Inner Check, Please

The 2016 election cycle is a murky paradox in which it seems impossible to think of Donald Trump as ever exemplifying a certain long-held conservative doctrine, writes Scott McLemee.

May 18, 2016

The received wisdom about American political life celebrates the two-party, winner-take-all system as distinctly suited to containing and mitigating the ideological passions. Let’s fish it out of the dustbin of history for a quick look.

To win elections, a party has to stake out a fairly big tent. Its candidates and message must appeal to voters driven by an array of interests, with political opinions of numerous stripes, held with varying degrees of intensity. Party unity is celebrated with all due festivities but also with the expectation that it will prove flexible once the confetti is swept away. For pluralism in theory means horse-trading in practice. And because extremist moods don’t last, they tend to dry up whatever credit a party can draw on when it returns to the business of governance.

A duopoly of political parties turns each voter alienated by one side into a kind of asset (if not always an active supporter) of the other. The situation is quite different from that in countries where proportional representation sets the stage for numerous parties -- expressing regional, class, religious and/or ethnic interests (or hostilities, as the case may be) -- to compete along ideologically distinct lines. In America, the inevitable zero-sum outcome keeps political life on a steady, self-correcting course toward moderation and consensus.

For readers under the age of 30, and for more than a few older than that, it may be necessary to explain that yes, people did once believe in the foregoing vision of American politics. They would have pointed to the defeat of Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign in 1964 or George McGovern’s in 1972 -- or both -- as demonstrating what happens when the big tent collapses.

But the aftermath was not a scramble to set both tents back up again as the analogy seems to require. By the mid-1990s, the Republicans were on a course to becoming something more akin to the sort of party that has been the norm elsewhere in the world, with a limited but cohesive set of principles (e.g., tax reduction as crucial to economic growth, opposition to new social-welfare expenditures, unconditional increases military spending, “traditional marriage”) and showing a tendency to attract a base of support along limited (though not exclusionary) demographic lines, as indicated by last year’s Pew Research Center report on party affiliation.

The Pew figures also show that Democratic Party support tends to be more diverse by race -- and recent news of tens of thousands of registered Democratic voters in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts changing their affiliation to Republican would be consistent with the Democrats being the more ideologically heterogeneous party (if a little less so, presumably each time someone jumps ship). The notion that American political parties were inherently pluralistic and pragmatic machines for uniting a continent-spanning nation might have been plausible 50 years ago, but the exodus of the Dixiecrats throughout the 1960s and ’70s trampled it into the dust, leaving the Democrats with a middling-largish tent with holes in it, while turning the GOP into what looks, in action, like a disciplined combat organization.

The 2016 election cycle, then, is a very murky paradox. The most ideologically focused and disciplined party ever to hold power in the United States is on the verge of nominating as its presidential candidate someone with no demonstrated adherence to its principles and no history of ties to the party’s infrastructure or personnel -- indeed, with no discernible bedrock of political conviction at all, apart from nativism (of a not especially lucid sort) and certainty that the country’s biggest problem is that he is not in charge.

The situation is worrying to everyone except his supporters. But more than that, it is confusing. Enemies of the Republican party like to say that Donald Trump gives blatant expression to tendencies its other candidates prefer to convey more discreetly. I no longer believe that to be an adequate assessment. Whatever else one might say about the GOP platform over the years, it cannot be reduced to xenophobia. Trump’s other beliefs, if any, remain inscrutable, perhaps even to himself. The man is a mystery, wrapped in an enigma, topped with a hairpiece.

At the height of the primary season, Trump’s opponents periodically denied that he was a conservative (unlike themselves, of course). At the time it occurred to me that what they said was possibly more true than they realized, for it seemed impossible to think of Trump ever exemplifying the conservative doctrine of the inner check.

My dim recollection was that it was one of Edmund Burke’s ideas, something precipitated by the French Revolution. And ultimately it probably was, although the more proximate source turned out to be a couple of culture warriors of the last century, via the account in Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot. First published in 1953 (two years before William F. Buckley began publishing The National Review), the book was one of the foundational works of the postwar American right. Kirk offered something besides policy proposals or slogans; he tried to establish a usable tradition for the movement.

Two worthy ancestors he recommended were Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More, professors at Harvard and Bryn Mawr, respectively, who advocated what became known in the late 1920s as the New Humanism. Quite a few brilliant people of that era -- T. S. Eliot, H. L. Mencken and Edmund Wilson, for example -- paid attention to the New Humanism long enough to attack it, and it was in one of their broadsides that I came across More’s idea of the inner check.

“Let him retire into himself and, in the silence of such recollection, examine his own motives and the sources of his self-approval and discontent,” More wrote. “He will discover that there is a happiness of the soul which is not the same as the pleasure of fulfilled desires, whether these be for good or ill, a happiness which is not dependent upon the results of this or that choice among our desires, but upon the very act of choice and self-control.” We have impulses and sensations, just as the animals do, and live in “the flux of experience,” but we also have the power to make choices, to restrain impulses and forgo sensations. Doing so is not our natural preference, but it’s what lifts us out of the flux of experience and expresses something higher, even divine.

The problem, back then, was that American society did not encourage the exercise of that power. The inner check was up against the temptations of jazz, bootleg hooch and the rumble seat. More followed this line of thought in the direction of Christian theology while Babbitt found it compatible with the teaching of the Buddha. They and their followers tended to write essays on literature and the history of ideas rather than editorials, but Kirk saw the inner check as having important political implications.

“The great contest in American society is the assault of the forces of moral and political aggrandizement upon the forces of moral and political stability,” Kirk wrote. “The federal Constitution and the Supreme Court and other checks upon immediate popular impulse are to the nation what the higher will is to the individual. Where our society succeeds, usually it is in consequence of this restraining influence on our thought and political structure.”

To its critics, the doctrine of the inner check sounded like warmed-over Puritanism, but at least it’s an ethos. You can see coherent policies (workfare and abstinence education, for example) coming out of it. It also seems to imply that those in power would be expected to lead by example. But a political party taking its bearings from the need to exercise the inner check would never let its own id take hold of the reins of authority, and the thought of what leadership by example would look like under Donald Trump must make a lot of his new political colleagues shudder to imagine.


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