Ambition and American Politics
December 18, 2011
In the past few days, there have been several opinion pieces about Newt Gingrich as the “front-runner” for the Republican presidential nomination. The most interesting of these have been written by columnists who are conservative Republicans, like George Will and David Brooks. And it is fair to say that these columnists have not been kind to Gingrich.
While this is certainly justified, given Gingrich’s capacity for making outrageous statements probably intended to draw attention to himself in the best tradition of narcissism, it is interesting to me for what it reveals about the Republican Party as a political institution. For these attacks on Gingrich remind us that elections are not just contests between parties, such as the Republican and Democratic parties, but that they are also contests for control of each party. That is, along with and perhaps even controlling the battle between parties there is a battle within each party for control of that party. It is this battle that leads some to argue, as I have done here, that at times parties are willing to lose elections, want to lose elections in order for some to preserve their power within the party.
For example, Massachusetts is said to be a “Democratic state,” that is, a state that is controlled by the Democratic Party at the expense of the Republican Party. Try as it might, the Republican Party cannot, it is said, win elections. Of course, this is not true as evidenced by Mitt Romney being elected governor and by Scott Brown being elected Senator. So, perhaps, the Republican Party or those who control it are satisfied with the situation because to change it would require that these people forego control of their party.
So, behind these criticisms of Gingrich lies the fear by the likes of Will and Brooks that if Gingrich wins, he will restructure the power arrangement within the Republican Party, leaving those like Will and Brooks on the outside looking in, as it were. Hence, they now have to point out Gingrich’s all-too-obvious flaws, making him seem like an extremist or a whacko. There is nothing particularly “conspiratorial” about this interpretation and it reveals that most often, as Noam Chomsky likes to point out, any interpretation that is “institutional” tends to be characterized as “conspiratorial.” This is a way of drawing our attention away from any analysis that points in the direction of concluding that it is the system, not those who temporarily occupy its positions of power, which needs reform or changing.
And this brings me to my second point regarding Gingrich, viz., that he has been criticized for being overly ambitious. [See a column in the New York Times today by Bruni for an example of this. See below for the link.] The argument is that Gingrich is overly ambitious, which points away from the criticism, endorsed once by none other than Abraham Lincoln [speech entitled “On the Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions], that the system that was created in 1787 by the “Founding Fathers” relied too heavily on ambition as it would be the characteristic that animated the new political order. “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition,” James Madison wrote in the 51st essay of the Federalist. And Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist pointed to “the love of fame [as] the ruling passion of the noblest minds” and intimated that this passion, this love of fame – a kind of “immortality” – would characterize the men who would be drawn toward the presidency as moths were drawn to flames. These men would, if allowed to, undertake “extensive and arduous enterprises” in order to achieve this fame, perhaps even undertaking such enterprises when the public good did not demand or justify them.
Now, it is easy to see without looking too far that such a passion makes for an ambiguous foundation of a decent political order or of a genuinely republican political order. Human beings of great ambition are dangerous, as the opponents of the new Constitution pointed out is different ways. Such human beings could, for example, make a nation war like or as might be said today “imperialistic.” And a war like nation must, as we are constantly being reminded these days, sacrifice its liberties for the sake of its security. This is said with a frequency today that underlines how easy it is to undermine a commitment to individual liberty for the sake of creating a “great empire.” [Another phrase found in the Federalist.]
But if we focus on Gingrich and his allegedly over the top ambition, we can and will ignore the more basic question of whether our political system is defective in ways that cut deeper than the defects of any particular candidate or incumbent. And after we do this, we then will wonder why our elections don’t seem to change anything, failing to recognize that they do change some things, just not those that need most to be changed. And I would submit that until we come to a realization that ambition is at best a “virtue” of ambiguous value, our political system and our politicians will fail us, even while seeming to be successful.