The Radical Revolution

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What really scared his contemporaries, the real treason of Aaron Burr, is that he was a traitor to his class. They expected more from him. He had all the promise of leadership, which is why he got elevated so quickly, first to the Senate and then to the Vice Presidency at a time when you had to be somebody to be Vice President. Think of who his predecessors were: Jefferson and Adams. Then there’s Burr. He was expected to be one of the shining lights of the new Republic. He had a distinguished war record, he had everything going for him—looks, charm, extraordinary abilities —but he failed the test of disinterested leadership, and he scared the bejesus out of the other Founding Fathers.

And what was Burr? He was just an anticipation of a real American politician. Gore Vidal in his novel Burr makes him the natural father of Martin Van Buren. That’s one of the invented sections of the book; there’s no real evidence of that at all, though it was a scurrilous rumor at the time. But Vidal’s choice is interesting because Van Buren does emerge as the first great modern politician, still a gentleman, but a nineteenth-century version, a type simply unanticipated by the Founding Fathers, a victorious candidate who had done nothing notable to deserve office. He had written no great documents, he had won no battles, he had no great distinctions. But he had built the best political machine the country had ever seen. He was the most astute politician of his era and a great champion of the legitimacy of parties and interest groups in politics. There is a kind of spiritual tie between Burr and Van Buren, which Vidal hit upon.

 

You seem to suggest that self-interest is unchallengeable in American politics, that government can never stand above it but must merely accommodate as many interests as possible. And yet our politicians are always decrying “special interests.”

Sure. That’s our conventional rhetoric, and we continue to hope against hope that there is somebody out there who might stand above interests. One of the appeals of Perot is that he had so much money he would not be beholden to special interests. Perot in this sense has that independence that the gentleman are supposed to possess in classical political theory. But when you get down to it, everybody has interests. Press them, and people say, “Well, I mean special interest … that other interest, not this one.” There’s a certain amount of fiction and incoherence that is involved in our rhetoric of “special interests.”

Everybody’s here. No race or nationality hasn’t got somebody in the United States living as a citizen. It’s extraordinary, and it’s the product of our being so pure a commercial society.

But surely there is a persisting sense that the use of political power for economic purposes is illegitimate.

I do agree that there is a dream of a leader out there who stands above interest. That persists in American life, and it accounts for our periodic election of military heroes and accounts as well for our anti-partyism, which continues right up to the present. We’re seeing an indication of it in our systematic destruction of our political parties, most conspicuously in the weakening of the Democratic party over the last thirty years.

The liberal Republican movement, the Mugwump movement, and the Progressive movement were all anti-party. A party necessarily suggests interests; the term party does, after all, mean just that: taking a partial view. So despite our so-called acceptance of interests and parties, there’s always been, perhaps as a consequence of the republican emphasis in the Founding Fathers’ dream, a high level of rhetoric that condemns parties and interests, whether special or not.

Later in your book you argue that in the world created by the Revolution great disparities of wealth are not considered antithetical to a democratic order. But didn’t the successive waves of American populism have a strong and recurring hostility to concentrations of wealth—take the New Deal term economic royalists , for instance?