In the final segment of my appearance on Capital Account last week, the hosts mentioned that plenty of Americans don’t know the names of the president or vice president.
Is that awful? Most people think so. But I said in response that this is not a terribly bad thing. It might be evidence that people are saner than we think. They know not to waste time on things they can’t control.
But it got me thinking. What exactly is there to discover in the world of politics? It can be fun for a while, but the more you know, the less you appreciate it.
The most sophisticated thinkers have generally concluded that politics is a dirty business, a ruse, an ideological cul-de-sac, a vast looter of intellectual and financial resources, a lie that corrupts, a deceiver, a means of unleashing vast evil in the world of the most unexpected and undetected sort, an unleasher of despair and the greatest diverter of human productivity ever concocted by those who do not believe in authentic social and economic progress.
Given that, there is nothing wrong with ignoring elections.
Do you remember the first time you found out that such a thing as politicians existed? I have a vague memory that during election season, my parents would talk about people as Democrats or Republicans. “They are Democrats” or “He is a Republican.”
I wondered if this was different from Baptists, Methodists and Catholics, or perhaps it referred to where people were born: the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Germany, etc. I asked once, but never received a clear answer about what being a Democrat meant beyond that you are for other Democrats. Same with Republicans. I concluded that it must be some adults-only tribal ritual.
There are passages in Albert Jay Nock’s Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, this week’s release from the Spy Briefing Club, that recount his first exposure to politics. Now, if you know Nock, you are aware that he might be described as the 20th-century’s most-civilized intellectual. I read these passages, and they stuck with me. There are three separate accounts he gives.
I would like to share all three with you:
It was while we were living in Brooklyn that politics first came under my conscious notice… A short distance over the line which separated our semirural section from the more densely populated central district of Brooklyn stood a ramshackle one-story turtle-shaped wooden building known as the Wigwam. In some way, I had heard it was a “political headquarters,” but I did not know what that meant, and was not interested enough to ask. It was an evil-looking affair, dirty and disreputable, and the people who frequented it looked to me even more disreputable than the premises. We children were never actually forbidden to investigate it, as far as I know, but I recollect my mother saying once in an offhand way that it was a good place to keep away from. I believe none of us was ever inside it, or wished to be.
Nock continues with his second memory:
Thus, my first impression of politics was unfavourable; and my disfavour was heightened by subsequently noticing that the people around me always spoke of politics and politicians in a tone of contempt. This was understandable. If all I had casually seen — the Wigwam and its denizens, the processions of disgusting hoodlums who sweat and stank in the parboiling humidity of our Indian summer nights — if all this was of the essence of politics, if it was part and parcel of carrying on the country’s government, then obviously a decent person could find no place in politics, not even the place of an ordinary voter, for the forces of ignorance, brutality and indecency would outnumber him 10 to one. Nevertheless, there was an anomaly here. We were all supposed to respect our government and its laws, yet by all accounts those who were charged with the conduct of government and the making of its laws were most-dreadful swine; indeed, the very conditions of their tenure precluded their being anything else.
Nock offers his third memory:
I did not brood over the rationale of politics again for a great many years.
One incident of election night, however, stuck in my memory. Some devoted patriot, very far gone in whiskey, wandered up in our direction and fell by the wayside in a vacant lot where he lay all night, mostly in a comatose state. At intervals of half an hour or so, he roused himself up, apparently conscious that he was not doing his duty by the occasion, and tried to sing the chorus of “Marching Through Georgia,” but he could never get quite through the first three measures without relapsing into somnolence. It was very amusing; he always began so bravely and earnestly, and always faded out so lamentably.
Having devoted a great part of my latter years to a close observation of public affairs in many lands, I have often had occasion to remember that man. His sense of patriotism and patriotic duty still seems as intelligent and competent as that of anyone I have met since then, and his mode of expressing it still seems as effective as any I could suggest.
These have a wonderfully liberating effect. The civic culture encourages us to become brooding and serious about politics, examining every statement by every candidate as part of our “civic duty” to be engaged with public affairs.
But what good does it do us? People running for public office can and do say anything, and what they say or do to get elected can have little or nothing to do with what actually happens when they get in office.
A more-important point is that these people only serve as the veneer for a deeper problem in public life that hardly anyone talks about. The actual government has very little to do with elections. Elections are just a giant moneymaking scheme. The actual state consists of unelected officers who are busy carrying out the wishes of politicians long out of office.
As I explained on Capital Account, the business of government consists of enforcing regulations and rules that can date back a century or more, and these are hardly ever touched by the current crop of elected administrators. For the most part, politicians know and care nothing about the real business of government. They are too busy preening for cameras and worrying about the next election.
How many people know this? Not that many. The myths of the civic religion are very sticky.
Another point drilled home by Nock: There is a sense in which all states share common traits. When he wrote, many people were trying to draw sharp distinctions between systems. But as he said, to the shock of many, “Communism, the New Deal, fascism, Naziism, are merely so many trade names for collectivist Statism, like the trade names for toothpaste which are exactly alike except for the flavoring.”
This barely scratches the surface of this profound reflection on the modern world. He also discusses war, trade, education, marriage, religion, culture and more. There’s a surprise on every page. It is impossible to agree with him in every instance. But in the end, it is a devastating indictment of public political culture.
Nock’s solution was to rise above it all. He educated himself, maintained a fantastic distance to it all, studied and wrote and ended up creating a literary empire that actually improved life in this world.
William F. Buckley Jr. had been given this book by his father before young William entered Yale. It changed his life and inspired his earliest works. It remained his favorite book for decades to come, and he referred to it often in private. It is interesting how people regard this book as their private little possession.
I didn’t share Buckley’s political outlook as he got older, but Nock is my teacher too in so many ways. This is his greatest work, one that requires a quiet corner and dedicated time to read carefully.
Nock might be astonished to hear that thousands of people are about to read his masterwork over digital media using modern devices. Somehow, I imagine a smile crossing his face.