

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit He is also the author of a free 20-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

Copyright © 2012 Gary North

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