Why History Matters to Liberalism
If the Tea Party is to be believed, radical individualism has defined American history. But their story is wrong, and progressives must say so.
Progressives should ask why conservatives are so eager to paint themselves as the true heirs of the American tradition, and why those on the left side of politics—usually ready to do battle with the right on many fronts—have not felt the same sense of urgency when it comes to popular understandings of the American story.
I emphasize the word “popular” because many superb American historians, simply by virtue of their efforts to present the American story accurately, have brought home the flaws in partisan readings of our story even as they challenged the conservative claim to a moral and intellectual monopoly on the meaning of the American idea.
But it should not be lost on anyone that it is conservatives who typically carry around copies of our Constitution in their pockets. It is the Tea Party that refers relentlessly to the nation’s Founders. The movement’s very name invokes a key event in Revolutionary Era history to imply that there is a kind of illegitimacy to the current government in Washington akin to that of a king who once ruled the American colonies far from our shores. Representative Mike Pence of Indiana perfectly captured conservatives’ inclination to believe that their entire program is a recapitulation of the nation’s founding documents. “There’s nothing that ails this country,” Pence told a 2010 meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference, “that couldn’t be fixed by paying more careful attention to the principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America.”
Without question, the rise of Barack Obama seemed to encourage conservatives to harp ever more on the nation’s past, which arouses a certain amount of suspicion, given the efforts by some on the right to cast the nation’s first African-American president as “un-American.” Glenn Beck’s historical excursions through the work of W. Cleon Skousen—his books The Naked Communist, The Naked Capitalist, and The 5,000 Year Leap had been old John Birch Society favorites—suggested just how popular the revival of old conspiracy theories had become.
Yet the right’s interest in the American tradition was not confined to its extremists. The intellectual followers of Leo Strauss have been battling for (and over) the American story for two generations. Garden-variety conservative politicians had been invoking the Founders against liberalism since at least the New Deal. FDR’s foes in the Liberty League regularly quoted Thomas Jefferson in their denunciations of Roosevelt’s innovations.
While the right was talking about history, liberals were talking about—well, health-care coverage, insurance mandates, cap-and-trade, financial reforms, and a lot of other practical stuff. One can offer a sympathetic argument here that progressives were trying to govern in a rather difficult moment and didn’t have time to go back to the books. But the left’s default was costly, and it was noticed by an editor of this journal in the spring of last year. “Beyond the circumscribed world of academic journals and conferences,” Elbert Ventura wrote in these pages, “history is being taught—on TV and talk radio, in blogs and grassroots seminars, in high school textbooks and on Barnes & Noble bookshelves. In all those forums, conservatives have been conspicuous by their activity—and progressives by their absence.” Ventura ended with this alarming coda: “If we don’t fight for history, progressivism itself will be history.”
For me, Ventura’s piece was an inspiration. At the time it appeared, I was working on my book Our Divided Political Heart, which was published in late May. American history is at the heart of its argument. Where others have put forward their own perfectly rational reasons for the polarization of American politics, my account is rooted in the idea that Americans disagree on who we are because we can’t agree about who we’ve been. We are at odds over the meaning of our own history and over what it is, philosophically and spiritually, that makes us “Americans.” The consensus that guided our politics through nearly all of the twentieth century is broken. In the absence of a new consensus, we will continue to fight and continue to founder.
The Long Consensus
From the beginning of our republic, Our Divided Political Heart argues, Americans have been torn by a deep but productive tension between our love of individualism and our ongoing quest for community. This balance is at the heart of the American story, and it is closely connected to the other balances we have sought to strike: between the local and the national, the state and the market, the public and the private.
Our approach to politics and policy has been defined by this search for equilibrium since the Populists and Progressives overturned the radical individualism that characterized the Gilded Age. The Populists and the Progressives (and later the New Dealers) laid the foundation for what I call the Long Consensus. It is a view of public life that created the American Century and wrote the social contract for shared prosperity whose underlying values still draw support from a broad American majority.
In the hundred years after Theodore Roosevelt assumed the presidency in 1901, government grew—but so did individual liberty. The state assumed new roles, but individual opportunities expanded. New regulations protected our air and water, the integrity of food and drugs, the safety of workplaces and consumer products—and American capitalism flourished. Workers organized into unions that advanced the interests of those who depended on their own labor, not capital, for their livelihoods. In doing so, labor organizations strengthened a more social form of capitalism based on widespread property ownership and upward mobility. Previously excluded groups were steadily brought into the larger American community to share in the bounty of prosperity and the responsibilities of self-government. The United States continued to welcome newcomers and created the most diverse democracy in the world. G. K. Chesterton observed that the United States sought to make a nation “literally out of any old nation that comes along”—and it succeeded.
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