Partisanship, Parties and Teams
Jude Wanniski
April 3, 1998


Supply-Side University Economics Lesson #12

Memo To: Supply-Side Students
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Partisanship, Parties and Teams

I'd been toying with the idea of making this lesson one on partisanship, but when Cedric Muhammad came into the "Talk Shop" this week and entered a quote from Ibn Khaldun. the greatest of Arab historians, it was cinched. I'd known of Khaldun (1332-1406) only through President Reagan's frequent references to Khaldun's 14th century concept of the Laffer Curve: "In the beginning of the dynasty great revenues were gained from small assessments. At the end of the dynasty, small revenues were gained from large assessments." The quote supplied by Cedric is from Khaldun's masterpiece, the Muqaddimah - An Introduction to History, which Arnold Toynbee described as "a philosophy of history which is undoubtedly the greatest work of the kind that has ever yet been created by any mind in any time or place."

On Toynbee's say-so, I've ordered an abridged copy of the Muqaddimah for $18. The three volume hardbound set runs $225 from Princeton University Press. I'll do the $18 first. Khaldun himself described his work as the first "science of culture." The Britannica entry tells us that a contemporary Arab scholar noted that it is "studded with brilliant observations on historiography, economics, politics and education. It is held together by the central concept of 'social cohesion.'" The Britannica continues:

It is this cohesion, which arises spontaneously in tribes and other small kinship groups, but which can be intensified and enlarged by a religious ideology, that provides the motive force that carries ruling groups to power. Its inevitable weakening, due to a complex combination of psychological, sociological, economic, and political factors, which Ibn Khaldun analyzes with consummate skill, heralds the decline of a dynasty or empire and prepares the way for a new one, based on a group bound by a stronger cohesive force.

President Reagan grasped the insight of Khaldun on taxation, which made him all the more determined to prevent the United States from going the route of decline. If we are to see now the beginning of an American empire, to surpass that of the Romans and the British, it likely would not happen with high taxes. The quote below selected by Cedric Muliammad is quite astonishing, one I had never seen before,  about something Fd thought I'd learned by living my life in the political universe. Khaldun is describing what we would today call a paradigm shift, where an idea that has been at the center of a culture gradually gives way to another. This is exactly what we are looking for, as the bipolar world we have known this past half century gives way to a unipolar world. Khaldun explains why it is so hard to shift from one paradigm to another:

Untruth naturally afflicts historical information. There are various reasons that make this unavoidable. One of them is partisanship for opinions or schools. If the soul is impartial in receiving information, it devotes to that information the share of critical investigation the information deserves, and its truth or untruth thus becomes clear. However, if the soul is infected with partisanship for a particular opinion or sect, it accepts without a moment's hesitation the information that is agreeable to it. Prejudice and partisanship obscure the critical faculty and preclude critical investigation. The result is that falsehoods are accepted and transmitted. Another reason making untruth unavoidable in historical information is reliance upon transmitters. Investigation of this subject belongs to (the discipline of) personality criticism.

Another reason is unawareness of the purpose of an event. Many a transmitter does not know the significance of his observations or of the things he has learned about orally. He transmits the information, attributing to it the significance he assumes or imagines it to have. The result is falsehood. Another reason is unfounded assumption as to the truth of a thing. This is frequent. It results mostly from reliance upon transmitters. Another reason is ignorance of how conditions conform with reality. Conditions are affected by ambiguities and artificial distortions. The informant reports the conditions as he saw them, but on account of artificial distortions he himself has no true picture of them.

Another reason is the fact that people as a rule approach great and high-ranking persons with praise and encomiums. They embellish conditions and spread their fame. The information made public in such cases is not truthful. Human souls long for praise, and people pay great attention to this world and the positions and wealth it offers. As a rule, they feel no desire for virtue and have no special linterest in virtuous people.

Another reason making untruth unavoidable — and this one is more powerful than all the reasons previously mentioned — is ignorance of the nature of the various conditions arising in civilization. Every event (or phenomenon), whether (it comes about in connection with some) essence or (as the result of) action, must inevitably possess a nature peculiar to its essence as  well as to the accidental conditions that may attach themselves to it.

If the student knows the nature of the events and the circumstances and requirements in the world of existence, it will help him to distinguish truth from untruth in investigating the historical information critically. This is more effective in critical investigation than any other aspect that may be brought up in connection with it.

The entire quote is worth studying, although it is the idea of partisanship that is my primary interest. In our "TalkShop" several months back, I generated some heat when I asserted that very few people think for themselves on matters of public policy — or anything else that involves matters beyond personal tastes or individual expertise. We think we make up our own minds, but by the time we are asked to decide on one matter or another, the range of options has been limited by the parameters acceptable to the community. One of the reasons I enjoy the game of golf is that I get to make so many decisions myself, on what club to select, where to aim, how to adjust for the wind and the slope of the land, to account for obstacles, etc. Yet even there, the rules of golf and the etiquette of the game are myriad and complex. If you depart from them in the slightest, your playing partners will notice, and find ways to call you to account. Four men who have quite different personalities off the golf course will seem quite similar when play begins, as the paradigm dictates. There is what Ibn Khaldun might call "social cohesion."

