Like Molière’s bourgeois gentleman Monsieur Jourdain, who discovers to his delight and amazement that all this time what he has been speaking is prose, I have just discovered that what I have been preaching in this column all this years is Mugwumpery.
“Mugwumpswere19th-centuryreformers concerned with public virtue-doing the right thing in American life and government. They were the college-educated who lived the lessons of their moral philosophy, that blend of Christian values, republican virtue and classical liberalism that distinguished Mugwump ethics.”
The citation is from Mugwumps: Public Moralists of the Gilded Age , by Prof. David M. Tucker of the University of Memphis ($27.50 before discount; 139 pages, published in 1998 by the University of Missouri Press, readily available from Amazon.com and other good bookstores). I urge that you call your bookseller forthwith or hit the Net.
The book was mentioned in the lead review, “Virtue and the President,” in the Times Literary Supplement of Sept. 24, by James Bowman. Let me pause to give Mr. Bowman a big plug: Besides writing as American editor of the TLS , he appears regularly in The American Spectator and The New Criterion . In my opinion, Mr. Bowman is, along with Mark Steyn, who writes for the same publications, along with The Spectator , an indispensable observer of the American scene.
There are those who “gi’e us the gift” to see ourselves as others see us. Mr. Bowman is one. To his credit, I have also never seen or heard him on a talk show. Too bad, but then such men seldom excite the attention of the Charlie Roses or Chris Matthewses, or, so far below the intellectual salt as to be virtually invisible, the Don Imuses: “personalities” to whom the point of wisdom is not to be wise, but to be conventional, and whose shows provide the media equivalent of shelf space to the hucksterish, brand-name pronouncements of worn-out brand-name celebrities who use these shows the way an exhausted mountaineer uses pitons-merely to keep from falling.
Mr. Bowman captured my moral fancy with this comment: “Tucker’s excellent little book has shown us how, in America, some genuinely good men once took up the cudgels against the corrupt holders of entrenched power and on behalf of an idea of political virtue which, a century later, still looks virtuous. It was perhaps the only time in American history since the founding of the Republic that the entanglement of politics and virtue was not fatally tainted with tendentiousness and self-interest.”
Naturally, the Trumps of a hundred years ago disparaged the Mugwumps. “Mugwumps were really conservative, it was said, motivated by bitterness against the successful of their day … [They] were dismissed,” writes Mr. Tucker, “as narrow-minded, impractical conservatives [sic, my italics] suffering from declining status and irrational resentments.”
What is interesting, and important for us today, is to make note of that word “conservatives.” Moral idealism about public life in this country need not be exclusively identified with what we in our time think of as “liberalism,” any more than vice or moral ugliness are exclusively the province of money-grubbing “conservatives.” The two most disgraceful figures in American public life, the Donald and the President, each of whom incarnates the American gospel that the key to success in this country is the capacity to welsh without a second thought on one’s financial, familial and moral obligations and commitments, respectively epitomize the conventional view of what a conservative is, and what a liberal is.
Mr. Tucker begins his book with the point that the moral foundation of Mugwumpery was laid at college. Relative to the population as a whole, college- educated people were comparatively small in number then. As indeed, they are today, although college-educated no longer means educated , as five minutes’ conversation with any recent Brown graduate will quickly illustrate. Education-learning, the use of learning to illuminate past, present and future-is no longer the point.
Indeed, nowadays, a college education seems to be essentially beside the point, period. No longer the dominant signpost on the road to success. Longtime readers will recall this column’s characterization of the 80’s view that college was “an agreeable way to fill up the inconvenient gap between puberty and Goldman Sachs.” By then, the “education” part of going to college had been all but hollowed out. Content eroded until, like the Cheshire Cat, only the grin remained: in the form of the diploma itself, that credential essential to securing lucrative Den of Thieves employment or admission to B-school. But now, in the age of postpubescent Net entrepreneurship, even the credential has ceased to make all that much difference.
