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.
In the century of the Long Consensus, the United States became the most powerful nation on earth, its influence enhanced not only (or even primarily) by its advanced weaponry and the martial courage of our men and women in uniform, but also by our economic might, our democratic norms, our cultural creativity, and a moral and intellectual vibrancy that is the product of our constant struggle to preserve liberty while building and rebuilding community. A nation whose intellectual inheritance includes Biblical religion and the Enlightenment, the individualism of Ben Franklin and Walt Whitman, the state building of Alexander Hamilton and Henry Clay, the traditionalism of John Adams, the skepticism toward central authority of Jefferson, and the radicalism of Tom Paine is bound to produce a lively life of the mind. Out of this creative conflict arose the balance of the American system and the achievements of the Long Consensus.
American politics is now roiled because the Long Consensus is under the fiercest attack it has faced in its century-long history. The assault comes from an individualistic right that has long been part of American politics but began gathering new influence in response to the failures of the Bush Administration and the rise of Obama. After the latter’s inauguration, it became the most energetic force in the conservative movement and the Republican Party.
The Long Consensus, of course, confronted challenges from the beginning. William Howard Taft’s resistance in the 1912 election proved ineffectual. The conservative opposition in the 1920s was stronger, and then collapsed in the face of the popular demands for national action that the Great Depression called forth. Many of the ideas the Tea Party and its allies are putting forward now arose first in opposition to the New Deal. These ideas began to gain broader support because of National Review’s journalistic and intellectual efforts in the 1950s, the Goldwater campaign’s political organizing in the 1960s, and the tax revolt in the late 1970s, which strengthened the forces that led to Ronald Reagan’s election. Over that period, conservatives gained a powerful foothold in the Supreme Court, which steadily moved the country toward a pre-New Deal jurisprudence.
But only after the turmoil of George W. Bush’s presidency, the economic calamity of the Great Recession, and the election of Barack Obama did the challenge to the Long Consensus reach full force. With near-complete control of the Republican Party and hegemony within the conservative movement, radical individualism is as close to triumph as it has been at any point since the Gilded Age. It’s worth noting that while Mitt Romney’s history was as a more moderate Republican who was willing to support such policies as a health-care mandate, he moved decisively rightward when he first sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, and moved further right still to win it in 2012.
Whether this effort to turn the nation toward a radical brand of individualism succeeds or fails is now the central question in American politics. And that is why the 2012 election is as exactly important as both sides claim. This really is, to sanitize a famous statement made by Vice President Joe Biden, a big deal.
Conservative Thrust, Liberal Parry
But it’s impossible to understand if an election is historic without grappling with the meaning of American history itself. And for much of Obama’s term, conservatives had the advantage of speaking not simply for an ideology but for the American tradition. In one sense, this is not surprising: Conservatives are, by nature and conviction, more comfortable with the very idea of tradition. American liberals, by contrast, have been uncomfortable with tradition and with linking themselves too closely to the past. Moving beyond the past, after all, is inherent in the very word “progressive.” And liberals, properly uneasy with the misuses of super-patriotism and persuaded that multilateral approaches to foreign policy best serve American interests, have often seen showy expressions of patriotism as a refuge of scoundrels.
As the controversy over Obama’s April 2009 statements on “American exceptionalism” demonstrated—he first said that the British and the Greeks no doubt believed in their own “exceptionalism,” too, but then described what made America special—conservatives are also more instinctively comfortable with declarations of the United States as a chosen nation than liberals are.
Given the default on the progressive side in embracing the American story, it’s not surprising that conservatives have usually held the upper hand in claiming that theirs is the creed more in tune with the “original” understandings of the nation’s Founders—and never mind that, as the legal scholar Garrett Epps has noted, originalism as a matter of law often seems to involve a conservative Supreme Court justice declaring: “Trust me, I knew the Framers, and here’s what they would have said.”
But originalism, in law as in politics, seems designed less to seek inspiration from what the adventurous and enlightened spirit of the Founders might mean for our time than to try to roll back the norms of the twenty-first century and replace them with those of the late eighteenth.
A proper understanding of the founding, as Gordon Wood, the premier historian of the Revolutionary period, has argued, would not treat the Constitution as “fundamental scripture” and would not see those who wrote it as carrying tablets from the Almighty: “Historians today can recognize the extraordinary character of the Founding Fathers while also knowing that those eighteenth-century political leaders were not outside history. They were as enmeshed in historical circumstances as we are, they had no special divine insight into politics, and their thinking was certainly not free of passion, ignorance, and foolishness.”
But if the Founders were not perfect, they were bold and visionary, prepared to think and act anew at a time when much of the world was skeptical about the possibility of republican government and self-rule. Our task is to follow their example, not to engage in an inevitably futile effort to parse every word they wrote and spoke to discover how we should act now. The Founders hugely valued individual freedom, but they were steeped in principles that saw the preservation of freedom as a common enterprise.
And if progressives should challenge the conservative interpretation of our founding moment, so too should they challenge the right’s claims that government played a minimal role in the growth and development of our nation. The Founders, after all, didn’t create a strong federal government for it to do nothing. And those who would claim that the federal government did not become a major actor in American life until the Progressive Era and the New Deal are willfully reading Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, and Abraham Lincoln out of the first eight decades after the Constitution’s ratification. Hamilton envisioned a national government that would be “intermingled in the normal exercise of government” and be engaged in “matters of internal concern.” Clay advocated for what he called the “American System,” so-named to distinguish it from the British laissez-faire system. He famously fought for federal support for “internal improvements,” the roads and canals that would bind the nation together and foster commerce among the states. (Today’s advocates of public works might usefully note that “internal improvements” is a lovelier phrase than the word “infrastructure.”)
Both Hamilton and Clay foresaw a manufacturing future for our nation, with the federal government playing an important role in its development. Hamilton noted that “in a community situated like that of the United States, the public purse must supply the deficiency of private resource.” For his part, Clay disdained those who saw the Constitution as blocking his efforts to protect American manufacturing. “This constitution must be a singular instrument!” Clay declared derisively. “It seems to be made for any other people than our own.”
And of course Lincoln did more than anyone to bind the states together into a nation while also insisting that the Declaration of Independence’s words “all men are created equal” commanded Americans to end the scourge of slavery. At first, he sought to do so gradually—Lincoln was a moderate. But eventually—moved by the exigencies of war and his own evolving views, documented powerfully by the historian Eric Foner—he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. And as a loyal follower of Clay, Lincoln continued to use the federal government on behalf of national development, signing the Morrill Act to create land-grant colleges and establishing a National Academy of Sciences.
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