Jim Sleeper: Why Some Conservatives Are Backing KerryRoundup: Historians' Take
[Jim Sleeper is a political-science lecturer at Yale University, where he teaches
a seminar on "New Conceptions of American National Identity."]
If some of us anti-Bush Americans seem on the verge of a nervous breakdown in these final days, it's not necessarily because John Kerry is our heart's desire or even because George W. Bush and Co., under cover of fighting terrorism, are spending the country into crushing debt that will drive the social compact back to the 1890s. Nor are we wrought up because a Republican ticket led by two former draft dodgers (as defined by every conservative Republican since the late 1960s, when both men did their dodging), has savaged war heroes like Max Cleland, John McCain, and Kerry himself.
The republic has survived excesses like that, if barely. What really scares some of us is the foreboding that, this time, it won't outlast the swooning and the eerily disembodied cheering at those Bush revival rallies. Something has happened to enough of the American people to make some warnings by this country's own Founders leap off the page as never before.
As soon as King George III was gone, the Founders took one look at the American people and became obsessed with how a republic ends. History showed them it can happen not with a coup but a smile and a friendly swagger, as soon as the people tire of the burdens of self-government and can be jollied along into servitude -- or scared into it, when they've become soft enough to intimidate.
Alexander Hamilton sketched the stakes when he wrote that history had destined Americans, "by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force."
And Ben Franklin sketched the odds, warning that the Constitution "can
only end in Despotism as other Forms have done before it, when the People shall
have become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being incapable of
How might that happen? "History does not more clearly point out any fact than this, that nations which have lapsed from liberty, to a state of slavish subjection, have been brought to this unhappy condition, by gradual paces," wrote Founder Richard Henry Lee.
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