At a much higher level of "cohesion," I first realized the world is ruled by the ideas of intellectual "teams" in the 1970s. I had long before that associated "party lines" in the way Khaldun is explicit, realizing there was such a thing as a communist "party line." My maternal grandfather had never been to school, but he had learned to read in Lithuanian and English, and while he never joined the Communist Party, until the day he died I could always count on him to tell me the party line. He was extremely agile in making the lines fit together too, so I could never quite figure out the inconsistencies. As a political science student at UCLA, my best friend considered himself to be at least a "fellow traveler," as the conservatives called them. He belonged to the Young People's Socialist League and took me to some meetings. By then, though, I could see the inconsistencies of the historic patterns in the party line and the illogic of trying to juggle internal contradictions. Our friendship of three years ended abruptly with one gigantic argument in which I forced him into so many cul de sacs that he could not handle that he finally burst into tears. It was 1959. We were 23, and I never saw him again.

The biggest test for the communist party line occurred much earlier, when Josef Stalin struck a secret deal with Adolf Hitler in 1938.  When the news got out, it took a strong stomach for American communists to stay on the team, but most of them did. As Khaldun put it: "[I]f the soul is infected with partisanship for a particular opinion or sect, it accepts without a moment's hesitation the information that is agreeable to it." It was hardest for American Jewish communists to accept, as the two paradigms clashed. It was in this period that Irving Kristol, who has been at the center of several paradigm shifts as one of the nation's leading intellectuals, began his trek from the far left to the neo-conservative right. As I think of Kristol, a mentor to whom I once deferred on a number of important issues that I knew he had thought through better than I, I can see him getting gold stars from Ibn Khaldun on each of the points in the above quote. Instead of being the last man to leave an obsolete party line that had been overwhelmed by events, Kristol was always a ringleader. Because of the flexibility of our constitutional democracy, paradigm shifts can occur within the overall institutional framework.

It was in the 1970s that I learned of Albert Wohlstetter the one man to whom all conservatives, including Kristol, deferred, on matters of nuclear strategy. From the 1950s until his death in early 1997, Professor Wohlstetter dominated the top of this intellectual pyramid. There were of course a host of busy bees buzzing around Albert, offering advice and asking questions to which he always had answers. But as I was close to the top of the decision tree — by my proximity to him via The Wall Street Journal editorial page — I could see that 99.9% of all conservatives faithfully parroted his views even though they had never heard of him. His views were simply passed down the chain of command, "transmitted," as Khaldun would say. Editorial writers in Phoenix and Sacramento and Chicago would churn out strongly worded pieces on anti-ballistic missiles or SALT treaties or the war in Afghanistan. The words would be different, but the music would be the same everywhere.

On the other hand, there was the liberal intellectual team, essentially led by Henry Kissinger and his cast of supporting doves — doves in the sense they burdened the hawk team with diplomatic initiatives — or at least the hawks thought them a burden that got in the way of clever military strategems. The point, though, is that there is always a place and a time and a person who will have the last word on setting a party line. The person quickly may be pulled down from his or her pyramid if their decisions do not comport with the institutional pyramid beneath them. Or, if they are good as Wohlstetter, they will finish their careers passing down arguments on behalf of the Cause, whatever it might be.

Partisanship is said to stop at the water's edge, but that only means the political establishment of hawks and doves closes ranks after a decision has been reached on behalf of the nation as a whole to commit the personnel, prestige and treasure of the country to a course of action. Except in rare cases, a President, as commander-in-chief, is not really the person who "thinks for himself and makes the final decisions. The final decisions come down to an elimination of the 98 options that are considered and thrown out, with two remaining over which the President can toss a coin to decide if he wishes, and the team will follow where it leads. Or, of the two options presented him, one is so clearly "it" that the decision is made for him.

When the President recently confronted a decision on whether or not to bomb Iraq, the voices for military action were overwhelming, except if you examined the fine print. When UN General Secretary Kofi Annan brought back an agreement from Baghdad which inferred that Saddam Hussein might have gotten what he was angling for from the beginning, there was grumbling from the hawks, but the decision had made itself. What's more, Annan found himself at the top of a United Nations pyramid which had been elevated in the process. The complaint from the hawks, who had no idea what to do, was not that they didn't get to bomb Iraq, but that an external body, the UN, may have achieved something at the expense of American sovereignty. In fact, the United States took the global stance of a stern father, Annan and the UN the stance of a conciliatory mother. It may be an important step in establishing the new paradigm, the new world order.

