Foul-mouthed, nine-fingered, volatile, ruthless Democratic politician Rahm Emanuel does not immediately evoke comparisons to Aristotle, the ancient philosopher of the golden mean. Even Chicago Tribune reporter Naftali Bendavid's adoring portrait of the 2006 Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) chairman, The Thumpin': How Rahm Emanuel and the Democrats Learned to Be Ruthless and Ended the Republican Revolution, does not attribute to him much moral virtue other than the virtue of winning. Bendavid provides a vivid account of the campaign's inner workings and gives great credit to Emanuel's commitment and sensitivity to the importance of the task, but his narrative doesn't stray far from the conventional understanding of the campaign as a pragmatic victory, the DCCC nominating even anti-choice, gun-toting veterans and the like and flogging them to beg for money, which often comes from lobbyists, in order to compete in the mostly Republican districts.
In most of the public discussion of the 2006 campaign, any liberal virtue is attributed to the netroots, with their early opposition to the Iraq war and to the Democratic National Committee, with its plan to build a 50-state machine to convert interior provinces to littoral liberalism. Even the Thumper's defenders make mostly factual arguments on his behalf--his candidates were largely not conservative, the few liberal surprises from the netroots network were anomalies, and so on. The debate continues to play itself out, directed now to the election of 2008.
This narrative has the story exactly backwards. Not only was Emanuel's campaign a pragmatic success, it was a triumph of virtue. Not just any virtue, either, but a very old and honorable virtue with its roots in the oldest western secular moral tradition--Aristotle's Politics. The campaign of 2006, Emanuel's campaign, fulfilled the statesman's virtuous obligation to bring his society back from the dangerous brink of unrestrained extremism.
That most of the commentary missed the real story may reflect the way that Aristotle has been heavily co-opted by socially retrograde commentators like Allan Bloom (The Closing of the American Mind) and Harvey Mansfield (Manliness) to justify their jeremiads against modern American life. But this misuse should not cut off access to Aristotle's political writings, which easily yield rich insights into contemporary politics. On the subject of contending parties in The Politics, Aristotle suggests that the "many" press for egalitarian rule, with political power distributed according to numbers, while the wealthy "few" argue that their dominance of the society's wealth also entitles them to dominate the political process. Whichever group gains temporary dominance will use its power to advance its own interests and oppress the other. Sound familiar? Absent perfect virtue in the candidates for rule, Aristotle concludes, the best possible regime is a mixed regime, where all the various interests are represented. His reasons for this prescription sound quite modern, too--that people are not good judges in their own case and that extreme dominance by one faction or the other leads to strife, even to civil war.
Extremist regimes, Aristotle tells us, are characterized by a concentration of decision-making in one place, defiance of the rule of law and a harvesting of political power for personal, material gain. Extremism is a powerful word and should not be used lightly, even against adversaries. As any number of reports have documented, liberal politics, when it held sway, had slipped a distance down the slope as well, as Aristotle would have predicted. But its sway was short and contentious, and much liberal change bubbled up from the culture rather than being the product of political action.
By contrast, by November 5, 2006, the White House, Senate, House of Representatives, federal judiciary, and a majority of state governments were all in the hands of the Republican Party. The Republican Party was in turn controlled by its most conservative elements. And so, the heavy voting evangelical base and the historically conservative solid South, bankrolled by the most privileged beneficiaries of the winner-take-all economy, controlled the federal government. The conservative-dominated Republican Party also controlled the state agencies of congressional districting, in a process that threatened to produce a government unrestrained even by the technical procedures of electoral politics. The Bush administration consolidated power, even against the bureaucracy of its own executive branch, and politicized the ultimate rule-of-law department, the Department of Justice. And Republicans ordered all lobbyists to direct money only to Republican office-holders.
This state of affairs was the result of decades of planning. The conservative Republicans announced their political intentions with the Goldwater campaign of 1964: "Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice." A memorandum to the Chamber of Commerce from their counsel in 1971 compared liberals like the ACLU and Ralph Nader to communists and predicted that policies like the "inequitable taxation" of business would lead to tyranny. Among many initiatives, the memo advised using the FBI list of subversive speakers on college campuses as the jumping off place for a campaign of reeducation. And conservatives had plenty of time to move to the extreme. The Republican Party captured the White House in the very next election after Goldwater's defeat. The rehabilitation of Richard Nixon as the lesser evil to George W. Bush should not obscure that his election in 1968 was a substantial move to the right, giving extreme conservatives time to build their movement. Less than two years after Nixon took office he put Lewis Powell, the author of the Chamber of Commerce memorandum, on the Supreme Court. At the end of the 30-year process, exactly as Aristotle described, the Bush administration had manifested every behavior of the triumphant extremists.
Time was the last thing liberals possessed in 2006. Yet when Emanuel took the reins he found congressmen coy about raising money and prattling to the press about what good guys their Republican colleagues were. As Bendavid chronicles, Emanuel's response was to meld his cell phone to his ear ("I'm calling from my kid's kindergarten play"), open a mail-order cheesecake account with his favorite Chicago restaurant for cultivating prospects, and not sleep much for 22 months. Aristotle used words translated as "political theorists" and "legislators" in his prescriptions, but the better word is "statesmen" to do the hard, virtuous work of reining in the powerful extremes. Assuming that the Democratic victory was not a fortuitous blip, the election of 2006 will have begun this virtuous process, long overdue, of bringing American politics back to the center. Exhausted, emaciated, a stranger to his children, Emanuel's last line in The Thumpin' is "I can't say I enjoyed it." But then virtue is rarely easy.
By Linda Hirshman