In Our Time

The Lesson From Pennsylvania

It’s likely that psephologists will discover from their postmortems on the recent primary election in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District that the barely victorious candidate, Conor Lamb, won by appealing to the “nice” Republican portion of this overwhelmingly Republican district. Nice Republicans are not necessarily the equivalent of the Republicans in Name Only despised by the party’s activist base, nor of the “country-club Republicans,” scorned by people from both parties, who wish to be liked and respected by the liberal elite they associate with professionally and socially, though the two types may in fact overlap. The nice Republicans are conservatives whose self-conscious gentility assures their political moderation, people with lowered opinions and quieted voices to match them. Nice Republicans used to have their counterparts in the Democratic and socialist parties as well, before it became not only fashionable but de rigueur among liberals to play the role of fire-eater, perpetually angry, offended, and on the offensive.

The tradition of niceness in America dates from starched 19th-century notions of Brahmin, Knickerbocker, and Quaker gentility in the Northeastern parts of the country, in particular those surrounding Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, and later in the Middle West, suffused in middle-class Protestant piety and driven by an eager determination to shed...

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