Calvin Coolidge and the Wet Blanket Movement
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Calvin Coolidge and the Wet Blanket Movement

In his recent post on our greatest modern president, Ray Nothstine notes that Calvin Coolidge has deep relevancy for today given the mammoth federal debt and the centralization of federal power. “Coolidge took limiting federal power and its reach seriously,” says Nothstine.

Nothstine’s post (and his recent Acton Commentary) reminded me of the 1926 essay, “Calvin Coolidge: Puritan De Luxe.” The liberal journalist Walter Lippman  wrote an unintentionally beautiful tribute to the patron saint of small-government conservatism that provides an outline for what is needed today:

Mr. Coolidge’s genius for inactivity is developed to a very high point. It is far from being an indolent inactivity. It is a grim, determined, alert inactivity which keeps Mr. Coolidge occupied constantly. Nobody has ever worked harder at inactivity, with such force of character, with such unremitting attention to detail, with such conscientious devotion to the task. Inactivity is a political philosophy and a party program with Mr. Coolidge, and nobody should mistake his unflinching adherence to it for the soft and easy desire to let things slide. Mr. Coolidge’s inactivity is not merely the absence of activity. It is on the contrary a steady application to the task of neutralizing and thwarting political activity wherever there are signs of life.

The White House is extremely sensitive to the first symptoms of any desire on the part of Congress or of the executive departments to do something, and the skill with which Mr. Coolidge can apply a wet blanket to an enthusiast is technically marvelous. There have been Presidents in our time who knew how to whip up popular enthusiasm. There has never been Mr. Coolidge’s equal in the art of deflating interest. The mastery of what might be called the technique of anti-propaganda is worthy of prolonged study by students of public opinion. The naive statesmen of the pre-Coolidge era imagined that it was desirable to interest the people in their government, that public discussion was a good thing, that indignation at evil was useful. Mr. Coolidge is more sophisticated. He has discovered the value of diverting attention from government, and with exquisite subtly that amounts to genius, he has used dullness and boredom as political devices.

It is difficult to read this passage without a sigh of resignation. Our country is able to provide us with innumerable dull and boring politicians. But how many have the ability to use tedium as a sophisticated political tool? I can’t help but think that if Silent Cal were still alive today that he’d be leading a political movement designed to sap any and all enthusiasm for political and governmental activity—a Wet Blanket movement.

Sadly, there is no politician alive who can take his place as an electable deflator. But imagine if we had a political party that was capable of creating even one national politician who had such a grim, determined, alert inactivity. (The concept is so foreign to us today that even conservatives have a hard time picturing what that would look like.) Consider also how wonderful American political life could be if we were able to produce thousands of activists—or rather “inactivists”—willing to neutralize and thwart political activity wherever it showed signs of life.

You’re likely having a difficult time imagining such a rare species of political animal since you’ve probably never seen one before. They have a difficult time surviving in today’s political environment, where the very concept of “determined, alert inactivity” is anathema even to most conservatives. Indeed, the “conservative activists” now aspire to be right-wing Alinskyites because they love the fight, love the energy, and—most of all—love the power that comes from political engagement. They chafe at the idea that the liberals are allowed to have all the fun, with their marches and rallies and bombastic rhetoric, and want to get in on the action too. They want a counter-revolution, not merely because they oppose liberalism, but because, like liberals, they enjoy the thrill of perpetual revolutionary fervor.

I can empathize, of course. I too have a fervor—a fever, in fact—for political inactivity. I want to be part of a movement that makes electoral politics so boring that rather than having term limits, we’ll need laws requiring politicians to serve their full term. I want to join a party that make politics and government work so dull that political journalists and elected officials dream of leaving their fields for the exciting worlds of actuarial science and telemarketing.

I want to thrown in my lot with others who want to throw a wet blanket over politics and whose desire is to dampen the enthusiasm for all forms of political activity. I want to consort with citizens who are willing to arrest the ardor, dash the devotion, sap the spirit, and zap the zeal from anything that remotely resembles political enthusiasm. I want to be a part of a new movement, dedicated to the mastery of the art of anti-propaganda and committed to the conscientious devotion of alert inactivity. But sadly the only man that can lead such a movement died in 1933. And we’re not likely to see the ideological heir to Coolidge anytime soon.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).