theory has its roots in the republicanism of ancient
Greece and Rome. It equated citizenship (for males,
obviously) with participation in defense of the city-state,
and thus called for an armed citizenry organized into
what we might think of as reserve units or "militias."
Much later, Nicolò Machiavelli and other Renaissance
writers breathed new life into republicanism, providing
an ideological foundation for the Italian city-states
of the age.
republican theory migrated to the British Isles, during
and after the Puritan Revolution in the mid-17th
century. James Harrington’s Oceana
(1656) was a full-scale application of republican ideas
to English political life. J.G.A. Pocock, the
great titan of republican studies, holds that in the
form of "country ideology" republican
thought became a common and persistent political language
wielded by Anglo-American opposition movements from
the 17th into the 19th century.
These ideas came into the American Revolution in a broad
stream, which also included Locke’s
liberalism, radical readings of English law, and Protestantism.
REPUBLIC NOT A DEMOCRACY
American "synthesis" brought these traditions
together in a new way.1 The
republican theme of the independent, armed citizen on
his own land was one source of the Second Amendment.
The republican concept of "corruption" as
whatever "unbalances" the constitution (and
not mere stealing of money) informed the political
discourse of our founding era.
KARP AS REPUBLICAN CRITIC
the merits of all that – and I cannot defend it here
– Walter Karp viewed American history and politics through
republican lenses. He was interested in the specifically
American form of republicanism. He did not think
that republicanism meant that the people never get what
they want. On the contrary, he believed that modern
"democracy," which neglected republican forms,
came down to the disguised supremacy of two ruling oligarchies.
We call this the two-party system. Heeding republican
forms was actually the key to popular self-government.
was for ten years a contributing editor at Harper’s
Magazine2 and wrote
two important books on American history – I begin
Politics of War because it deals with war and
intervention, specifically with the origins of two wars,
"which forever altered the political life of the
American republic" (title page): the Spanish-American
War and World War I.3
SPLENDID LITTLE WAR’
denied that one can usefully separate the history of
domestic and foreign policy. Already in the 1880s,
he writes, James G. Blaine (R-Maine), "who never
thought beyond the interests of party" (p. 8),
clamored for an activist foreign policy which would
redound to the benefit of the GOP. The Democrats,
who weren’t stupid, saw what was up, hence Cleveland’s
unnecessary and risky posturing against Britain in 1895
over the Anglo-Venezuelan border dispute (pp. 39-48).
The British, fortunately were distracted by other matters
– the Kaiser’s supportive telegram to Transvaal President
Kruger, for one – but both parties had seen the light
of an activist foreign policy which could shape a new
order allowing them to bypass both people and constitution
at will. The looked-for "large policy"
(as TR, Lodge, and Brooks Adams called it) was thus
aimed as much at the American people as at the
into office in early 1897, self-effacing President William
McKinley (R-Ohio) was determined to find an occasion
for the "large policy." Cuban rebels
duly provided one and McKinley spent months explaining
to Spain how it should conduct itself in its last important
American colony. McKinley’s campaign outlived
all possible Spanish compromises and concessions, suggesting
says Karp that the "negotiations"
were intended to fail (and compare George Bush’s negotiations
in the run-up to the Gulf War). Much of Wall Street
had been opposed to war (pp. 74-75), by the way, suggesting
that those who held with outright war for foreign markets
were not a cross-section of American business.
For Karp, the President – supposedly pushed into war
by reporters, noisy journalists, Congressmen, and do-gooders
– was firmly in charge the whole way.
was an easy war and we got Hawaii by the same unconstitutional
dodge that got us Texas and NAFTA: the joint resolution).
Then we got the Philippines, a great coaling station
and jumping-off point to future Asian commerce and an
indefensible strategic anti-asset if we
ever had disagreements with an Asian power. (We
really needed an "India.") We got a
war to suppress Filipino "insurrectionists,"
our first overseas counterinsurgency. We got closer
relations with the British Empire. We got protectorates,
or informal colonies, Cuba, for example. Not bad
for such an allegedly "reluctant" President.
WILSON: FIGHTING FOR FREEDOM EVERYWHERE EXCEPT AT HOME
was even unhappier about Wilson’s crusade for overseas
"democracy" and perpetual peace, the latter
to be achieved by immediate catastrophic war.
He shows nothing but contempt for conventional historians’
emphasis on Wilson’s "idealism" and peaceful
"intentions." If Wilson did not want
US entry in the European bloodbath, he should not have
followed policies that made involvement inevitable.
This might be called Karp’s methodological rule #1:
look at what they do, not what they say.
To people who see Wilson’s actions as reflecting his
Presbyterianism, Karp retorts that it was precisely
the unchristian sin of "vainglory" that drove
the President on (p. 146).
believed that from the outbreak of war in Europe, Wilson
had harbored the vision of settling the war himself
and building a great new order of perpetual peace.
His unfortunate invasion of Mexico to teach Mexicans
good government – ought to have been a clue as to his
methods. To settle the European war, America would
have to be in it, and Wilson accepted that logic,
but with a great display of public reluctance and much
peaceful blather. Karp also notes Wilson’s strong
Anglophile leanings as another reason for his conduct.
