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Put down the political pom-poms

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I am reading Albert Jay Nock’s Memoirs of a Superfluous Man. He writes here of another time, of 70 years ago or more, but we might as well apply it to today, or to a few years ago:

American society had not the faintest idea of what it was doing or where it was going. It simply clung to its inveterate practice of making brag, bounce and quackery do duty for observation, reason and common sense. It had not yet got a glimpse of the elementary truth which was so clear to the mind of Mr. Jefferson, that in proportion as you give the State power to do things for you, you give it power to do things to you; and that the State invariably makes as little as it can of the one power, and as much as it can of the other. (175-6)

Many of those who had no problem with government control or power growing under President Clinton were horrified to see control or power growing under President George W. Bush. Yet, as vociferously as they objected to what they saw as abuse of power by Bush, many of these same people welcome growing government control and power under President Obama. And those who supported Bush as he expanded government, even domestically and even outside of areas related to national security, were then horrified at the growth of government under Obama.

It’s time to stop cheering for a team, to put down the political pom-poms and to allow the government, when it is your party in office, to only have as much power as you would be comfortable with it having if the other side were in power. Because at some point it will be the other side in power. And if you were cheering for one side to have that power, most likely you won’t be happy about how that power is used when the other side has it (even when both parties take us in the same direction).

As for how much power government ought to have, and where that power ought to be concentrated, of course people will disagree based on their own ideology. Here’s what Nock thought:

Mankind had been striving after forms of organisation, both political and social, too large for their capacities; believing that because they could organize a small unit like the family, the village, even the township, with fair-to-middling success, they could likewise successfully carry on with a state, a province, a nation. Just so the lemmings on their migrations, finding themselves able to cross small bodies of water, think, when they come to the ocean, that it is just another body of water like the others they have crossed; and so they swim until they drown. Season after season, they make these attempts, unable to learn that the thing is impracticable. Likewise, age after age, mankind have made the attempt to construct a stable and satisfactory nationalist civil system, unable to learn that nothing like that can, in the nature of things, be done. (256)

Most people won’t like being compared to lemmings. Nock doesn’t have much regard for the species — people, that is (he is kinder to the lemmings). But it seems that many in society today do have the faintest idea of where it is going, and they don’t like it. Bush wasn’t popular at the end, Obama isn’t popular now, and Congress hasn’t been popular for a long, long time.

Scott Stein is editor of When Falls the Coliseum and author of the novels Lost and Mean Martin Manning. His short comedic fiction, book reviews, and essays have been published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, The Oxford University Press Humor Reader, The G.W. Review, Liberty, National Review,, Art Times, and Reason. He is a professor of English at Drexel University. Scott tweets @sstein. His author site is

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25 Responses to “Put down the political pom-poms”

  1. One of the other things Mr. Jefferson was for was the political party.

    “If I could not go to heaven with a party, I would not go there at all.” — Thomas Jefferson, in a note to Francis Hopkinson, 1789

    If the Mr. Nock wanted to quote a Founding Father on partisan spirit, he should’ve stuck with Washington:

    “Let me now warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party. The spirit of party serves always to distract the public councils, and enfeeble public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another; forments occasional riots and insurrection.” — George Washington, Farewell Address to the People of the United States, 1796

    To list a quote that backs up the point of your piece:

    “Your party man, however excellent his intentions may be, is always opposed to a limitation of sovereignty. He regards himself as the next in succession, and handles gently the property that is to come to him, even while his opponents are its tenants.” — Benjamin Constant de Rebecque, Course in Constitutional Politics, 1817-1820


    In my own, personal opinion.

    The fascists in Italy described themselves as the “Third Way”, as the blend of liberal and conservative thought. Thus, it can be demonstrated that great evil can still be found at the end of the road of “non-Party”, in compromise.


    I am not a liberal. I am not a statist. I am a small government, maximization of the freedom of the individual, pro-liberty individual. I do not want to compromise with people who wish to see the power of the State grow, as it diminshed my individual liberty.

    The State is the antithesis of liberty.

    I see statism as the greatest threat to America. I want no part of it. To compromise with the statist, to concede the need for the growth of the State in any realm, is a loss of liberty, and something I do not like.

    Thus, while I do not consider myself to be a “Party Man”, I am anti-statist, which pretty much makes me anti-Democrat and anti-Republican. By eliminating my support of the Two Main Parties, I’m forced, if I wish to have any hope of representation, to find a party of like-minded individuals, and the Libertarian Party comes closest to that.

    When you look at the size and scope of the two-party system in America, you realize that no voice will be heard unless it is part of a party. Power in numbers.

  2. Nock wasn’t writing about partisan spirit (I applied his quote for my own purpose). He was more radical than that. He was writing about what he saw as the nature of government. Party man or otherwise, Jefferson knew a thing or two about that, and had a way with words, which is why Nock quoted him.

