Pride of a Partisan


As much as some people might be apt to choke on the mere thought of it, ahead of the very thing itself, the central node of American political tendencies was to be found this past Friday, June 23, 2012 in a studio at Television City, in California, on Bill Maher’s Real Time.

What? you say.

Maher’s guests panelists were the cable news liberal heroine of the day, Rachel Maddow, a suitably wealthy media magnate and mainstream business Republican, in Mort Zuckerman, and, in Nick Gillespie, the editorial force behind Reason magazine and, the show’s just as representative cranky libertarian. Not a half wit or lightweight among ‘em.

Guess who played the horse fly that keeps landing on your arm no matter how many times you swat it away? The cranky.

Gillespie offered the best show of grim-faced and relentless argumentative boring-in since Christopher Hitchens left the scene, though with none of the dexterous wit for which libertarians are less known than a good disgruntled piss.

Maddow generally comports herself during such encounters with calm and deft argumentative assurance, but while she did not perform poorly this night, she was not at her best. She properly understood, under Gillespie’s focused attack, that the best defense begins in not standing on defensive ground, by not accepting the defensive role, but she failed to execute the reversal. She failed to disarm Gillespie, as neither she nor anyone else on the panel identified the hollow point at the head of Gillespie’s thrust – the accusation of partisanship.

Gillespie accused Maher and especially Maddow of being partisans and challenged them to name a Republican they would support. While Maddow did not agree to argue on these terms and thus to respond to the challenge, she was left appearing as if – as is likely true – she could not, in fact, name a Republican she could support and was accordingly, for whatever it might be worth, probably guilty of Gillespie’s claimed failing.

But what kind of failing is it?

Gillespie is the author of Declaration of Independents, and were the title’s homonym play the homonym and not the play he would have been forming an argument with legs to stand on. But as the world, or the U.S. portion of it anyway, turns, exactly what point of intellectual pride is discoverable, today more than ever, in standing as an independent?

From the twentieth century on, particularly since Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic and Republican parties have represented, within the framework of capitalist liberal democracy, clearly distinct philosophies of government and conceptions of society. Not since the Civil War era’s reversed polarities of liberalism and conservatism, on the subject of slavery and states’ rights, in very different parties from today, have those differences been more stark. Once, only a few decades ago, a Democrat faced with an uninspired candidate from his own party might have been comforted in turning to a big business, but social liberal Republican such as Nelson Rockefeller or Jacob Javits or John Lindsay. Maybe she could vote for John Anderson running as an independent in 1980. Maybe such a Democrat today would hope for such a Republican to support against a Blue Dog Democrat like Max Baucus or Ben Nelson or Kent Conrad. That hope now leads only to a museum of natural history.

Yes, “partisan,” in its negative denotation indicates a deterioration to “blind, prejudiced, and unreasoning allegiance.” But it begins in allegiance to a cause and its principles. The Italian Partisans against the Nazi occupation and Mussolini were not cheap political hacks; they staked their lives on their beliefs. To be a liberal partisan – and a conservative one, too – can properly mean that one espouses a developed and coherent political philosophy, promotes a deeply considered vision of government and society, one that, of course, entails that a vote for someone not adhering to that philosophy is unthinkable. What virtue is it exactly, in today’s America – standing between these two magnetic poles of social geography – to claim to be an independent, other than to say one is forgivably unschooled or unforgivably uninterested in the world one inhabits?

Gillespie, who played the forest boor throughout the show, was in reality himself no nonpartisan. He sang the anthem’s lyric, but the melody was all anti-government, a philosophy that could reasonably draw no liberal. Zuckerman was left unusually quiet and looking frequently bemused. He even, in contrast to the cranky extremism, defended supermarket ingredient labeling against Gillespie’s blithe satisfaction that consumers be left instead to research the information between daycare and the second job.

In defending, in the end, fracking against the well-versed criticisms of actor Mark Ruffalo, Gillespie revealed his own partisanship, genuine and misguided enough to be judged by it. The more unregulated the free market and the weaker the government in law, the stronger the corporations in fact. But the voice of individual liberty that is the libertarian’s quaking before government power remains without tremor in the face of corporate supremacy. The government leviathan in law produces nightmares of slavery. The corporate monster in fact does not trouble his sleep.

That is the upshot of Gillespie’s philosophy, and he’s sticking to it. Like a good partisan.


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