Kennedy, Roosevelt, and Chameleon Politics

A new book recently appeared called JFK, Conservative. Its author, Ira Stoll, born about a decade after Kennedy’s death, has noted Kennedy’s 70% general approval rating among Americans, and tried to claim him for the right. He has a case. Kennedy did sound very different from his Democratic Party successors. He ran to the right of Nixon in 1960, was a Cold War hawk, and pushed a large tax cut at home. He had an active aversion to liberal doves in his own party. Ronald Reagan sometimes sounded more like him than all top Democrats since Jimmy Carter.

But Stoll’s ‘conservative’ Kennedy can be better understood as displaying the adaptive chameleon qualities of major political leaders. Their followers may settle for the old principle of ‘standing where they sit’, but leaders, like chameleons, may not only change colour, but more important, change to match the colour of the shifting background on which they find themselves. One colour may be required to please the activists and ideologues of one’s own party, a very different one by electorates. Kennedy came out of a very different overall climate of opinion fifty years ago, and in a Democratic Party still dependent on conservative Dixiecrat Southerners. In trying to make sense of politics today, it is still useful to recall just how large the chameleon factor can be, in both rhetoric and practice.

A striking demonstration of chameleon scamper was provided seventy years ago by James Burnham, a onetime Trotskyist, by World War II reincarnated as a tough-minded conservative. In his 1943 book, The Machiavellians, he contrasted deceptive ‘idealistic’ political language with that of a more ‘realistic’ kind, giving Dante’s De Monarchia as an example of the first, Machiavelli’s The Prince and Discourses as an example of the second. He traced a Machiavellian succession in later Italian ‘elite’ political analysts like Pareto and Mosca.

Burnham agreed with Machiavelli in finding human nature and its political articulation largely constant over time and place. His study of Italian thinkers over the centuries was intended to enlighten Americans, by then accustomed to Franklin Roosevelt for a decade. The most startling passages in The Machiavellians are in the first three pages, which reproduce the now almost entirely forgotten official platform of the Democratic Party in 1932, and the addresses of Roosevelt in the election campaign that followed:

‘In the 1932 Platform of the Democratic party we may read the following:

‘Believing that a party platform is a covenant with the people… and that the people are entitled to know in plain words the terms of the contract to which they are asked to subscribe, we hereby declare this to be the platform of the Democratic party. The Democratic party solemnly promises… to put into effect the principles, policies, and reforms herein advocated…

‘We advocate:

‘An immediate and drastic reduction of governmental expenditures by abolishing useless commissions and offices, consolidating departments and bureaus and eliminating extravagance, to accomplish a saving of not less than 25% in the cost of the Federal government…

‘Maintenance of the national credit by a Federal budget annually balanced on the basis of accurate executive estimates within revenues…

We condemn:

The open and covert resistance of administrative officials to every effort made by Congressional committees to control the extravagant expenditures of the government… The extravagance of the Farm Board, its disastrous action which made the government a speculator in farm products…’

Burnham went on to show that this pledge was upheld by Roosevelt, in several speeches, including his July 2, 1932 one accepting the Presidential nomination: “As an immediate program of action we must abolish useless offices. We must eliminate… functions that are not definitely essential to the continuation of government. We must merge, we must consolidate subdivisions of government, and… give up luxuries which we can no longer afford… I propose… that government of all kinds big and little, be made solvent and that the example be set by the President of the United States and his cabinet.”

Roosevelt returned to these themes frequently throughout the campaign. In a radio address on July 30, 1932, for example, he concluded: “Any government, like any family, can for a year spend a little more than it earns. But… a continuation of that habit means the poorhouse.”

Burnham argued that Roosevelt and the men who compiled his party platform could not simply be dismissed as liars, nor that they were ‘utterly stupid, with no understanding of economics or politics or what was going on in the world…’

‘These men… though they doubtless knew less than everything and less than they thought they knew, were surely not so ignorant as to have believed literally what the words seem to indicate. Perhaps the words do not really have anything to do with cheap government and sound currency and balanced budgets and the rest of what appears to be their subject matter. [my emphasis; N. C.]

Not so differently, Burnham maintained, Dante’s De Monarchia, apparently an ‘idealized’ general work on morality and political philosophy, was not what it appeared. His Florence had been bitterly divided by partisans of the Holy Roman Emperor, the Ghibellines, and two quarreling factions of Guelphs, partisans of the prosperous city’s own political power. Dante had once supported one wing of the Guelphs, a defeated one, and bitterly disillusioned and exiled in the 1290s, he was by then writing a disguised advocate’s brief supporting a new Emperor. For Burnham, the great Italian poet was a devious political theorist, masking self-seeking and reactionary purposes in a language of pure ideals. Machiavelli, on the other hand, unveiled the nature of real politics with cool detachment, so candidly that he has ever since been an object of public condemnation and discreet private study.

As for Roosevelt, he did keep some promises, notably in pushing repeal of Prohibition. He briefly even tried to balance the budget, cutting military spending by a third. and cutting veterans’ benefits, federal employees’ salaries, and expenditures on research and education. But these actions were all soon seen as mistakes, and most benefits were restored or even increased by 1934. More than that, Roosevelt’s famous ‘100 days’ following his entry into office in March of 1933 were not just a shift in emphasis from his 1932 platform; they have been recalled ever since as representing an entirely different and massively interventionist political philosophy. However, what they actually constituted was Roosevelt’s lightning response to a nation-wide bank panic, to additional indications that the Depression was getting worse, and even to the frightening emulatory temptations suggested by the simultaneous arrival of Hitler’s dictatorship in Germany.

Roosevelt could hardly be counted a ‘conservative’, even in the months when, as a very popular and liberal New York Governor, he endorsed that conservative-friendly 1932 platform. Whatever can be said of New Deal economics, his intutive understanding of the desperate public mood in 1933 made him a chameleon par excellence. His transformation has continued to confuse liberal and conservative writers who try to explain past or present politics in purely ideological terms, their own or the ones they fondly attribute to political leaders.

PAH First 2014 Article

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *