Jack Sprat’s Law

Is there some connection between republican government and nastiness? For politics in America is a nasty affair, is it not? Oh, I don’t mean it’s nasty the way Syrian or Ukrainian politics are nasty. Rather, they’re nasty in the way that politics in Britain and Canada aren’t nasty.

Right now Britain is going through a secession crisis. What, you didn’t hear of it? On 18 September next, the Scots will vote on whether Great Britain will become a little less great, shorn of 5 million North Britons. It looks like a near-run thing, but it’s still a remarkably calm debate. As for Canada, I’ve lived through perpetual secession crises, and while I knew people on both sides I never lost a friend over it. For me, as a (bilingual) Anglo in Quebec, secession would have been a déchirement, but one wasn’t going to lose one’s sense of humor over it.

It’s a little different here. Forget secession. I’ve lost friends over plans to install bike lanes on my street. And then there are presidential politics, where Americans are bitterly divided. Chances are you don’t know too many people on the other side, apart from idiot uncles. We pick our friends not by their literary tastes or hobbies, but by their politics. Even our local associations are separated by partisan divides. Churches used to be segregated by race. Now they’re often segregated by politics.

American politics are increasingly totalitarian, in the sense that they suck all the air out of the room. Obamacare, gay marriage, Iraq, those are the issues that matter, and were are lucky to find some respite from the serious business of political rancor in sports, where our hatred of Obama or Romney can be usefully diverted to the New York Yankees.

Were I to speculate, I might ask whether the different methods of government could explain the difference. In parliamentary countries, it’s hard to take politics too seriously if one watches the slanging matches between buffoons in the House of Commons. There’s nothing much like that in American government, where speeches read to an empty room in Congress invite pomposity and buncombe. The greatest difference, however, is likely the union of head of state and head of government in America. In parliamentary systems they’re kept separate, and one’s reverence is reserved for a politically powerless monarch. Much safer that way. Jack Sprat’s Law, I call it in The Once and Future King, the fat of ceremony kept separate from the lean meat of power.

In a presidential regime, one’s patriotism is wound up in a politician, to whom god-like powers are ascribed. A great feat requires a presidential medal, a tragedy, a presidential speech, and Peggy Noonan’s tears of gratitude. I think that also explains the hatreds seen in American politics, the Bush derangement syndrome of a dozen years ago. As I am an American I must love my president, and if I cannot do so because he is of the wrong party I must like a spurned lover hate him.

That’s not good politics. And it’s not very healthy either.

F.H. Buckley

F.H. Buckley is a Foundation Professor at the George Mason School of Law. His latest book is The Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Government in America.

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  1. G. M. Curtis III says

    Frank, thank you for this provocation. Was that a small, clear voice I heard, one calling for the return of the Articles of Confederation? GM

  2. gabe says

    1)”In a presidential regime, one’s patriotism is wound up in a politician, to whom god-like powers are ascribed”. 2)”A great feat requires a presidential medal, a tragedy a presidential speech and Peggy Noonan’s tears of gratitude.” 3a)”I think that also explains the hatreds seen in American politics, the Bush derangement syndrome of a dozen years ago”. 3b)”As I am an American I must love my president, and if I cannot do so because he is of the wrong party I must like a spurned lover hate him.”

    This is simply wrong on numerous fronts.
    1) Yet, it was not always so. This is a more recent phenomenon. Why it was not always so is, perhaps, revealed in the second assertion in your thought – “god-like” powers attributed to the President. again, this was not always so. It is only with the demise of the Legislature (willingly, I might add) that the President is seen to possess, or is hoped to possess such extensive powers. And this was possible only after it was discovered that one could build a sustained electoral majority by giving away an ever increasing supply of goodies. It is not in the NATURE of Presidential government that this be so – yet clever, venal, self serving men and women have made it so. Contrary to an earlier assertion of yours regarding the benefits of a “national party” in Parliamentary government, the fact is that it is because the President is ALSO the head of the Party that everyone looks to him to advance the agenda promised by the party.
    2)While seemingly plausible, it denies much of the history of this nation and the great sectional divides that had persisted after the Civil War. One may argue that there was an imperative to “unite” the sections and combat the lingering hostility of that great conflict and Reconstruction
    Era abuses. Additionally, I would add that the post World War II quiet war with the soviet bloc tended to further this “unity.” Who else was one to look to for leadership. Was this correct – that is beside the point. What is clear that it does not support the argument that such “god-like” reverence is not inherent in the nature of presidential government.
    3a)This is an interesting one and has a good deal of truth in it. Yet, it may have more to do with the particulars of party allegiance and what Mike Rappaport argues in his post today. Are not the Brits famous for their lambasting of the opposition? do they not resort to all sorts of name calling, scurrilous attacks, etc.
    3b)Supports my assertion against your 3a proposition.

    Ultimately, your charges are conceivable only in a post_Progessive era of politics – the damage having been done to the peoples understanding of the proper and limited role of BOTH the Legislature and the Executive.
    Was Coolidge or Harding looked upon in such a fashion. If no, then why not; what has changed.

    take care

  3. Anonymous says

    Can you explain how South Africa which has a “president” but one elected by parliament (so really more like a prime minister). And yet crime are high, poverty is widespread, public education is poor, the ruling party requires “fees” for access to top government officials and corruption is common. Given the fall of apartheid in my lifetime I don’t see how you can not take politics seriously in that government.