  3. What are political parties if not “bands of lemmings” swimming in the ocean?

  4. I should say paraphrased him… I don’t know if that is a quote from Jefferson.

  5. Scott, your post is spot-on, and and confirms an observation I made once-upon-a-time, that the rituals accompany a change-of-power among political parties in our seats of government, included an exchange of scripts between the part on its way out, and the party on its way in.

  6. Since reading Nock in high school in 1979, I’ve often wished I had had the chance to meet him, though having met over the years since such among his now-deceased adepts as Henry Hazlitt, Murray Rothbard and Harry Browne, I can’t complain. I wrote on him and his Memoirs of a Superfluous Man for National Review in 1986, and later at, should the liberty-loving literary lions among you crave an archival chuckle or two. I also injected a bit of H.L. Mencken, Dwight Macdonald and George Steiner into my critical blood – I guess I’m a bibliophiliac…

    Mencken’s friend Albert Jay Nock, editor of The Freeman (1920-1924), was a highly cultivated man of letters whose “judicious eccentricity” took the form of sparkling, crystalline prose bespeaking an almost ethereal disdain for mass culture, his style and thought deriving from his devotion to the literature of Greek and Roman antiquity and the works of the French Renaissance. his many books and essays, all of them works of cameo refinement, culminated in his crowning gem, The Memoirs of a Superfluous Man (1943), a work flickering with an aristocratic feeling of approaching cultural eclipse…

    His every work was a piece of cameo refinement…

  7. Cameo refinement is boring.

  8. This is sort of the political corollary to Warren Buffett’s investment advice: “Only invest in companies that any idiot can run because, sooner or later, some idiot will.”

  9. I’ll speak for the hordes of conservatives who were appalled at George W. Bush’s government expansions. In fact I would say that people like me were a major reason Bush’s approval tanked as much as it did. Much as I was appalled by John McCain’s assault on constitutional freedoms.

    Party isn’t everything, but the bottom line is that even with all the excesses of McCain and Bush, Obama is, quite literally (do the math) FIVE TIMES WORSE.

    So even though party isn’t everything, to compare Bush’s spending to Obama’s spending as some sort of moral equivalence exercise is really nothing but an exposing of your ignorance. Bush’s spending, as bad as it was, and as much as I opposed it, was not REMOTELY comparable to the path that Obama has embarked upon. Instapundit publishes a graph periodically showing the difference between the Bush and the Obama deficits. To compare the two as you have is to suggest that driving ten miles over the speed limit is the same thing as driving fifty miles over the speed limit.

    Most of us can tell the difference.

  10. Scott:

    It’s “pom-pon” if you’re referring to the things perky cheerleaders are wont to shake and flourish. A “pom-pom” is a kind of WWII anti-aircraft artillery mostly installed on ships. I for one would like to “shoot down” Mr. Obama’s policies before those policies bankrupt this country, but I don’t want to shoot down Air Force One with the gentleman aboard.

  11. Neil, “pom-pom” is also an accepted spelling of the things cheerleaders shake (there’s another word as well…). “Pom-pom” is in wide use and has been for many years. I looked it up before I posted, and saw that “pom-pon” is also correct, and was the earlier word in use. “Pom-pom” is a variation that has become accepted — it was already accepted as correct in the Webster’s dictionary that’s on my desk, which was published in 1988. It’s also the more commonly used word now. It would not surprise me if many readers wouldn’t know what “pom-pon” even referred to.

  12. The only thing wrong with your otherwise brilliant analysis is that the “other side” might want to permanently keep their pom-poms.” Americans think the world is composed of reasonable people, like them. But it’s not. Outside, it is all Daily Kos.

  13. Damn, shot down again…

  14. Neal, not by a pom-pom, I hope (which does, as you say, also mean “an automatic antiaircraft cannon.”)

    Nice that the word can have both meanings.

  15. I thought cheeleader pom-poms were… well.. nevermind…

  16. CosmicConservative, I’m pleased to have you reading this post, even if you accuse me of ignorance.

    You write:

    “…to compare Bush’s spending to Obama’s spending as some sort of moral equivalence exercise is really nothing but an exposing of your ignorance”

    Where do I compare their spending? Where do I mention spending or deficits? You say twice that I compare them, but I don’t see it in my post.

    What I do hint at or discuss is the tendency people have to let their side get away with what they would not let the other side get away with, to not object when government is growing in power as long as they approve of the party or person in office. I am only reminding people that doing so enables the “other side” to do the same, and, as you might point out in the case of Obama, to escalate it.

    That one party or politician is not as bad, or nearly as bad, as another, in one area or another, or overall, is an argument people are free to have. It is not my point in this post.

    My post has a simple, clear point, one that I think most conservatives should agree with: “…allow the government, when it is your party in office, to only have as much power as you would be comfortable with it having if the other side were in power.”

    Since conservatives are supposed to be wary of too much federal power generally, this shouldn’t be a controversial point to them. And feel free to distinguish between conservatives and Republicans if you want. My post does not mention any of it. That’s not the point of the post.

