While recently reading about the proliferation of right-wing interest group pledges, I was reminded of an article by Ray Raphael from the October 2008 edition of Common-Place entitled, “Instructions.” In that piece, he described how pre-revolutionary Massachusetts townships gave specific instructions to the delegates they sent to the Assembly, General Court, and later revolutionary Conventions. Though I generally am not very sympathetic to “neo-progressive” interpretations of early America, I nevertheless found myself agreeing with Raphael’s characterization of colonial instructions as a strong example of “popular government.” At the same time, I was increasingly frustrated by the Congressional obstruction perpetuated by the right-wing pledges.
I began to wonder: “Are those right-wing pledge requests fundamentally the same as the townships’ instructions?” That is, are the pledges a similarly popular, democratic exercise? If indeed they were, it seemed my agreement with Raphael was effectively forcing me into a position from which I could not criticize the right-wing use of pledges without being a blatant hypocrite. After all, if there really was no fundamental difference between the instructions and the pledges, I could hardly think the former praiseworthy and the latter deserving of condemnation without being intellectually disingenuous.
Following the rise of the Tea Party in 2009, right-wing interest groups have increasingly sought to bind candidates to their agenda through the signing of pledges. The most well known pledge is Grover Norquist and Americans for Tax Reform’s, “Taxpayer Protection Pledge,” in which candidates and politicians promise not to vote for “any” tax increase. Other interest groups saw how successful the tactic has been for Norquist and his lobby and over the last twelve months have begun doing the same thing. There is the “Marriage Vow” from an Iowa group called The Family Leader. Its pledge begins, “Faithful monogamy is at the very heart of a designed and purposeful order—as conveyed by Jewish and Christian Scripture, by Classical Philosophers, by Natural Law, and by the American Founders….” There is also the Cut, Cap, and Balance Coalition and The Susan B. Anthony List’s 2012 Pro-life Presidential Leadership Pledge, which “asks declared presidential candidates to commit to key pro-life goals if elected to the presidency in 2012.”
Both left-leaning and mainstream media outlets have voiced criticisms of these pledges. Alex Altman, in Time Magazine, called them “gimmicks.” He argued that the effect of signing a pledge is “the equivalent of voluntarily slipping on a straitjacket” because “it denies politicians the flexibility needed to meet unforeseen challenges.” Similarly, an editorial in The New York Times, entitled, “Signing Away the Right to Govern,” declared “each pledge [Republicans] sign undermines the basic principle of democratic government built on compromise and negotiation.” Indeed, even some Republicans have begun to quietly show some reservations.
A subsequent reading complicated matters further by suggesting a possible eighteenth-century parallel. In Eric Nelson’s recent William and Mary Quarterly article, “Patriot Royalism: The Stuart Monarchy in American Political Thought, 1769-1775,” the author argues that the patriots’ assertion that the colonies fell under the jurisdiction of the Crown rather than the Parliament was actually a shift to a far-right Tory position concurrent with the previously hated Stuarts’ colonial policy of the previous century. He asserts that the circumstances and the failures of their own previous ideological argument forced Americans into adopting a position completely alien to their own longstanding political culture. In the process, he creates a strange, new ideological arc for colonists during the imperial crisis from Whig to radical Tory to republican.
With that article in mind, I re-read a quote in Raphael’s piece from Thomas Hutchinson, the deeply despised royal governor of Massachusetts and arch-loyalist, who, in response to the townships’ practice of instructing delegates, said:
“To hold each representative to vote according to the opinion of his town . . . contradicts the very idea of a parliament the members whereof are supposed to debate and argue in order to convince and be convinced.”
When I compared that quote to the criticisms above and thought about the ideological dynamic of Nelson’s article, I began to wonder whether a similar dynamic was occurring regarding criticism of the pledges. Was my desire to criticize the pledges forcing me into temporarily adopting a far-right position far like the colonists’ critique of the sovereignty of parliament?
On a purely tactical level, there seem to be parallelisms between the colonial instructions and republican pledges. Yet, their historical contexts vary so greatly that any sort of “fundamental” comparison is highly problematic. Following the upheavals of earlier imperial encroachments, the Coercive Acts of 1774, in part, ended popular election of the Executive Council and limited local town meetings to one per year. In such a revolutionary context, instructions became a mode of reasserting the local political role colonists had exercised for generations and translating it to the larger arenas of provincial and imperial politics. Despite the persecution complex and conspiratorial mode of thought that has come to define the far-right of the early twenty-first century, they do not find themselves in anything remotely like a revolutionary context. Despite the Tea Party rhetoric, their traditional role in government is not under any threat, though their influence may be.
In addition to the historical contexts, the motives of colonists and contemporary right-wing lobbies are equally different. Rather than defending their inherited political culture, right-wing interest groups, along with their strong anti-government message, are attempting to paralyze the legislative process in the hopes of undermining government working for others.
I’m interested to know how the readers of this blog would address these two questions. Are colonial instructions and right-wing pledges fundamentally similar democratic processes? In forming that judgment, should one give priority to the tactic itself or to the motivations behind the tactic? Finally, if there are fundamental similarities, are those who criticize it adopting a traditionally far-right position in order to do so? If so, is that just crass opportunism or is it refreshing, in our current political culture, to see commitment to larger goals outweigh commitment to a narrow ideology?
Michael Hattem is currently a graduate student at Yale University. He received his BA in History from the City University of New York. Hattem focuses on eighteenth-century American political culture, intellectual history, and print culture, and he is also interested in the history of the book and the Enlightenment in America.