In Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, there is a chapter about legitimacy and authority and power. The backdrop of Gladwell’s narrative is the failure of the British to subdue Northern Ireland, and the way their tactics backfired terribly. But it also speaks to something interesting about the experience of American conservatism, and can certainly say a thing or two about the way the Republican establishment, and the intellectual class on the right, have spent the last few years struggling to deal with the post-Tea Party reality.
The crux of Gladwell’s argument is that if an authority is not recognized as legitimate the application of more power to to bring troublemakers into line only has the opposite effect. From The Atlantic’s review:
The moral of the stories he tells may have been lost on the Philistines, but has since sunk in: more is not always more. Gladwell tells how the British Army fueled rather than quelled the Irish Republican Army’s defiance with its heavy hand in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. He describes civil-rights activists in Birmingham using political jujitsu—turning an opponent’s overwhelming force back against him—when they lured Bull Connor into setting attack dogs on peaceful teenagers, producing photos that appalled the world.
But that was half a century ago, and the tactics have been refined—and countered and codified—since then. “Sometimes, the More Force Is Used, the Less Effective It Is,” says The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, warning that disproportionate power can undermine political legitimacy. The advice, published by the military in 2006, may not always be followed, but it is a major lesson of the manual—surely the very definition of conventional wisdom. Claiming the political high ground is the goal, which is indeed one that the Davids of this world can achieve with flexibility, creativity, patience, and intense commitment.
But it is much easier for the Goliaths to do so. Superior force is a disadvantage only because it often blinds a giant to all other strategies. Deployed without subtlety, it favors the enemy. Yet disproportionate power, guns, and money, when used intelligently and in the service of building legitimacy, are rather effective. The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong—Gladwell is right about that. Betting on their victory, though, is still the way to go.
Yes, Goliath is still the better bet. But one of the things we underestimate given the tools of the modern age is how quickly Goliath’s tools can be matched by new, rebellious institutions which achieve things once thought impossible. Consider, for instance, this news:
The Tea Party Patriots raised $6.4 million all year — more than what Rove and his three outside groups took in combined. Rove’s Crossroads groups — consisting of two super PACs and a nonprofit — raised $6.1 million. That’s a modest sum for a network that spent more than $300 million in 2012 to defeat Obama and Senate Democrats. The Club for Growth alone tied Rove’s American Crossroads super PAC in the second half of 2013 — with each group raising $1.6 million. The Senate Conservatives Fund — a thorn in the side of the GOP establishment — raised $7.7 million in 2013. An affiliated super PAC took in another $1.6 million.
The Republican establishment may be befuddled by such figures – how could these rabble match the top-dollar donations of wealthy Republicans? But in a sense, the Tea Party’s success is in keeping with their connection to America’s original rebels, who defeated a professional Army of well-trained troops who had put down rebellion after rebellion from across their colonies.
There’s a deeper connection as well, one which speaks to the uniquely American nature of the original Revolution and the rebelliousness of today’s political iteration. Here’s one piece of many in a series of those from the Burkean intellectual elite, urging today’s more libertarian forces on the right to ditch their individualism and learn to love communitarian approaches to helping people – in this case, an acceptance of the permanent redistributive social welfare state. It’s hardly alone in the litany of calls from the right’s smart set, urging the rebels to cast aside their torches and pitchforks and join in the traditional Washington acceptance of the status quo.
What arguments like this leave out is that it is the Tea Party which is carrying on the traditions of the American Revolution, in ways they may not even recognize. The American Revolution remains the most conservative revolution – and a profoundly individualist one. It was driven by a group of people who thought that they were British citizens entitled to the rights and privileges of the Glorious Revolution. The American revolutionaries who took up arms against the British weren’t just rejecting a form of political leadership, disemboweling the past in order to start a new regime (as the French did). They were seeking to claim back their old rights from nearly a century earlier.
The colonists viewed themselves as English – they viewed 1688 as personal to them. But Parliament did not, nor did it share their Puritan spirit. The colonists trusted in the King to honor the earlier agreement and give them their rights. When the King would not, they trusted in Parliament. When Parliament would not, they trusted in themselves to take back their own rights they thought were God-given anyway.