Critics "accused him openly of putting British
interests ahead of American interests," which "had
the misfortune of being true" (p 228). Wilson’s
policy was peaceful "only in the Wilsonian sense
that entering the war meant ending war" (p. 274),
but his rhetoric allowed Republican oligarchs, who had
their own reasons for war fever, to attack him for terrible
weakness and professorial ineptitude.
the election of 1916 was a choice between two war parties
and the Democratic slogan "He kept us out of war" was
so much hot air. As for the merits of "freedom of the
seas" and other war pretexts, Ralph Raico4
has dealt with them ably with the skepticism
they merit and I won't pause here to review them.
US intervention set up an incredible "great leap forward"
in raw government power and interference in Americans'
lives,5 enforced by a
federal reign of terror against dissenters and suspected
"pro-Germans" and, later, "pro-Bolsheviks." Wartime
mobilization furthered state economic management ("war
socialism"), whose alleged successes inspired the later
New Dealers and their alphabetic agencies.
THEORY AND PRACTICE OF TWO-PARTY OLIGARCHISM
the two wars – 1898 and 1917-1918 – meant tremendous
gains for post-constitutional, post-republican ways
of governing. This brings us to Karp’s Indispensable
Enemies, subtitled "The Politics of Misrule
in America."3 Karp’s
reading of US history at home and abroad puts the politics
back in and puts party-political oligarchies in the
driver’s seat. In his view, stable, self-perpetuating
party oligarchies had formed by at least the 1890s,
and from that time forward, American political reality
had been precisely that echo, not a choice, whereof
the Goldwater folk spoke, or that dime’s worth of difference
(or less), which George Corley Wallace made famous.
historians who looked for underlying "economic"
causation in everything were wholly unable to explain
two-party oligarchic rule except as somehow reflecting
the wants of big business and (sometimes) big labor
political power of the politicians, who, after
all, were the ones dispensing the favors.
(The railroad politics of the 1850s comes to mind.)
Historians, by attributing control of the politicians
to the public (liberals) or the interests (Marxists),
acted as "apologists" and obscured the active
role of the more-than-relatively-autonomous politicians
and state in bringing about particular outcomes (p.
party fielded a "reformist" and an "obstructionist"
wing – in a giant ballet meant to convince voters that
something was going on besides oligarchic business as
usual. "Given the Hobson’s choice between
New Deal liberalism and nothing, many voters have preferred
nothing" (p. 84). The GOP obligingly promises
them nothing, and then fails to deliver even on that.
Faced with the results of oligarchic policies, many
people decided that there is an "inherent alliance"
of corrupt power and great wealth, which led them further
to conclude that "the only real alternative to
the status quo is taking people’s money away, that is,
communism or socialism" (p. 158). Actually,
the parties had actively fostered a monopolistic economy
in order to shake down interests beholden to them for
campaign contributions. In all this, ambition
and the love of power had been more important than mere
money, which talented people can obtain by other means.
The whole structure depended crucially on two-party
collusion, since one party dispensing corrupt favors
could be called to account by another, genuinely principled
party. In practice, oligarchs in either party
would rather lose an election than lose control of the
party machinery. The Goldwater and McGovern campaigns
may be examples of this.
AND FOREIGN POLICY AND CHICKENS AND EGGS
foreign policy serves the interest of the partyarchs
as 1) a distraction from domestic affairs and 2) a source
of unconstitutional and corrupt power. LBJ no
more believed that little short fellows in black pajamas
menaced Texas than Wilson really thought the Kaiser’s
soldiers would soon be in Princeton. But
where are our old friends the Open Door ideologists,
public and private? I think they are still there,
but I also believe that Walter Karp did us a service
by focusing on a neglected aspect of corporate-government
collusion – neo-mercantilism – at home and abroad.
As a republican theorist, Karp zeroed in on important
motivations – ambition, lust for power – that transcend
mere money and help explain politicians’ interest in
both domestic and foreign intervention.
Unless we intend to take up Marxist orthodoxy in which
all things reduce to economic motives and causation,
we must be prepared to give power and ambition their
places in the larger picture. As Karp said, paraphrasing
Aristotle, "no one aspires to become a tyrant in
order to keep warm."6 For making
connections of this sort, republican theory is not just
useful; it is essential. One more thing, however.
Don’t be fooled: republicanism in this sense has nothing
at all to do with a large political organization of
the same name. That is merely a verbal coincidence
or accident of history.
See Joseph R. Stromberg, "Tensions in Early American
Political Thought," The
Freeman, 49, 5 (May 1999), 44-50.
Clews H. Lapham, "Walter Karp," Harper’s
Magazine, 279 (October 1989), 8-12.
Walter Karp, Indispensable
Enemies: The Politics of Misrule in America
(Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1974) and The
Politics of War (New York: Harper Colophon,
Ralph Raico, "World War I: The Turning Point"
in John V. Denson, ed., The
Costs of War (New Brunswick: Transaction Books,
1999), pp. 203-247.
See the important essay by Murray
N. Rothbard, "World War I as Fulfillment,"
also in Denson, ed., Costs of War.
Walter Karp, "How to Think about Politicians,"
Horizon, 19, 1 (January 1977), p. 15.
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