Landscape organizes everything within sight.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

You Say You Want a Revolution

Reading Jonathan Parry, The Rise and Fall of Liberal Government in Britain (1993).

Parry departs from earlier historians, who assume the progressive rise of a democratic liberal party bent on reform, and its eventual demise for having stretched too far towards fringe groups like unions, the Irish, and women.

Parry depicts a political party united between 1820 and 1886 only by the idea of well-managed efficiency and compromise. Public opinion was something Canning invented to prove that management was better than entrenched forces. Why was it better? Because something called the public liked it. Who was the public? Stop asking that, look at us. We are evangelical aristocrats. We want a more moral society. Off we go: to reform the prisons, educate the masses, cleanse the sewers, and police the streets.

Public opinion may have killed the party in the end, too. Just as Britain finally became something like a democracy in the 1870s, just as the male electorate was finally enfranchised in 1886, just then the liberal coalition held so cleverly together for so many years shivered and began to unravel. Gladstone was a circus showman, no deft disguiser and deal-maker like Palmerston. He courted the evangelicals at the expense of moderates, he voted for Home Rule in Ireland at the expense of moderates worried about law and order everywhere. Ideals over politics, beautiful in private life, are devastating to a party. The conservatives glimpsed this and moved in for the kill. They swept up the groups that had been alienated by Gladstone's policies, branded the remaining liberals as a concatenation of lunatic interest groups, and rode into victory on Salisbury's platform of a strong state at last. The half-century of British liberalism, the pax Britannica of reform, was over.

Read this and learn, Democrats. Parties fracture. Those who sweep together the pieces win.

Coalitions get ahead by pretending that everyone likes them and stressing who does. Lakoff's framing could accomplish something similar for the Democrats, but only if he is as much of a fictionalizer as a social scientist. Will we be the liberals of 1820, manufacturing public opinion, or the liberals of 1886, crucified by it?


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