The Eternal Struggle Between Court and Country in American Politics
The plebs are furious, the patricians glum, and every day some new Cassandra prophesies the end of democracy in 280 characters or less. This is a time of great dystopian speculation, and with double-digit inflation, a floundering presidency, FBI raids at Mar-a-Lago, wars and rumors of wars, you would be forgiven for taking some of our dimestore prophets of doom at their word. Many Americans today are uncertain their nation can survive the decade, and many more wonder if she even deserves to. But make no mistake, America will survive. The real question is who will decide her future.
Much ink has been spilled on behalf of the growing divide between America’s deep-blue metro areas and its sprawling red countryside. And while bemoaning political polarization has become a thriving cottage industry, we must remember that these tensions have always been with us. Even in times of seeming national unity, a rivalry between town and country has stalked us from the shadows, just waiting to bare its teeth. This is the perennial conflict in American history, and its roots reach back to the grand transformations of our past. Blooming in times of political and economic consolidation, the seasonal clash between Court and Country is always dramatic, sometimes violent, and inevitably sows the seed-corn for future disputes. For the victor of such contests often decides the future of the country.
To the modern observer, this fearsome rivalry remains elusive as the belligerents take on various guises throughout our history — Federalist-Republican, Capital-Labor, Liberal-Conservative, Blue-Red. The tendency is to view these chapters through an ideological lens, with little regard given to the function of power. But the roots of this perennial conflict are visible, and by taking the time to notice them, we might better understand our own present and future.
The struggle between Court and Country is most evident in the years following the Glorious Revolution, when Sir Robert Walpole — Britain’s first real Prime Minister — sought to stabilize a fractious political landscape by bolstering the Crown and strengthening Parliament. Cunning and highly capable, Walpole wielded considerable influence over the Hanoverian kings, and through personal connections, patronage, and skillful bribery, he was able to control parliamentary business and dominate foreign affairs. Walpole’s breakneck consolidation of money and power and his reputation for corruption earned him many enemies, most notably Jonathan Swift and Samuel Johnson. But his fiercest adversary was Tory luminary Lord Bolingbroke, who excoriated Walpole’s ministerial usurpations in The Craftsman and advocated for an energetic opposition outside of government.
A student of Machiavelli and critic of oligarchy, Bolingbroke considered Walpole’s cabalistic regime to be both irredeemably corrupt and hopelessly detached from the nation’s interests — a true imperium in imperio. To Bolingbroke, bribes and patronage had turned the government’s constitutional procedures into a ceremonial farce and rendered any distinction between Court Whigs and Tories irrelevant. Internal reform was, therefore, unlikely, if not impossible. For Bolingbroke, the solution to this stubborn problem had to come from the countryside — from the landed class — who were not only patriotic and suspicious of centralized government, but also self-sufficient and inherently hostile to merchant class corruption. Emerging from outside Walpole’s orbit, this “Country Party” could challenge the Court’s power and champion the “voice of the country.” Moreover, if the Party’s efforts were successful, it might embolden a future “patriot king” to seize the initiative, purge the government of its corrupt factions, and finally act in the best interest of the people.
The Country Party would mount a vigorous offensive against the “Court Party” for several decades, with Bolingbroke’s call for a “patriot king” even inspiring the Prince of Wales to engage in a little political intrigue before his untimely death. But without a formal structure or dedicated leadership, the Country Party would ultimately flounder, even as Bolingbroke’s reactionary letters and speeches spread throughout the world. And whereas the Country Party’s campaign would wither on London’s cobbled streets, it would find new life thousands of miles away in the fertile Virginia countryside, where Bolingbroke’s words would nourish a revolution and sustain nearly fifty years of American republicanism.
When America’s Founders bristled at Parliament’s alleged violations of their rights and obligations as Englishmen, they appealed to the virtuous prince of Bolingbroke’s “patriot king”, while beseeching the British Crown for relief. When their petitions were ignored, and those same colonists recoiled at the perceived collusion between Crown and Parliament against them, they condemned the arbitrary power of that union and repeated Bolingbroke’s jeremiads from decades earlier. This was no accident, for Adams, Jefferson, and Madison had read Bolingbroke extensively in the years leading up to American Independence. For Virginia planter and Yankee farmer alike, the Country Party’s crusade against Walpole’s financial and political consolidations had special relevance to their own struggle against the Court for relief against scheming creditors and representation amid corrupt parliamentarians. In the American Revolution, the Country Party would see its first and greatest triumph.
Later debates over the Constitution and the evils of faction bore Bolingbroke’s fingerprints, as did the creation of the Executive Office and the election of George Washington, the United States’ first “patriot king”. When Jefferson condemned the pseudo-aristoi (“artificial aristocracy”) and its appetite for corruption in his correspondence with Adams, he was echoing Bolingbroke’s earlier critique of oligarchy and Court patronage. Jefferson’s Country Party agrarianism and its emphasis on republican virtue are also impossible to ignore, as are the Jeffersonian harangues against Federalist graft — which might as well have been written by a countrified Tory in Walpole’s England. This agrarian tradition, steeped in Country Party doctrine, would persist for decades after Jefferson’s death, and contend time and again against the political and financial consolidation promoted by the Federalists, then the Whigs, and finally the Republicans. We see it in Andrew Jackson’s attacks on the National Bank and pledge to defend the “whole people” against self-serving factions. And then most prominently during the American Civil War, where two civilizations — one industrial, the other agrarian — fought to decide the nation’s political, economic, and moral landscape, with the North’s anticipated consolidation of political and economic power igniting a firestorm of Southern Country invective against the Court’s corruption and usurpations; the romantic image of the virtuous yeoman farmer defending hearth and home (and “property”) against a rapacious, foreign invader.
