Op-Ed

‘Virtuecrats’ may bring on President Trump

A supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., holds a "Bernie or BUST" sign at a rally in Philadelphia, Thursday, July 28, 2016, during the final day of the Democratic National Convention.
A supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., holds a "Bernie or BUST" sign at a rally in Philadelphia, Thursday, July 28, 2016, during the final day of the Democratic National Convention. AP

Virtuecrat – (noun): A sanctimonious person, usu. of the political left. The Harvard Dictionary of Political Eccentricities.

Welcome, friends, to the world of the virtuecrats. You may find their school of politics familiar. In 1948 they broke with the Democrats and marched under the “Progressive” banner of FDR’s former vice president, Henry A. Wallace, who lamented President Truman’s tendency to speak sharply to Soviet diplomats about Stalin’s broken promises. So did Strom Thurmond’s “Dixiecrats,” who lamented his early support of civil rights.

A generation later, angered by the war in Vietnam, they engineered a “Dump Johnson” movement, blaming Lyndon B. Johnson for enlarging and prolonging that miserable war. They did dump Johnson, but that cleared the way for the election of Richard Nixon, who shed more American blood in “ending” the war than all his predecessors had in fighting it.

You may have detected the same note of righteous indignation in Philadelphia among some noisy followers of Bernie Sanders. They taunted moderates and told television reporters that it “doesn’t matter” who wins the election, Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. Some walked out. They rely on the fiction that Hillary Clinton’s nomination was “rigged.”

Do the Democrats have a monopoly of virtuecrats? Certainly not. The GOP has its own outbreaks of factionalism, usually more right- than left-wing.

In 1964 the Republican virtuecrats insisted on the nomination of Barry Goldwater, an honest man and the pretended author of “The Conscience of a Conservative.” Goldwater accepted the nomination that year with the memorable motto that “moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Goldwater, who was substantially less virtuecratic than his sponsors, turned out to have the political judgment of a mule. Literally. He made it clear that public power should be abolished in the Tennessee Valley and went there to make sure Tennessee voters understood.

He also opposed federal civil rights laws at a time when history was turning. That his opposition was principled, at least by his lights, cut little ice when George C. Wallace was waging his war against the U.S. and, not incidentally, against the black citizens of Alabama.

Goldwater’s zealous boosters wanted “a choice, not an echo” – they’d had it with centrist moderates like Nelson Rockefeller. What they got was a Democratic landslide.

On the Democratic side, they tended to resent southern pragmatists like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton (and Lyndon Johnson earlier) who have an annoying habit of winning elections.

You may wonder, in the face of such disappointing results, what makes virtuecrats tick. Purist zeal is among the usual givens, no matter which party fringe the virtuecrats cling to. Above all, they decline to be instructed by history. Like the Bourbon kings of France, “they forget no history and learn nothing from it.” And while they occasionally prevail in preferential primaries, the majorities on election day are usually to be found in the political center.

This time around, faced with another nominee of centrist convictions, the fringes have clogged the party platform with economic fantasies – sky-high minimum wages more likely to boost unemployment than working-class prosperity; “free” college education and the usual rhetorical slaps at “Wall Street” and “big banks,” the bogey-figures of the left-wing paranoid style.

But the real scarecrow of 2016 is reciprocal trade agreements. Since virtuecrats are not attentive students of history, they have forgotten, or never understood, the lessons of protectionism in the 1920s and 1930s.

American tariffs clogged the arteries of international trade and made it impossible for European allies to repay their war loans. “They hired the money, didn’t they?” asked Calvin Coolidge, in what passed for a clever comment of that disastrous era. Yes, they did “hire” the money, but since they couldn’t sell their goods in the American market they defaulted on their debts. The virtuecrats thought it served the “big banks” right, never mind that foolish protectionism helped precipitate the Great Depression in which everyone lost.

I must admit to a certain sympathy with the 2016 virtuecrats. I was once young myself. “Reciprocal” trade should indeed be reciprocal, not a job-drain, although no trade agreement is ever exactly symmetrical. And there is always plenty of mischief on “Wall Street” to guard against. But too many of the historyless young are howling for a never-never land of gain without pain. If they persist they may wake up Nov. 9 with a new president named Trump. They certainly won’t like that.

Contributing columnist Edwin M. Yoder Jr. of Chapel Hill is a former editor and columnist in Washington.

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