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The Modern World and the Election of 2016


Lost amid the constant coverage of presidential campaigns, caucuses, speeches, debates, dramas, arguments, strategies, posturings, and platforms are historical perspective and true proportion.

“The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives,” wrote G.K. Chesterton in an April 19, 1924 column in The Illustrated London News. The essay was titled “The Blunders of Our Parties”, with the parties in question being the Tories (conservatives) and the Whigs (progressives).  Despite being nearly a century old and being written about another country’s political conflicts, the essay provides plenty of food for thought, as do the many other essays by Chesterton from the same period—many of them about America (a country that both fascinated and rather confounded the great English writer, who confessed “I really did feel as if I were on another planet when I was in the United States.”)

“The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes,” wrote Chesterton, who then stated:

The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected. Even when the revolutionist might himself repent of his revolution, the traditionalist is already defending it as part of his tradition. Thus we have two great types — the advanced person who rushes us into ruin, and the retrospective person who admires the ruins. He admires them especially by moonlight, not to say moonshine. Each new blunder of the progressive or prig becomes instantly a legend of immemorial antiquity for the snob. This is called the balance, or mutual check, in our Constitution.

The current Long March to the White House is a perfect case in point. Perhaps even the best case possible, for it is, to my mind, yet another round of the same old song-and-dance routine that is presented under the auspices of “liberal vs. conservative”. Now, I am not denying there are real and substantive differences between the various candidates, as I think there are; nor am I saying that it won’t really matter who is elected since nothing ever really changes and improves—although I confess to being tempted at times to resign myself to such a perspective.

Rather, consider what FOX News, the leading “conservative” news/opinion outlet, covers approximately 94.38% of the time: the presidential campaigns, caucuses, speeches, debates, dramas, arguments, strategies, posturings, and platforms. It’s not just that news stations and outlets focus nearly all of their time and energy on politics, with occasional forays into the world of entertainment and celebrities (and, really, who can tell the difference between candidate and celebrities?). It’s the incessant, constant, and unremitting coverage of the cult of the presidency, which has in recent decades been married (or adulterated) with the cult of celebrity, further fusing together the essential qualities of the dominant American culture: power, fame, and salesmanship.

So, we are told that Candidate X is “liberal” and Candidate Y is “conservative” because of differing stances on the economy, immigration, marriage, race relations, solar power, and so forth. That’s all well and good, but we hear and ingest these labels and positions with the assumption—it really is the political air we breathe—that Candidate X or Y is going to bring about remarkable change on all these fronts. He or she is going to bring about “change”, impart “hope”, restore “order”, manifest “sanity”, inculcate “fairness and equality”, procure “prosperity”, establish “accountability”, grant “freedom”, and once again plant—in the town square, or on your television screen—the shining beacon of “greatness” that has been soiled and sullied by President Z.

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