Thursday, July 1, 2010

Richard Weaver, the Argument from Circumstance, and the Tea Party

Richard Weaver is a curious figure in the history of rhetoric. A rare academic figure in the humanities, for sure, owing to his conservative political commitments, Weaver is considered to be a somewhat influential figure for 20th century conservatives in America. His Ethics of Rhetoric has an awful lot to offer students of the discipline, and his political leanings should not obscure the positive and useful content found in his work.

His excellent essay "Edmund Burke and the Argument from Circumstance" found in the Ethics provides an interesting intellectual and rhetorical history with which we might read the contemporary machinations of the Tea Party. While Edmund Burke is typically considered a father figure for modern conservatism, Weaver seeks to indict Burke's politics as something far more liberal. The most important index, he argues, of a person's worldview can be found in the type of argument they make.

Weaver points to 3 different types of arguments: arguments from genus, arguments from similitude, and arguments from circumstance. Arguments from genus make claims about the nature of things, and moving from these facts, then proceed to produce and persuade about choices given such facts. Arguments from similitude make comparisons between like things: these arguments are an important space for rhetoricians particularly to examine because in making a meeting of reality to the imagination we engage in this process of figuration, of making like things like. Finally, the argument from circumstance argues that what is to be done must be determined by the urgent and clear reality of the situation.

Weaver tracks Burke's work, and concludes that Burke often favors arguments from circumstance. For example, in the case of the American revolution the best solution he can provide is one in which England lets the colonies go but hopes and encourages them to pay some sort of voluntary fee back to England. Similarly, his famous indictment of the French Revolution operates by presuming that the already existing conditions of France were of a noble sort of stability that ought to be respected and honored. Both of these are arguments from circumstance, rather than arguments which proceed from figuring out what the "real nature" of humanity of political organization is.

Weaver makes the claim that the argument from circumstance is a properly liberal argument, because it does not rely on the strength of calcified essences or established institutions. The less well established political actors should tend to make arguments from circumstance because the strength of institutional history and collective memory (articulated to something like a Platonic form for Weaver) are bedrocks of conservative thinking. It is the job of the liberal (this corresponds somewhat with the leftist or social radical in Weaver's writing) to articulate why the conditions of the moment are so disastrous that they warrant a break with the history and tradition embodied within conservative thought.

Standing within our contemporary political milieu, Weaver's further analysis of the American Whig party and the collapse of the Republican party after Lincoln's assassination are hauntingly prescient. As Weaver argues, "a party whose only program is an endorsement of the status quo is destined to go to pieces whenever the course of events brings a principle strongly to the fore" (p. 79). As the early Whigs stood for nothing more than a vague kind of elite "political awesome" 20 years after America's founding, so the reformulated Republican party after Lincoln succeeded for a bit owing to the good will it accumulated from having ended slavery. But both politics ultimately stood for nothing, and without a content were doomed to lose out to opposing politicians who could articulate their vision of American to what Weaver calls "charismatic terms" (these charismatic terms are basically ideographs, by the way, and it is easy to see Weaver's influence all throughout Michael Calvin McGee's work) like freedom and liberty.

In the next chapter, Weaver makes a powerful case that argument from definition is the most powerful political argument, because it owns a sort of ontic (his word!) status that enables it to control the vision of the world espoused by its rhetor. Seizing on the rhetoric of Abraham Lincoln, Weaver argues that his persistent committment to insisting on a broad definition of human (to include blacks) facilitated a confrontation between the ideal reality of slavery's ideology (a simple hierarchy and human and non-human) and the everyday entailments of slavery's real enactment (slaves could follow orders, complete complex tasks, and perform very human acts generally). By situating his argument within an institutional tradition (the committment to human equality found in the Declaration of Independence) Lincoln's argumentative savvy helped to win the day (along with a war).

The campaign narrative produced by Obama and his staff, and the fallout from his electoral victory presents itself to us in the form of a kind of libertarianism that cannot speak its own name. After all, the Tea Partiers want less government, fewer taxes, fewer handouts, more freedom, and "their country back". It is not hard to detect in their canny references to revolution, in the signifiers of Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin that show up in their campaign ads, and in their visible and public showing of selves, a strong discontent with where the country is at this moment. Their discontent, however, struggles to articulate itself in much more than a demand for lower taxes or a series of negative arguments against the Obama administration. Republicans who actually produce policy proposals (Paul Ryan's budget, or Bob Bennett's bi-partisan health care reform proposal) do not find their specific proposals often taken up by the Tea Partiers. Even if the rejection of these proposals is principled (and I hold out the possibility that it is) the principles underwriting these rejections are closer to a form of libertarianism than George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism", whatever that was.

Weaver writes that there is a principled form of conservatism that could exist, but in the 1950's it does not appear. What appears in its place is a general fear of communism, and a host of related arguments from circumstance that suboordinate principle to place. Moving out of this space, into one where "principled" arguments may be made is crucial, in his view, for conservatism to become a powerful and legitimate political force again. It must have a "moral idea of freedom" or defend a certain "vision of a nation". But in a world where the New Deal is a known fact in collective memory, where people want their Medicare once they understand what it is, what sort of national vision have the Tea Partiers produced? I submit that it is a negative republic, one built on a resentement and fear of the Other, either internal or external. All republics, of course, are founded on such fears. But not all of them are negative, some at least augur the possibility of a day when a positive something or other might mean for the movement. For whatever reason, however, the version of libertarianism that animates the Tea Partier's spirit has not yet appeared as a fully fleshed Being in public. Can it? Or has American social space been so radically reconfigured by the collapse of the "Southern States" electoral coalition that sustained, along with the fear of Communism and terrorism, conservative political primacy since 1968 that a seriously radical ideological restructuring is coming down the pike? Richard, Weaver, despite his conservative leanings, might say yes.

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