The chattering classes

Wikipedia informs me that the term “the chattering classes” was coined by Auberon Waugh and later appropriated by his friend Alan Watkins, a conservative columnist in 1980s Britain who used it to describe the (self-proclaimed) intelligentsia that despised then-PM Margaret Thatcher. More recently it has been used to broadly characterize that parallel universe of media mavens, political pundits, Washington insiders, lobbyists, commentators, spin doctors and (un)named sources who keep up a constant flow of instant analysis and criticism of whatever happens on the national stage.

Technology has played a large part in the proliferation of these self-important honchos and honchettes. Not too long ago, commentators waited until, say, a debate among the Republican candidates for their party’s nomination was ended, before dispensing instant ratings of who did well and who did not. Today, social media make possible, and even invite,”real-time” commentary by means such as Tweets and live-blogging. Proponents of one candidate try to fill the internet with positive spin, while opponents counter with their negative take. It’s all a big circus, “signifying nothing,” as the bard of Avon would say.

In Coolidge’s day, there was a chattering class, too, but their output was confined to the much slower media of newspapers and magazines, or even books. And the journalists, columnists and commentators of the the era, such as Walter Lippmann, William Allen White, Franklin Pierce Adams, Heywood Broun, or H.L. Mencken, to name a few, were arguably of a higher calibre than the chattering classes of today. While many had a political axe to grind, and filled their pens with vitriol as often as with ink, their writing was of a decidedly higher quality than the grammar-be-damned, speed-is-everything style of today’s instant commentators. I’m not sure whether the cacophony of commentary we are besieged with today leaves us better informed or not, but I’m tempted to say that while there still are worthwhile commentators (mostly old-media types) whose experience and insights enrich the political discourse, most blog posts and tweets are justly forgotten in an instant. I wager that Calvin Coolidge (who certainly was up to speed regarding new media of his time, such as radio, a medium ideally suited to his persona) would not feel at home in this environment.

Inactive presidents

It’s always fascinating to see, courtesy of WordPress, the search terms that lead people to this site. Today, I note that someone typed in “why were the 1920s presidents considered so inactive?” which led her or him to this blog.

I only have the briefest of moments to begin commenting on this question today and hope to flesh it out a little more in the near future. The charge of “inactivity”, leveled against any president, is usually based on a very expansive view of the role of the presidency. Presidents, in this view, should be the movers and shapers of the national agenda in a proactive way.

It should be noted that this expanded view of the powers of the presidency goes far beyond what the Constitution’s framers had in mind. The last thing they intended for the presidency to be was a carbon copy of the British monarchy, and thus they circumscribed a very limited set of powers and competencies for the “chief magistrate.”

Harding was elected by a landslide in 1920 on a platform of “normalcy” which he rightly understood as a mandate to get the government off the backs of the people and not burden them with any more progressive schemes. Coolidge followed that policy, and saw it as his mandate to stand, as William F. Buckley later said in a different context, athwart history yelling “Stop!”

In 1926, Walter Lippmann described Coolidge as having mastered the “technique of anti-propaganda” by reducing public interest in government, by deflating enthusiasm for ambitious programs, projects, and political dreams coming from Washington. The Democrats and Progressives of his time worked hard to whip up passions for policies, programs, for politics generally—but Coolidge managed to take the wind out of those schemes:

“Mr. Coolidge’s genius for inactivity is developed to a very high point. It is far from being an indolent inactivity. It is a grim, determined, alert inactivity which keeps Mr. Coolidge occupied constantly. Nobody has ever worked harder at inactivity, with such force of character, with such unremitting attention to detail, with such conscientious devotion to the task. Inactivity is a political philosophy and a party program with Mr. Coolidge, and nobody should mistake his unflinching adherence to it for the soft and easy desire to let things slide. Mr. Coolidge’s inactivity is not merely the absence of activity. It is on the contrary a steady application to the task of neutralizing and thwarting political activity wherever there are signs of life.”

Progressives of his day and historians of today may decry and belittle Coolidge’s penchant for inactivity, but it gave the country a much-needed respite between the progressive experiments unleashed by presidents Wilson and FDR, respectively. It is more than a little ironic that anyone aiming to emulate Coolidge today would need to do a lot more than merely being stubbornly inactive – he (or she) would need to actively roll back the progressive accomplishments of the past 80-some years.

The quotable Coolidge

Walter Lippmann said about Coolidge’s perceived inclination to inactivity, it “is far from being indolent inactivity. It is a grim, determined, alert inactivity.”

While Lippmann probably did not intend this as a compliment, from a laissez-faire, libertarian point of view an inactive chief executive is the best type of chief executive. And for Coolidge, this truly was a matter of principle – he stated his very modest view of the role the government ought to have in people’s lives as follows:

“If the federal government should go out of existence, the common run of people would not detect the difference in the affairs of their daily life for a considerable length of time.”