  4. W. B. Allen says

    I like this call to arms, for what it forces us to recall, not least that British politics were not always so serene. Even so recently as many of Churchill’s ventures in politics we found nastiness aplenty (never forget the riposte to Neville Chamberlain: you were offered negotiation or war; you chose negotiation and you got war!). In fact, I can recall saying to myself in 1969 (when I lived in France and listened attentively to BBC broadcasts) that British politics were especially toxic in comparison with those in the United States. The outright “classism” was remarkable. But Britain was in transition then, and is a different place now than it once was. In fact, it is far more like Canada, in that it matters far less in the world than it once did. Perhaps, then, politics in Canada and Britain resemble more the politics of the academy (so little to fight over) precisely because Canada and Britain have become relatively academic participants in world statecraft.

    By contrast, U.S. politics have always experienced eras of entrenched opposition and only rare “eras of good feeling.” (The War for the Union was not a mere discussion over secession; it was a fratricidal reduction of politics to either or terms.) That those conflicts have intensified as the U. S. role in the world has become matter of urgency to most lives on the globe is perhaps not an accident. Despite the affect of the current U. S. president, there are no casual principles in U. S. politics that can be trotted out just to test them. Too much is at stake!

  5. Scott Amorian says


    To answer your question from an earlier thread, about the Once and Future King, I picked up a copy from Powell’s City of Books here in Portland, OR. The wife and I get to spend an afternoon there every couple years. It’s the world’s largest new and used book store. It is 68,000 square feet (1.6 acres) of new and used books distributed through nine large rooms on three floors broken up into 3,500 sections. Overall it holds more than 1.5 million books. (Ahhh!) The political studies shelves were about 8 feet high and a good 80 feet long. The books were not in any particular order so finding the single copy King was a bit of an ordeal. The two hours spent at Powell’s seemed like about 15 minutes. The wife finally dragged me out with a copy of Buckley’s The Once and Future King, a copy of Jesse Ventura’s Democrips and Rebloodlicans, a couple of Dell Abyss books I’ve never read, a nice horror anthology, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and a few other books. If you are a book lover and ever come to Portland, Powell’s is definitely the place to visit.

    Anyway, back on the topic of the Once and Future King: The book itself is a high quality book, designed for long life. It contains three appendices, and it has 63 pages of notes and footnotes at the end of the book before the index. I can usually tell a lot about a book by the table of contents and the index. The index consists mostly of proper names of persons in contemporary politics. The chapters in the table of contents are straightforward, with no signs of kookiness. Buckley includes quantitative analysis that contributes to support his conclusions, but I am not knowledgeable enough about such things to remark on their applicability. King is most definitely a substantive scholarly work.

    From reading chapter one, I can see that Buckley does something I like, which is to challenge conventional wisdom and finds alternative ways of looking at things, and backing up conclusions with well researched facts. By “alternative” I mean that he writes about American politics like an outsider looking in as opposed to someone who lives so immersed in our political culture that we lack an external context. I can tell already that he is probably not going to sell me on one or two of his conclusions, but I’m really more interested in finding out what led him to those conclusions. Here in LLS blog Buckley tends to be a bit colorful, in a challenging way. He is more conservative in his writing style in King, and limits the color of his writing to just enough to keep the writing from being dry.

    In King, Buckley compares and contrasts the American, British and Canadian forms of government and invokes the ghosts of these governments’ past present and future, and considers the potential ruin of these empires.

    Overall, I would recommend it to anyone interested in an outsider’s analysis of the American system of government, not because he supports my opinions of the causes of problems in government, but because he doesn’t.

    Buckley argues in general that our presidential form of government is the primary cause of many of our current political problems. I believe that most of our problems of government originate in a broader source which is the general lack of structures that marginalize corrupt politicians and poorly considered political actions. Perhaps, as I read, Buckley will illustrate for me how the aspect of the presidential form of government is part of that lack of healthy marginalizing structures, but I see problems in other aspects of government that are as problematic, if not more so. The method of appointment of Justices is problematic, as are the issues of campaign finance and general oversight of corruption of government officials. I would argue that any form of government, whether parliamentary, presidential, semi-presidential, monarchy, totalitarian, or whatever, will function well if government decision makers are generally rational, caring and well informed people who are not unduly influenced by interests other than the general welfare of the people.

    The solution to the problem of government is found in leadership that has those characteristics. For that, I put down Buckley and pick up Ventura.

    Ventura makes me wonder what is happening with those Navy Seal alpha leader types who have been coming out of the military for the last thirty-some years. I’m thinking that something big stirs under the surface here. But that is a topic better suited for another thread.

    • gabe says


      Thanks for the review of the book. I suspect you and I have come to a similar conclusion regarding its value (although I have not yet read it) but in my case from the essays by Buckley on this site.
      I too am interested in an outsiders view as this gives perspective – so I look forward to reading it.

      take care

      • gabe says


        BTW: I will have to check out Powell’s when next I am in Portland.
        Interesting (perhaps for others from East coast) thing is I got my book from amazon – it was sent by Strand Bookstore in Lower Manhattan. As a student ion the late 60’s, I used to browse those shelves quite a bit. It had quite the reputation in those days. did nopt know if it was still arounf – anyone know?

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