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.
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.”
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