One of our astute commenters recently referred me to this article by Peggy Noonan:
Noonan says Americans resent the “elites” who run things.
“… because Americans weren’t born to be accountants. It’s not in our DNA! We’re supposed to be building the Empire State Building. We were meant, to be romantic about it, and why not, to be a pioneer people, to push on, invent electricity, shoot the bear, bootleg the beer, write the novel, create, reform and modernize great industries. We weren’t meant to be neat and tidy record keepers. We weren’t meant to wear green eyeshades. We looked better in a coonskin cap!
There is, I think, a powerful rebellion against all this. It isn’t a new rebellion – it was part of Goldwaterism, and Reaganism – but it’s rising again.”
Now, setting aside the delicious irony of a Republican complaining about “elites”… plus any personal feelings I may have about Peggy Noonan (I always picture her gazing at her computer screen and thinking… ‘Look at this passage I just wrote! God, it’s so beautiful…’). But I digress.
I think in this instance Noonan may actually be getting at the root of what differentiates Republicans from Democrats way down at the molecular level, and why Republicans are good at getting elected but terrible at governing. Republicans are buccaneers. They like to invade and conquer, to swashbuckle and loot and plunder, to explore and exploit and get rich. Democrats, on the other hand, are bookkeepers. They like to manage well, keep things orderly, look after the environment, create a nation where everybody can live a pleasant life, and get the trains to run on time.
The problem is this: People, businesses and nations all run though a fairly predictable growth cycle that requires both mindsets at different times. It can’t be all one or the other… and it’s important to know which is needed at a given time. America has had three glorious centuries of buccaneering. Now it needs competent bookkeepers to manage what’s been built and keep it all from slipping away.
I had an uncle who was a buccaneer. He loved the thrill of starting a new business…. the terror, the excitement, the big push and 20 hour days, the risk and reward and acclaim that came with success. But once a business was established, running well and showing a profit, he lost interest. It just became a management task, and that wasn’t his thing. He’d sell and move on, and lose money on the next venture. By the time he died, he’d started half a dozen businesses that other people were running very profitably… and he had nothing but a lot of debts and a set of custom-made golf clubs.
Noonan implies bookkeepers are a mildly contemptible species, and there’s something more admirable and exciting… more American… about the buccaneer personality; the one that enjoys the exciting start-up but is bored by the trivia of day-to-day management. I think this is a very juvenile, short-sighted, selfish outlook, and not so much an American ideal but quintessentially Republican (It reminds me of those immature people who love getting married but are bored by being married).
America makes the same mistake over and over, and never seems to learn. The country is on the verge of going down that same path again, while wiser folks shake their heads in despair. I wonder if the country will ever learn the simple truth every smart mother tells her daughter: buccaneers are exciting as boyfriends… but bookkeepers make better husbands.