Why I am not a Puritan

Walter Russell Mead and Razib Khan have interesting articles about the birth of the Democratic coalition in the USA. Essentially, Mead follows the Mencius Moldbug idea that one wing of the Democrats is the ultra-Protestant party, and the other wing is ethnic minorities. Ultra-Protestants, according to the thesis, are direct intellectual heirs to the tradition of the Puritans who settled New England, and despite slowly shedding their Christianity over the years have never lost their real religion – that of the nanny-state. Politics as moral uplift.

I don’t know enough about American political history to evaluate the thesis, but in British politics there is a clear parallel. As I have mentioned before, there is a direct line from Cromwell to Shaftesbury to Walpole to Fox to Cobden to Gladstone to Lloyd George, which then in the 1920s and 1930s allies itself with the trade union movement and transfers to the Labour Party. Then in the 1980s there was the SDP, which slightly split the movement politically (but not intellectually), but New Labour and the current Conservative-Lib Dem coalition appear to have packed it back together under the Labour banner. It is no exaggeration to say that Tony Blair was Cromwell’s political heir.

And of course what makes this parallel so interesting is that the Puritans who settled New England were the same people as the religious revolutionaries who disrupted England in Charles I’s reign. Therefore if Mead’s theory is correct, Blair and Obama are both heirs to Cromwell. This would certainly explain why the progressive wing of the Labour Party so resembles the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, even though the other wings of their parties nothing resemble one another.

Khan, by contrast, emphasises not intellectual coalitions but social ones. I think this is an important and overlooked part, because ideology is so often window-dressing. While he gives good reason to be skeptical of Mead/Moldbug’s ideas in an American context, this actually reinforces the point in a British context. Lloyd George was linked to Shaftesbury not only by an intellectual line, but by continuity of people, institutions and support. Cromwell to Shaftesbury and Lloyd George to Roy Jenkins are slightly weaker links, but still very strong, to the extent that no serious person would deny them – of course they were supported by the same people.

My high school history teacher once remarked, off-hand, that the true division in English politics was the same now as in the time of Sidney Godolphin, between High Church and Low. At the time I thought it a ridiculous remark, but as the years have gone on I see the wisdom in it. Even though we are no longer a religious country, attitudes and beliefs are transmitted through the generations, analogous to religion. It is so easy to see the High Church in the One Nation Tories, and so easy to see the Low Church in New Labour. Khan’s “long persistent affinities across cultural networks and domains” combines with Mead’s political tradition to make it a slam dunk.

But it is important to recognise that this is not the only division. Reverend Mead wasn’t even right about Godolphin’s time – court and country was as important as Whig and Tory. And today the division is not merely between High Church tolerance and Low Church zeal, it is also between working class collectivism and middle class aspiration. Perhaps looking at it this way makes it clear why liberaltarianism is so unappealing to me – I’d much rather side with tolerance than zeal, and gaining one means losing the other.


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