“Inhabiting These States today, George would be ineligible for any office of honor or profit,” wrote American satirist H.L Mencken of our most respected Founding Father, George Washington. “The Senate would never dare confirm him; the President would not think of nominating him; He would be on trial in the newspapers for belonging to the Money Power…. He would be under indictment by every grand jury south of the Potomac.”
Rather than being “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” as Light Horse Harry Lee called him, Washington would be ripped to shreds by enterprising attorneys and a fickle media.
Mencken wrote that reflection on America’s preeminent statesman a little more than 100 years ago, but his point is even more relevant today. There are entire Beltway organizations devoted to both trying to dig up dirt on politicians (and even prospective ones), or helping those considering public office to evaluate what dirt already exists on them so they can do damage control.
Media (and social media) have turned politics into an entertainment industry of endless packable soundbites aimed at defaming the other side. In contrast, 150 years ago, Americans sat for hours listening to speeches and debates by those seeking even local office.
This is not the way to foster authentic statesmen. Real statesmen, said nineteenth-century American Catholic writer Orestes Brownson, require “public spirit, intelligence, foresign, broad views, manly feelings, wisdom, energy, and resolution.” Now we pay more attention to likeability, ability to deliver zingers, or the capacity to check certain boxes demanded by our identity politics regime. Our two major parties obsess over polling to determine what candidates will be best suited to satisfy the amorphous desires of our distractible, capricious citizenry.
Prudentialism vs. Partisanship
Statesmanship is the topic of a new book by Assumption University professor emeritus Daniel J. Mahoney entitled The Statesman as Thinker: Portraits of Greatness, Courage, and Moderation. “What is needed today,” says Mahoney, “is not a return to classical politics per se but an openness to the judicious mix of realism and moral aspiration that informed the classical political philosophies of Aristotle and Cicero in particular.” He offers reflections from not only classical thinkers, but Edmumd Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Charles De Gaulle, and Václav Havel to help us perceive what this looks like not only in theory but practice.
Mahoney identifies a number of important qualities common among the great statesmen. “The thoughtful or reflective statesman exercises what the contemporary French political philosopher Pierre Manent calls ‘commanding practical reason,’ not arbitrary power or a plan to satisfy the lowest impulses of his soul,” he writes. Rather, this prudentialism serves the common good.
True statesmen also reject narrow partisanship, which Mahoney argues “sunders the unity of the political community and, in extremis, can lead to civil war and self-seeking at the expense of the common good.” Such a political leader, embodied in the writings of Cicero, prefers “peace to war, magnanimity to peevish resentment, clemency to the perpetual aggravation of the hatreds and divisions that destroy the moral integrity of the civic community.”
The best politician employs the intellectual and moral virtues and “all the powers of the soul,” with proper humility and deference to divine and moral law, to better the community. When such a leader achieves this, even briefly, citizens recognize that he or she has approached the peak of human excellence.
Yet is there anyone in recent memory who fits such a description? What national leaders might we point to in the United States and say, “Yes, that is a politician who is a worthy successor to Washington, James Madison, or Lincoln”? Is there anyone to fit the model of a “beaux ideal of a statesman,” that famous Lincolnian description of Kentucky politician Henry Clay? Have men (or politics) changed so much that such statesmanship is no longer even possible?
Perhaps, although I’d argue that it is the fourth estate, the modern media that is supposed to help preserve the integrity of American politics, that actually obscures and undermines statesmanship in the American republic. Part of the problem is what Neil Postman diagnosed almost 40 years ago in Amusing Ourselves to Death: a media less focused on informing than it is on entertaining. There’s also the headache caused by a 24/7 news cycle — driven by television and social media — that has made it impossible to ever escape the endless supply of political controversies, no matter how unimportant or fabricated.
We must also mention the fact that corporate media has entirely abandoned any attempt at objectivity. Although still trying to present themselves as unbiased, corporate media — from the Washington Post and New York Times to CNN and MSNBC — are unabashedly partisan in their news reporting, let alone on op-ed pages and talk shows. Yes, Fox News leans right — but none of the other major networks do, nor any of the prominent national newspapers. This means that conservative politicians can expect nothing but opprobrium and personal attacks from journalists who claim to be interested in “just the facts.”
Consider how the Washington Post, which is a local newspaper for many Virginians, has covered Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin since he was elected in November 2021. It wasn’t just that the Post was outspokenly critical of Youngkin when he ran for office, but that they have sought to conflate anything that has happened in his first year in office as a reflection of his poor leadership, if not his supposed bigotry.
When Youngkin refused to wear a mask at a grocery store in Alexandria, the Post featured critical articles (and op-eds) about it, even though the city of Alexandria had no mask mandate, and the state mask mandate in schools was dropped shortly thereafter — with support from Virginia Democrats. When a Richmond high-school student picked a fight with whoever runs the governor’s Twitter account, and his campaign responded in kind, the Post made Youngkin out to be an ogre needlessly attacking defenseless kids. These are faux controversies at their best, and leftist corporate media eats up every single last one of them.
A Desperate Need
Mahoney understands this toxic reality. He describes a “new Manichean racialism” that is rigorously enforced in our schools, media, corporations, churches and, indeed, through nearly every institution of civil society,” something Youngkin and other politicians have vigorously pushed back against, and taken heat as either a racist or a dog-whistler for racists.
Mahoney criticizes “the intellectual clerisy in the West,” including academics, activists, and journalists, who are “increasingly committed to the negation or repudiation of our civilizational inheritance.” They represent a coercive regime “founded on the manipulation of language and the forced imposition of ideological cliches with little or no connection to anything real or enduring.”
And that’s the problem. The very civil society institutions that are supposed to give republican government a persistent vigor and stability are corrupted to the core, obsessed with racial, sexual, and gender identitarianism that fosters a self-destructive tribalism and “a barely concealed nihilism.”
Unless politicians are willing to fight back, the noose of identitarianism will only tighten, especially given that Woke Capitalism and Big Tech are in on the game. As Mahoney observes, we now live in what British intellectual Roger Scruton called a “culture of repudiation” that is at war with human nature and civilization itself.
Mahoney urges Americans to “repudiate repudiation” and “open ourselves to human excellence in all its forms.” I’m certainly game — how else will we preserve our precarious polis? Given the odds stacked against us, it’s little surprise we are still in desperate need of authentic statesmen.