    And if liberals would not want the government to have too much power when Bush is President, if they genuinely worry about whatever it is they fear about the right having too much power, they must not allow any President to have that power and must recognize that there will again be a day when a leader they do not like, from the “other side,” will be in power.

    Since, as you say, CosmicConservative, many conservatives were indeed angered by the Bush spending by the end and were part of why his approval ratings were so low, your defensive response here is puzzling. I refer to “those who supported Bush as he expanded government…” If “those” does not refer to you, or conservatives, then it doesn’t.

    I think many conservatives were wary of Bush from early on, the whole “compassionate conservatism” more than hinting that whatever the rhetoric, he might not be the small government conservative that some hoped he would be.

    If Obama is five times worse, as you say, I have two thoughts: 1) Is that the standard we’re going to use for future leaders? Not as bad as Obama, so they must be okay? It sounds curiously close to what I hear from the left when people defend their own side with, “Not as bad as Bush; 2) This isn’t the point of this post.

    Would you feel better if I agree with you that Obama is spending, or trying to spend, a zillion times more than anyone else who ever lived? I am happy to oblige. Not the point of my post, though.

  17. I thought cheeleader pom-poms were… well.. nevermind…

    Big guns?

  18. Heavens to you Murgatroyd

  19. Scott, your post implied that both sides were budget busting overspenders. While this is technically true it is not accurate. Bush’s overspending was a blip on the history of the deficit. Obama’s spending is an exponential curve towards fiscal destruction. Whether you intended it or not your whole “Clinton did it, then Bush did it, now Obama is doing it, can’t we all just agree that it’s bad?” argument is effectively equating the government intrusion of Clinton, Bush and Obama. That’s like comparing the explosive power of gunpowder, TNT and the hydrogen bomb.

    I have never been a fan of Bush or his “Compassionate Conservatism” but I am dead certain that Bush was a better deal than Al Gore or John Kerry would have been. And Al Gore or John Kerry would have been a blessing compared to Obama.

    I don’t disagree with your fundamental principle, I think your argument is ignoring the difference between the government incrementally increasing its control and the government exponentially increasing its control.

    Obama isn’t doing the same thing that Bush or Clinton did. Not even close. Obama is doing exactly what he said he would do, he is transforming this nation into a European style entitlement state where the government is the DOMINANT force in every person’s lives. Neither Clinton nor Bush did anything like that.

  20. @Neal – if it make you feel any better – the first time Scott shot down your “pom-pon” he spelled your name Neil. There… you got ’em! Because though “Neil” is an accepted spelling of your name — it is simply incorrect. It is never easy to catch Scott in a slip-up… and there is a little satisfaction in it. lol

  21. Amy, you left off the “s” at the end of “make” and “’em” is short for “them.” You mean “him.”

  22. The pom-poms will never go away, I fear. With politics, people seem too lacking in courage to step outside their tribal affiliations and too lazy to examine an issue from multiple points of inquiry.

    Generally speaking, of course.

  23. Albert Jay Nock’s inegalitarian waywardness and literary Francophilia, from Rabelais to such forgotten interwar novelists as Roger Martin du Gard, author of the cycle Les Thibaults (Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, p. 190), echo throughout this retrospect on Montherlant from the March Atlantic:

    Montherlant’s fiction can be enjoyed for the axioms alone, which are numerous enough to merit a book in their own right. Many of them deal with the sheer awfulness of mankind. “One can be generous towards the dead since they will get no pleasure from it.” Or: “When you do someone a favour you must never do it by half measures; you must go the whole hog or not at all, otherwise you will make an enemy.” This misanthropic insolence has a glorious tradition in France. We Americans, being more indebted to egalitarian myth, and less sure of our places in society, are more afraid of giving offense, of implying a superiority over others. Where else would idiotic phrases like in my humble opinion and with all due respect be used often enough to earn their own acronyms? Our journalists pay such deference to the man in the street, despite all the damage he has done, that when Montherlant disparages him, I feel as if I were reading something seditious. One novel makes passing mention of “your ordinary, asinine Frenchman.” The casual tone’s the thing. To say “your ordinary, asinine American,” our own writers would have to work themselves up into an ironic rant, lest anyone think they actually meant it. And we call the French pussyfooters.

  24. Mike, you wrote in your first comment that Jefferson wrote: “If I could not go to heaven with a party, I would not go there at all.”

    According to A History of the American People by Paul Johnson, what Jefferson actually said was:

    “If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.”

    Your quote leaves out the “but,” which reverses the meaning.

    Johnson notes that Jefferson “protested that he had no wish to found a party,” even though later that is what he did. I am no expert on any of this, but it might not be accurate to say that he was for political parties on an ideological level; he seems to have been against them, despite his role in their coming into being in the United States.

  25. @ Scott:

    Please direct your complaints to Daniel B. Baker.

    The quote is found on page 213 of his book “Power Quotes: 4000 Trenchant Soundbytes on Leadership & Liberty, Treason & Triumph, Sacrifice & Scandal, Risk & Rebellion, Weakness & War, and Other Affaires Politiques”, exactly the same as I typed it.

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