Consider Calvin Coolidge’s description of Bunker Hill as emblematic of this thought process:
We read events by what goes before and after. We think of Bunker Hill as the first real battle for independence, the prelude to the Revolution. Yet these were both after thoughts. Independence Day was still more than a year away and then eight years from accomplishment. The Revolution cannot be said to have become established until the adoption of the Federal Constitution. No, on this June day, these were not the conscious objects sought. They were contending for the liberties of the country, they were not yet bent on establishing a new nation nor on recognizing that relationship between men which the modern world calls democracy. They were maintaining well their traditions, these sons of Londonderry, lovers of freedom and anxious for the fray, and these sons of the Puritans, whom Macaulay tells us humbly abased themselves in the dust before the Lord, but hesitated not to set their foot upon the neck of their king.
It is the moral quality of the day that abides. It was the purpose of those plain garbed men behind the parapet that told whether they were savages bent on plunder, living under the law of the jungle, or sons of the morning bearing the light of civilization. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 was fading from memory. The English Government of that day rested upon privilege and corruption at the base, surmounted by a king bent on despotism, but fortunately too weak to accomplish any design either of good or ill. An empire still outwardly sound was rotting at the core.
The privilege which had found Great Britain so complacent sought to establish itself over the Colonies. The purpose of the patriots was resistance to tyranny. Pitt and Burke and Lord Camden in England recognized this, and, loving liberty, approved the course of the Colonies. The Tories here, loving privilege, approved the course of the Royal Government. Bunker Hill meant that the Colonies would save themselves and by saving themselves save the mother country for liberty.
The war was not inevitable. Perhaps wars are never inevitable. But the conflict between freedom and privilege was inevitable. That it broke out in America rather than in England was accidental. Liberty, the rights of man against tyranny, the rights of kings, was in the air. One side must give way.
Ultimately, this battle for liberty was about the rejection of the colonists’ status as second class citizens. For Parliament, the idea that an American colonist was on equal footing with other Englishman was a silly concept, absurd on its face. Yet in the American colonies, all men who owned property were rather regarded as equal regardless of their station in life. In time, the British Empire’s failure to concede equality under the law to all the Dominions, including India, was the seed of its demise.
Today, the Goliaths of the modern political age – the technocratic equivalent of the Tories and the Royal Government – are struggling to understand and deal with the new reality of American conservatism. The elites on both sides of the aisle are insular in their thinking. For the moneyed establishment, this is because they misunderstand the altered nature of the political process; for the intellectual elite, because their vision of conservatism focuses on the powdered wig and denigrates the coonskin cap.
For those intellectuals on the right equipped with some insight, they recognize that the thread of populism which runs through Bunker Hill and The Alamo is an ally, not a foe. But for those who are prisoners to their narrow frame of the world, misunderstanding this long-running American tradition has turned into dripping condescension of the populist right. They decry the Tea Party and its new institutions as a kabuki dance performed for filthy luchre from ill-mannered hicks and racists… not realizing that it is in the nature of populism, particularly conservative populism, to to see the structures of power more clearly for what they are, as opposed to what they claim to be.
Just as the aristocracy of the day bought the Tories with the benefits of privilege, so today the existing Goliaths guard the status of the self-styled elite. Their approach to government not only protects elite status but also creates it, typically without merit – paired with the authoritarian technocrats’ belief that they know best, and have the right to make that best a reality. It’s why such elitism is the one thing they are conservative about – the modern aristocracy bequeaths titles of nobility for surviving the attacks of the hicks, protecting its own, and attempting to control the agenda in the same way they did in pre-revolutionary times. But the more Goliath ignores, insults, and fights David, the stronger he becomes.
The problem is that these Goliaths are slow and clumsy, and that, equipped with the technology-driven power of collaboration and the institutional wherewithal to match the established fundraisers, the Davids have more than enough smooth stones in hand to do what they came to do. The superior force on which the giants’ success depended grows ever less impressive with each passing election cycle. And the rebels are at the gate.