Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The persistence of ideology

Name the speaker:
[The President] has lost faith in the American people. Just look at the men surrounding him. They are cynics who scoff at our simple virtues. They think that the people are too dumb to understand democracy. Their idea is that they, the intelligentsia, can govern us with catch phrases and sleight-of-hand.... Give our country back to us. We want it. We love it.
Sarah Palin? Newt Gingrich? Michelle Bachmann? Good guesses. No, those words were spoken by Wendell Willkie during his 1940 run for president against Franklin Roosevelt.

I learned this gem from John Gerring's wonderful book Party Ideologies in America, 1828-1996. Gerring demonstrates a remarkable stability in the language and imagery used by party orators over time. The themes that modern Republicans discuss in their speeches -- limited federal government, low taxes, the supremacy of small business, etc. -- were really developed back in the 1920s. Speeches delivered by George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan could just as easily have been delivered by Herbert Hoover or Calvin Coolidge.

Gerring also finds some interesting turning points in the history of American ideologies. Whigs and Republicans in the 19th and early 20th century used to have a different set of beliefs, speaking of liberty as though it were inextricably linked to personal responsibilities, and seeing the government as the means to inculcate and enforce those responsibilities. The notion of "self-government" had two meanings in Lincoln's era, both choosing one's leaders and ruling one's own passions.

I'm still in the middle of this book, but I'm learning a ton from it. I hope to share more later.

1 comment:

Jon Ladd said...

I agree. It is a really great book.