I hate to see this, if only because it is a whimpering conclusion to one of the proudest chapters of American social history: the G.I. Bill. In our haste to condemn the postwar years as a period of Red-baiting conformity, we tend to forget that some portion of that tendency to conform flowed from the inescapable reality that many Americans, during and right after the war, actually did believe we had fought for certain overarching principles. And that these were expected to be incorporated into peacetime civilian life by the citizenry, and to be exemplified in our day-to-day conduct. Among these were various notions of social equity, and among these, right at the top of the list, was the idea of generally available higher education, namely the G.I. Bill.
Many of the giants on whose shoulders the present era stands as it so confidently, lip-lickingly counts its blessings and eyes the blessings of others for future appropriation were beneficiaries of this enlightened legislation. My friend Stuart Feldman, a Mugwump if ever there was one, is trying to organize a G.I. Bill Alumni Association. His effort needs leadership. There may be readers out there who feel they owe their present prosperity or peace of mind to the G.I. Bill; they’ll contact me care of this paper, I’ll put them in touch with Stuart. Such a group could constitute a core element on the Great 2000 Mugwump Revival that, by now, you will have guessed this column is going to try to promote.
Mugwumpery and religious belief go hand in hand. Mr. Tucker says that belief in civic virtue became, for many Mugwumps, the equivalent of a true faith. Mugwump morality had its sources in religion, mainly the Protestantism of the Northeast, although in the evolved faith, God took second place to Reason. How this will play out in a millennial context remains to be seen, although I was interested to see a recent Business Week headline proclaiming a resurgence of religion in the executive suite. Unlike its predecessor, which was mainly set in motion by a bunch of disaffected thirtysomethings like Nation founder E.L. Godkin, Millennial Mugwumpery will most likely involve a fusion of young and old. The morality of the Bible may play an important part. Now that Francis is singing in the Grace Church choir, I attend services with some regularity, and as I grow older and lonelier and thoughts of long-curtaining night become less easy to dismiss out of hand, the comfort available in those sacred precincts is more. The first election upon which the Mugwumps actually had any measurable influence was that of 1884. Oddly enough, this fell some 20 years into the span of the First Gilded Age, just as next year’s election will fall approximately two decades into the life of the Second Gilded Age. Just as the first generation of Mugwumps found their man in Grover Cleveland, we Modern Mugwumps may have our candidate in Bill Bradley. In an admirable column in the Sunday, Oct. 24, Newsday , Prof. Robert Westbrook identified Mr. Bradley as the standard-bearer for “Heartland Progressivism,” which is what Mugwumpery evolved into.
That is where Mr. Bradley should look for victory: in the heartland. The money and mouths may be here, but the 250 million Americans who live outside the Four Seasons, outside the Beltway, and outside the Santa Monica Freeway no longer give a merry screw about what Media Central thinks, and they pay scant attention to those masturbatory concentricities of babble that we flatter ourselves into calling “conversation” or “dialogue.” These are the 250 million people who are not buying Talk , and not buying it by the hundreds of thousands of copies. They are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the little old lady in Dubuque.
Bill Bradley should take his campaign to these people, and to the spirit-lifting music of sounding brass. And on this note, let me close with a fond personal statement. The solace I get from my attendance at Grace Church is in no small way amplified by the music. Whether early counterpoint or the soaring Anglican strophes of Hubert Parry or Charles Villiers Stanford, the choir and organ playing refreshes the soul. For quite a time now, this has been due to the exertions of Bruce McInnes, the church’s main man of music. Oct. 31 will be his final appearance as organist and master of choristers. He deserves to be wished well in his retirement, and that, with thanks, and with the special feeling old lacrosse players feel for each other, is what I do now.
Oh yes-and this just in. Mugwumps of the nation, unite! We have nothing to gain but to get rid of theses sons-of-bitches, but that is everything!