A Conservative Voice I Can Appreciate
In the wake of Trump’s election, I wanted to find a conservative thinker I could respect, lest I be in a world run by morons pure and true. Calvin Coolidge has often been trotted out as a wit, and a man with a head on his shoulders, who even did good service to the country. So I read this book to explore his thought in more depth. (Note: he reigned during the Gilded age and things went fine but after him we got the depression, so mixed bag president. At least he was relatively not racist.)
It’s significant that this book is almost entirely quips. There’s a good introduction and some full speech scripts, but mostly it’s pithy quotations ordered by topic. Coolidge is an aphoristic thinker who developed a number of reliable principles that helped him in office. (He was in one elected office or another almost his entire career, which is rare.) The beauty of his thought, and its downfall, is its folksy simplicity.
Let’s start with some of his better aphorisms.
“The process of civilization consists of the discovery by men of the laws of the universe, and of living in harmony with these laws.”
“There is no dignity so impressive, and no one independence quite as important, as living within your means.”
Reasonable! Laws are expressions of what is going to work out for everyone together. So we discover those laws over time and adapt to live in harmony with them. Real independence is being able to run your life sustainably. (Smooth, how he bakes in the fiscal responsibility thing.)
The world of Coolidge is one of honesty and hard work, where the truth outs quickly and people are either basically doing their best or not.
“I do not care to be criticizing those in power. I’ve never been much good attacking men in public office. If they succeed, the criticism fails; if they fail, the people find it out as quickly as your can tell them.”
See the appeal of Coolidge’s plainspoken approach? It’s conversational, takes a second to unpack, but feels true immediately. Coming from a more intellectual tradition, I nonetheless believe he is wrong about many things. Criticism, for example, can be socially constructive even, and especially, when its target seems, by conventional measures, to be a success. Can’t we criticize a president for starting an unnecessary war or just doing corrupt shit? If they “succeed” does the criticism fail? Coolidge is most clever when he has the element of surprise, and you don’t have a tough question like this ready to go.
Sometimes, I want to forgive him for just being out of date. But I know lots of people would agree with this today.
“It is hard to see how a great man can be an atheist. Without the sustaining influence of faith in a divine power we could have little faith in ourselves. We need to feel that behind us is intelligence and love. Doubters do not achieve; skeptics do not contribute; cynics do not create. Faith is the great motive power, and no man realizes his full possibilities unless he has the deep conviction that life is eternally important, and that his work, well done, is a part of an unending plan”
Ok, I disagree. Cynics do create, skeptics do contribute, etc. But it’s an excellent presentation for his case. If you feel like you’re part of something bigger, it can be a great motivation and really get you to go above and beyond. Fine.
Looking more deeply, I began to suspect that Coolidge comes from a world of uniformity where he just doesn’t see the exceptions I consider significant. For example, when he says “men” as a generic term, he really just means men. His vision of an eternal, divine order is, in this way, rather childish. For example, of baseball, he writes:
“We go to the game in the hope that with three men on base the batter for our team will drive the ball over the fence so that we can revel in the intoxication of crowd delirium”
In a way, I feel sorry for Coolidge. He does a good job putting together what little he knows of the world.
“Few, if any of my teachers reached the standard now required by all public schools. They qualified by examination before the town superintendent. I first took this examination and passed it at the age of thirteen and my sister Abbie passed it and taught a term of school in a neighboring town when she was twelve years old.”
“Where the people themselves are the government, it needs no argument to demonstrate that what the people cannot do their government cannot do.”
This is actually the fallacy of division, but it’s a classic move of small government conservatives. Margaret Thatcher says essentially the same thing, in her classic “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people.”
Still, I respect that Coolidge knew his job rather well and I happily accept some of his tips on administration. For example, on his famous laconic style, he writes of the duty of holding public office:
“You have to stand every day three or four hours of visitors. Nine-tenths of them want something they ought not to have. If you keep dead-still they will run down in three or four minutes. If you even cough or smile they will start up all over again.”
On the importance of government in establishing individual freedom,
“If the American Revolution meant anything, it meant the determination to live under a reign of law. It meant the assertion of the right of the people to adopt their own constitutions, and when so adopted, the duty of all the people to abide by them”
For Coolidge, laws are an expression of the human condition, are designs for discipline or duty, and should be created for the service of all. This is an inspiring thought when making laws, as one does in the course of the day. His tip of just staying quiet during a meeting where other beseech you for some total BS remains great advice.
But his usual mode of intellectual presentation is completely thoughtless.
“A country worth defending takes care of its defenders”
Rah rah veterans, but there is no content here at all. Why exactly does this have to be true? Does he mean that if the country does not help veterans enough, it will not have future soldiers? Or doesn’t deserve them? How far should the state go to help veterans? Does the after-care give the country license to abuse its defenders? Why not?
His aphorisms are charming and I wish they were more true. It would be cool if ignoring race were sufficient. It would be nice if we could really divide up the world into people who work hard and people everyone else works hard to help. I like the idea that everyone in America is on board for the same project, and that this brings them great, almost religious satisfaction.
The Coolidge brand of tribalism and inclusivity is appealing, though lacking culture and fun. He sees art as a window into the national character, neurosis as someone else’s problem, social events as something best left early, and variety as rather unnecessary in life. He comments on Florida that he has never been there, but they don’t seem to need a visit from him, and on hunting that he once passed along a hunting dog he had received as a gift, and that’s the closest he would get to hunting, himself. Also, if you are reading for Coolidge charm, you must read the story of the prize rooster which got his name in my head almost two years ago. I understand there is a whole orthogonal history to be told here of Coolidge and Hollywood, as he was the first president to host celebrities at the White House, and the celebrity of his former office is quite important to understand today. Not covered in this book.
Still, he’s a character. He and his wife kept a raccoon as a pet during their tenure in the White House, which created problems for all the staff but was great fun for them. Charming, but basically inconsiderate.
From what I understand, his presidency, beloved by Ronald Reagan, was a mild affair during an age of false prosperity, where he had an easy time letting things seem to be fine. He rose to the role when Harding died and did a good job cleaning up Harding scandals, so I get why he stayed in office. He was a hard worker and probably a very competent employee.
I’m glad I read this book and feel satisfied in my desire to read an articulate conservative perspective. It’s miles better than Trump or Bush or Buchanan, but next I want to try Buckley. Then I will probably accept that conservativism in America is almost entirely a construct of thoughtless “common sense” normally devoid of strong theory or intellectual reason.