If we return to the reason why Cedric Muhammad quoted Khaldun, it is in the context of the ongoing debate we are having in "TalkShop" about blacks and Jews and why they are having a difficult time understanding each other. From his perspective — and from mine — the Jewish political establishment is a paradigm unto itself. There are differences within that establishment, but there very definitely is a party line when it comes to Minister Louis Farrakhan that is extremely difficult to breech. "If the soul is impartial in receiving information, it devotes to that information the share of critical investigation the information deserves, and its truth or untruth thus becomes clear." As a Catholic, I can be impartial in my soul in evaluating Minister Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam. Furthermore, the Jewish political establishment concedes that I have been transparently not anti-Semitic over the 35 years it has observed me.

Of the several Jewish friends to whom I have introduced Min. Farrakhan, none have found any reason to disagree with my positive evaluation of him. Still, they ask me not to tell anyone about their assessment because it would cause them trouble they don't need. They are bound within partisan lines and will tell me up front that it does not matter what proofs I show. The one tiny fissure is the view of Mayor Edward Rendell, a Jewish Democrat, who publicly praised Min. Farrakhan for his help in averting racial problems in his city, Philadelphia. Still, the heat Rendell took from the Jewish community  on his departure from the partisan core, despite the success of Rendell's initiative, gives us some sense of the rigidity of the paradigm. I'm told that it is useless to make further attempts to break through the partisan wall, but as long as Farrakhan encourages me in pursuit of reconciliation on equitable terms, I plough ahead.

Because of the enormous power of the Jewish elites in America, which they have built brick by brick in order to protect their stake in Israel, there is no way to get around them with appeals to the non-Jewish whites of America. Nor would I want to even suggest such a maneuver, because cohesion of white America and the national family itself would not permit it. The Wall Street Journal editorial page, where I toiled for six years, is not interested in any commentary about Farrakhan that is unacceptable to the Forward, the most important English-language Jewish newspaper in the world. Which is to say that Journal editor Bob Bartley requires that this problem be resolved by people he trusts, who have the energy to think it through in a way that will satisfy him. The publisher of the Forward, Seth Lipsky, is a friend of 20 years who once worked for Bartley and has his friendship and confidence. I've tried to get Seth to admit Min. Farrakhan to the precincts of the Forward offices in New York City, to meet with the editorial board and hash things out. Farrakhan would be happy to do so, but the internal rules of the Jewish political establishment are so rigid that I cannot argue with Seth's decision not to do so, and would frankly have been astonished if he had accepted. He has, though, asked a columnist for the paper to explore the issue to see where it might lead.

If Ibn Khaldun were to ask me why I bother in such a quixotic enterprise, I would refer him back to his own words about how empires come to an end when partisanships harden within a dynasty, when untruths are swallowed whole because they are transmitted from on high, when bits and pieces of historical fact are assessed without any understanding of the context of the times. My independent assessment is that the continuing racial divide in the United States cannot be bridged without reconciliation between the Nation of Islam and the Jewish political establishment, and that the conflict in the Middle East between Muslims and Jews cannot be solved without a meeting of the minds of Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Farrakhan, as the most influential American Muslim, may be key to that process.

It's not easy for a student of political economics to see the world as a sea of pyramids, each representing a team or an institution or a nation state, with a team leader at the top — assessing the interests of the team and providing the directional guidance for it. When the pyramid represents an authoritarian regime at the level of a tyranny, as in Hitler's Germany or Stalin's USSR, the party line is strictly enforced through periodic "purges" of those who are showing signs of breaking ranks. If the tyrants are in a position to fight to the last man, their neighbors have serious problems on their hands. It was quite amazing that the Evil Empire directed from Moscow came to the end of its dynastic rule not with a bang, but a whimper. In my mind, this represented the optimum mix in the United States offeree and diplomacy, hawk and dove, conservative and liberal.

It is essential for political leaders at the top of their own pyramids to be able to make distinctions between dangerous tyrants and authoritarian nuisances — that they not believe their own propaganda, but remain clear-eyed when confronting a problem. The idea is preposterous that Saddam Hussein, who was an ally of the United States in the first half of his tenure — receiving from us all manner of weaponry in order to contest our mutual adversary in Teheran — suddenly became a "Hitler." If President Clinton were provided only with the option of using bombs or bigger bombs to resolve the nuisance in Baghdad, the United States would disrupt the level of "social cohesion" that now exists in the family of nations.

* * *

The lecture today is not meant to get you to break ranks with the partisan teams which now may have your allegiance. The world cannot function in orderly fashion if everyone went into isolation to make up his or her mind about every question that ultimately involves the fate of the community. The political choices the world must make are so intricate and so complex that there must be global conversations between partisan teams at every level. The masses are the creators of history, which is how Mao Tse-tung put it. They can't create history without mechanisms that permit them to assemble their collective wisdom around the best available options. There is nothing wrong with partisanship, which at its best is an essential ingredient to the process of achieving "social cohesion." Those of you who aspire to political leadership, though, should try to keep a small part of your intellectual self, your soul, separate and apart from your partisan obligations. It would be nice in the world ahead if you never had to break ranks, but leadership sometimes requires just that