David and Goliath

I have not yet read Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, but I have read Ben Domenech’s outstanding piece in The Federalist on the application of the David and Goliath trope to our modern politics, as well as Daniel Hannan’s marvelous new tome on the uniquely British origins of constitutional liberty, and I believe they share a common and important insight about man’s capacity to resist arbitrary rule, in the same sense that underdogs like David are compelled to resistance against all kinds of Goliaths.

Domenech taps into one of Hannan’s central points about the American Revolution: that the revolutionaries did not see themselves as progressives or even radicals, but as conservatives bent on restoring their rights as free-born Englishmen. To the extent the patriots viewed themselves as revolutionaries at all, Hannan explains, it was in pursuit of a 360 degree turn of the wheel, back to their Anglo-Saxon roots when traditions of representative assembly carried over from their Germanic tribal days blended with budding conceptions of personal autonomy, as well as a preference for local adjudication based on precedent over abstract principle, known as the “common law.” After the Norman conquest however, much of this tradition was wiped out or sent underground as the continental invaders imposed feudalism and the Divine Right of Kings on the land; this would be the galvanizing force of English rebel libertarians for five hundred years until at last with the Glorious Revolution of 1688 they were able to “cast off the Norman yoke” and reassert the primacy of their natural rights.

Our own founders were interested in a similar restoration of their rights when they told King George III to shove it. But these were not men rebelling against a foreign power, rather they saw themselves as any colonial would have at the time, whether patriot or loyalist: as Englishmen. Our “revolutionaries who took up arms against the British weren’t just rejecting a form of political leadership, disemboweling the past in order to start a new regime (as the French did). They were seeking to claim back their old rights from nearly a century earlier.” And this is where Domenech draws a parallel between Gladwell’s advocacy for underdogs and our present conservative political stalemate between the Establishment and the Tea Party, “which is carrying on the traditions of the American Revolution, in ways they may not even recognize.”

It is not difficult to intuit why underdogs enjoy rich histories in both fact and apocrypha. Every child loves a story about a small band of heroic warriors who triumphed against long odds, and it usually doesn’t matter if the tale is true or enhanced through mythological retelling, like the difference between the 1980 US hockey defeat of the USSR and the legend of Sparta’s 300. What matters is the romantic allure of the underdog prevailing simply because his was the just cause, his heart the pure. But can the same exaltation of the underdog be applied to intra-partisan politcal arguments over tactics? The David and Goliath parable seems only relevant to tales of combat and competition, but do rhetorical skirmishes between the Tea Party and the Establishment deserve the same juxtaposition? Domenech thinks so:

For those intellectuals on the right equipped with some insight, they recognize that the thread of populism which runs through Bunker Hill and The Alamo is an ally, not a foe. But for those who are prisoners to their narrow frame of the world, misunderstanding this long-running American tradition has turned into dripping condescension of the populist right. They decry the Tea Party and its new institutions as a kabuki dance performed for filthy luchre from ill-mannered hicks and racists… not realizing that it is in the nature of populism, particularly conservative populism, to see the structures of power more clearly for what they are, as opposed to what they claim to be.

Just as the aristocracy of the day bought the Tories with the benefits of privilege, so today the existing Goliaths guard the status of the self-styled elite. Their approach to government not only protects elite status but also creates it, typically without merit – paired with the authoritarian technocrats’ belief that they know best, and have the right to make that best a reality. It’s why such elitism is the one thing they are conservative about – the modern aristocracy bequeaths titles of nobility for surviving the attacks of the hicks, protecting its own, and attempting to control the agenda in the same way they did in pre-revolutionary times. But the more Goliath ignores, insults, and fights David, the stronger he becomes.

The problem is that these Goliaths are slow and clumsy, and that, equipped with the technology-driven power of collaboration and the institutional wherewithal to match the established fundraisers, the Davids have more than enough smooth stones in hand to do what they came to do. The superior force on which the giants’ success depended grows ever less impressive with each passing election cycle. And the rebels are at the gate.”

“Elites” is a pejorative more generally used to describe paternalist liberals and their effete coastal constituencies, but here it accurately characterizes the temperament of entrenched Republicans in Washington as well. It’s become almost cliche for populist conservatives to accuse Establishment conservatives merely of “protecting the status quo,” but often cliches become cliches because they are true. There is a certain arrogance among many Republican elder statesmen in their frustration and occasional contempt for the new flock of conservative populists in the Capitol. And even if Establishment concerns about tactical politicking are sometimes warranted, they too often forget what the insurgents represent: the underdogs.

There is profound confusion on left and right about the Tea Party’s staying power as a national force in politics. The left derides it as an “astroturf” conspiracy cooked up in the devious halls of Koch Bros., Inc. The right haughtily insists that without Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell, all would be well in today’s GOP-controlled Senate and the federal government would not have been “disastrously” shut down, thereby halting for a whole two weeks a small amount of non-mandatory operations. But the truth is that the Tea Party is stronger and more viable than ever because it is a diffuse movement of principles and ideas rather than an organized entity with uniform leadership and planning. Quoting Van Jones at a Netroots meeting of progressive minds in 2011, Matt Kibbe addresses Jones’ exasperation at how the Tea Party “talk rugged individualist, but they act collectively” by explaining:

“He and his colleagues don’t seem to understand that communities can’t exist without respect for individual freedom. They can’t imagine how it is that millions of people located in disparate places with unique knowledge of their communities and circumstances can voluntarily cooperate and coordinate, creating something far greater and more valuable than any one individual could have done alone.”

It is understandable why a former communist Occupy Wall Street cheerleader would express confusion and deem “ironic” that a group of passionate individualists should be able to achieve political ends collectively. He simply doesn’t appreciate the power or the validity of the principles that guide them. But for the staid Goliaths of the GOP to similarly disregard and disrespect the diffuse coalition of focused and committed Davids in their own ranks explains why there is a “civil war” in the Republican Party today. It is never wise to discount the underdogs, especially those named after this celebrated example from our own history. What is the story of the American Revolution if not one of underdog triumph?

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