In the opening scene of Joseph Addison’s 1713 play Cato, performed by George Washington at Valley Forge in May 1778, one character pays another compliment:
Your constant temper, Portius
Can look to guilt, rebellion, deceit and Caesar
In the calm lights of mild philosophy.
Looking at the wreckage of the American political scene today, can we find any political figures who deserve a similar award? Whose stability of character and equanimity of spirit allow them to think clearly about how to deviate from the madness of 2020 instead of drowning in its bathos? Is there a political party for the sober?
Of course, there are very many people on both sides of the political spectrum who believe that even asking this question shows a profound lack of understanding of the stakes of our political moment. This is no time for timeouts, halves, or compromises with the enemy host. More like Cato, the hero of Addison’s tragedy, who fought tyranny and eventually preferred death to captivity, this must surely be the hour to stand against those who would degrade our political tradition.
However, Cato established an unassailable reputation as a defender of the republic and as an example of the stoic virtues of self-control before taking up arms. As the historian Sallust put it, “Cato preferred to be virtuous rather than seem; The less he sought fame, the more he haunted him. “Because he was known as an indomitable, incorruptible defender of high principles, his struggle against Caesar could be admired even by those who opposed him.
To put it mildly, our highest leaders are not like that today. Even if we agree with what they say, we have to admit that they embody opportunism and self-promotion in ways that we would not want to see in our family or friends. The highest praise we can offer these shapeshifters in good conscience is that they responded to the needs of the moment – that they made themselves the right person in the right place at the right time. But we cannot look to them for examples of the kind of solidity or republican virtue we want our society to be based on.
When I think about what is lacking in our current politics, one word often comes to mind: “ballast”. When steering a ship or a hot air balloon, ballast is the weight that is carried to ensure smooth navigation. In politics, the people who are referred to as the “salt of the earth” or the “pillars of the community” are the ballast that enables the ship of state to turn steadily even in strong winds and to reliably determine its course.
Even liberals who, by and large, want America to reinvent itself in significant ways can see the benefits of having one section of society act as its bedrock. Yoni Appelbaum from the Atlantic, for example, praised the way in which “the conservative strands of America’s political heritage – a tendency in favor of continuity, a love of traditions and institutions, a healthy skepticism about sharp deviations – give the nation the ballast it needs. If you believe that there is an enduring and productive tension between respect for the past and the willingness to forge a new future, as Yuval Levin referred to as “The Great Debate” between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine, you will not to do so I want the forces that embody tradition to be simply swept away.
In the innocent days of the early 2010s there was an imagination, most often voiced by moderate Democrats, that Barack Obama was best understood as some sort of moderate Republican foray into the Democratic fold through the radicalization of the Republican Party in the 21st century has been. The President himself even endorsed this idea once. As a story, of course, it’s utter nonsense. In his autobiography, Obama documented his youthful political development as a community organizer in the 1980s, and he was not a Republican. But the claim was clearly meant to be more symbolic, an encapsulation of the idea that if Republicans could one day claim to represent the citizens of America with a straight keel, their ideologically motivated desire to overcome decades of state building meant they made such a claim have forfeited in recent years. The conservative ruling disposition became the property of the center-left.
True steadfastness would lead our leaders away from the ephemera of the daily news cycle and toward the great challenges of our time.
Trump’s rise made it difficult to dismiss such claims as mere trolling. Although Trump himself did not have his sights set on the dismantling of the welfare state and his administration failed to radically reorganize the government, his seething contempt for the “deep state” (admittedly sometimes deserved and often reciprocated) and His frequent defamations of everything that came before him was , make it plausible that the Great Old Party is no longer a suitable political home for those who value stability in their own lives and in their community.
Are the yin and yang of our politics now reversed? Are centrist democrats the law enforcement officers, the ballast to stabilize our ship? And are Republicans now committed to some sort of radical insurrection that, in the name of disrupting an illegitimate elite cabal, will attempt to overthrow any institution that could protect the government from its zealous anger?
Not quite. No political party can have a monopoly on permanence; History gives us many examples of fleeting Tories and solid socialists. And undoubtedly, at this particular moment, a strong desire for consistency in the Oval Office has motivated many voters to endorse a man who is sometimes referred to as a center-left skirt to be relied on to deal with the more volatile elements at either end to withstand the political spectrum.
Given the seemingly ardent desire of our political left to reject our nation’s political heritage, economic system, and even basic notions of personal morality, it weighs on credibility to imagine that our system has somehow reversed polarity and made the Democratic Party its natural home those who seek steadfastness above all else.
In Addison’s play, Cato explains:
True steadfastness shows in great feats,
This righteousness justifies and this wisdom guides,
Everything else is towering phrasing and distraction.
This last sentence provides a fitting heading for our politics and online culture in 2020. It seems at times that someone drawn into this vortex is unable to delve deeply into the real problems in the offline world to concentrate. Realistic political proposals, such as those actually intended to build a broad coalition of support, seem to have become a thing of the past; serious devotion to certain institutions, anachronistic. From the point of view of “phrensie”, those who insist on the relevance of old-fashioned values such as fiscal conservatism or politeness can be dismissed as “very serious people”.
But without seriousness and without a sense of the gravity of things that are not in our incessant online “discourse”, it has become difficult for our leaders to even imagine the kind of “great feats” that can elevate the nation . It’s not that they try and fail, but that they seem to have no idea what it would mean for them to show “true strength” that would steer them away from the ephemera of the daily news cycle and towards the great challenges of our time, which are anything but illusory.
Putting together a cohesive society from materials as diverse as the Americans of the 21st century is not a problem to be asked for, but its difficulties must be confronted with a sense of realism rather than the futile hope that if only they will go away half the country prostrate themselves to the existence of injustice. Tackling the devastation of a global pandemic takes more than talent to distract the blame. It takes the courage to imagine new ways to do things and then the persistence to overcome the bureaucratic obstacles and technical flaws that stand in the way.
We can hope that in parts of our government that are less reinforced by our media, Cato’s virtues are not as lacking as they sometimes seem; Perhaps Moncef Slaoui, head of Operation Warp Speed - the project that is advancing the development of a COVID-19 vaccine – is currently leading an effort known as the “great exploit” that is being led by real wisdom. That you may not have heard of him before is probably his great honor; In Sallust’s assessment of Cato, after all, it is those men and women who prefer to be virtuous rather than just appearing that we need now.
Let us hope that a part of our political world can find the countercultural resources necessary to cultivate such souls.