In the years following the American Civil War, the fights over political and economic consolidation would intensify during and after Reconstruction, with the Court and Country divide being most visible in the People’s Party success in the South and Midwest.
Today the divide between Court and Country is most stark in times of populist revolt, when old regimes of consolidation are feeble, burdensome, or estranged from the common people. Like Bolingbroke’s original Country Party, populist movements in America ignite outside an ossified and insular political establishment, with elite corruption and greed fueling the burn. Typically, common populists are somewhat self-sufficient, animated by a sense of patriotism, and generally suspicious of centralized power. Lacking a formal structure and dedicated leadership, they also tend to have an affinity for strong, decisive leaders who can directly challenge the Court’s political and financial consolidation, restore a lost sense of virtue, and ultimately embody the “voice of the country.”
We might be living through a moment of intense populist fervor today, but historical connections to Court and Country remain largely unnoticed; we have instead Red and Blue America. Because of their 20th-century connotations, Red and Blue can be somewhat misleading, as the divide indicates something more than a political party or differing ideology. Like earlier manifestations of the same ancient Court and Country divide, Red and Blue today contain disparate interests, values, and ways of life that our political establishment cannot hope to reflect. Furthermore, Red and Blue America communicate a very different relationship to power — not merely in the political sense, but economically and culturally as well.
Blue America, embodied by the nation’s Capital and largest cities, is the exclusive domain of the Court. Bureaucracy is the source of its power, and just as bureaucracy has captured and reshaped all major public and private institutions to meet the demands of a large and complex society, these institutions overwhelmingly serve Court interests and reflect Blue America’s monoculture. It is within these institutions that the Court molds its elite, who in turn comprise the nation’s ruling class and steer Blue America’s systems of patronage.
The ideologies that flourish in Blue America may appear exotic, inclusive, and urbane, but they are simply a hodgepodge of self-serving contradictions accumulated over time to preserve bureaucratic rule and justify endless consolidation of financial and political power. The Court uses ideology, therefore, to protect its vital organs from outside threats and bring the rest of the nation into harmony with its specific needs and interests. For this reason, the Court relies on a most sophisticated propaganda machine to provide an illusion of consent, portray its interests as those of the nation, and to effectively drown out dissent. Under this ideological veneer, financial and political power remain consolidated and jealously guarded, constitutional procedures are rendered toothless and ceremonial, and the distinctions between the parties of the Court are made redundant.
Like Bolingbroke’s Country Party, Red America’s isolation from the Court transcends geography. Its disconnectedness from the Capital — the beating heart of the political bureaucracy and locus of national power — is both figurative and literal. Red America still clings to the vestiges of the old order, and its culture is more of a residue than something living and breathing. Bound to the particular rather than the universal, Red America stubbornly resists the homogenizing forces of bureaucratization, thereby aggravating the Court and deepening the rift with Blue America. For this reason, it might be easier to see the contours of Red America by defining what it isn’t rather than what it is. For in true Country Party fashion, Red America is trapped in a defensive posture, holding onto what remains of its regional identity, unique history, and vestiges of a deteriorating economic order, with the old patriotism and religious character of the world before bureaucracy unifying it with other parts of the Country.
Red America’s alienation from bureaucratic power does afford a level of self-sufficiency and independence uncommon to Blue America, making the Country more willing to denounce bureaucracy, patronage, and perceived Court corruption, while supporting outside efforts to challenge Court supremacy. Like the Country Party of yesteryear, Red America sees the Court as lacking virtue, widely considers Blue America’s ideology a counterfeit, and generally hopes to restore party distinctions and protect or even rescue the nation’s constitution from its ceremonial exile. Above all, Red America seeks to protect its own vital organs from the effects of political and economic consolidation, and so finds itself hastily digging shallow moats and constructing shabby walls between itself and Blue America.
The deepening divide between Red and Blue America, along with their respective relationships to bureaucratic power, leave the Red-Blue perspective lacking. Furthermore, with polarization magnifying disparities, formidable populist movements on the rise, and with crises forcing the Capital into a rare defensive posture of its own, a new approach to perceiving these dynamics is needed. This is where the Court and Country dichotomy roars into focus.
Red America, as the bastion of Country Party action, now has the potential to effectively challenge the primacy of the Court. Unlike the old Red-Blue split, Red America’s Country Party today finds itself truly outside the political establishment and thus presented with a whole new set of temptations. With the Capital considered irredeemably corrupt and hopelessly detached from the rest of the nation, with bureaucratic power widely seen as illegitimate, and with growing resistance to rapid political and financial consolidation, a Country Party would challenge the Court by unleashing its populist energies in a relentless opposition campaign outside the political establishment.
Like Bolingbroke’s original Country Party, these outside campaigns do not often succeed — but where Bolingbroke and subsequent Country Party campaigns failed, our modern Country Party might win. Red America’s Country Party is spread across all fifty states with millions of disaffected citizens organized socially rather than politically against an inept and sclerotic regime. Recent crises have greatly undermined bureaucratic power and fractured globalization worldwide — critical sources of Court power and authority. Furthermore, these populist energies are more likely to be commandeered by a Country Party counter-elite than an establishment insider. This is the most important question. If the Country Party can produce a viable counter-elite to harness this dynamism and transform popular grievance into an effective political machine, this outside opposition will have a chance.
The prospect of an effective outside opposition may seem incredible. And we might be tempted to try and break the spell, just like so many generations have tried before. But if we want to have any say over our circumstances — if we wish to decide the future — we ought to cast aside our quarrels with fate and embrace the battleground as it stands. After all, we Americans have a long tradition to draw from; our nation owes its very existence to it. And we have always yearned for a “patriot king”.