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.
This long history of federal activism was broken by the Gilded Age after the Civil War, the one period in our history when radical individualism predominated over tempered American individualism, which always understood that the preservation of individual freedom is, in the end, a communal project. Members of the Tea Party look to a 35-year exception to a 235-year history as the model for our entire national story. Seen this way, the Populists, Progressives, and, eventually, the New Dealers who overthrew the Gilded Age were not radicals breaking with the American past—though they were, indeed, innovative. Rather, they combined innovation with restoration. They were calling Americans back to the tradition of Hamilton, Clay, and Lincoln while also putting these ideas to the service of Jeffersonian and Jacksonian aspirations to greater equality and expanded democracy. Thus did they propose to use, in a formulation made famous by Progressive Era writer Herbert Croly, Hamiltonian means to Jeffersonian ends.
The Long Consensus now under threat from a conservatism that champions a radical form of individualism is not some European import, a radical scheme aimed at undermining traditional American liberties. On the contrary, it is as deeply and profoundly American as Hamilton and Clay, Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and both Roosevelts.
The classic American balance was well described by FDR in his speech before the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco that was the most philosophical address of his 1932 campaign. If “we must restrict the operations of the speculator, the manipulator, even the financier,” Roosevelt declared, “I believe we must accept the restriction as needful, not to hamper individualism but to protect it [emphasis added].” Government’s responsibility, Roosevelt said, “is the maintenance of a balance, within which every individual may have a place if he will take it; in which every individual may find safety if he wishes it; in which every individual may attain such power as his ability permits, consistent with his assuming the accompanying responsibility.”
That balance is what is at stake now.
Obama Discovers History
I confess that no one outside the Osawatomie Chamber of Commerce was as happy as I was last December when Obama chose to make the case for his own approach to governance by going to the Kansas town where Teddy Roosevelt delivered his 1910 New Nationalism speech. Having spent the previous two years working on a book about the progressive idea in American history, I couldn’t help but be cheered by the President’s eagerness to link himself to TR and the longer American story.
It was not the first time Obama had appealed to history. Ventura’s essay in Democracy had, in part, been inspired by a 2005 commencement address by Obama at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, in which he assailed “Social Darwinism” for “ignoring our history” and “our sense of mutual regard for each other, the idea that everybody has a stake in the country, that we are all in it together and everybody’s got a shot at opportunity.”
The same trumpet summoned Obama again in Osawatomie. “[A]s a nation, we have always come together, through our government, to help create the conditions where both workers and businesses can succeed,” Obama declared. “[H]istorically, that hasn’t been a partisan idea. Franklin Roosevelt worked with Democrats and Republicans to give veterans of World War II, including my grandfather…the chance to go to college on the GI Bill. It was Republican President Dwight Eisenhower, a proud son of Kansas, who started the interstate highway system and doubled-down on science and research to stay ahead of the Soviets.”
Yes, he acknowledges, the country had “grown and changed in many ways since Roosevelt’s time.” But “what hasn’t changed—what can never change—are the values that got us this far.” And then spoke the communitarian Obama: “We still have a stake in each other’s success. We still believe that this should be a place where you can make it if you try. And we still believe, in the words of the man who called for a New Nationalism all those years ago, ‘The fundamental rule in our national life—the rule which underlies all others—is that, on the whole, and in the long run, we shall go up or down together.’ ”
Over the most recent eight months of his presidency, Obama has clearly decided to move away from a Washington-centered strategy that sought to discover common ground with opponents whose core commitment to break with the Long Consensus made the quest for common ground impossible. Many who broadly sympathized with Obama—including many contributors to this journal—were frustrated when Obama seemed to abandon the task of making a broad argument to the country about what motivated him, how he saw the nation’s history, and where he wanted the nation to move. In the process, he ceded vast ground to his opponents, leaving it to them to interpret the meaning of the American story, to define the American Idea, and to describe the promise of the American tradition. Surprisingly for a candidate who had been so visionary during his presidential campaign, Obama had fallen down on a task that Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan did so well: to offer a running and persuasive argument to the American people about what he was doing and why.
As President, Clinton offered an arresting metaphor explaining America’s tradition of balance. “Take a penny from your pocket,” Clinton once said. “On one side, next to Lincoln’s portrait is a single word: ‘Liberty.’ On the other side is our national motto. It says ‘E Pluribus Unum’—‘Out of Many, One.’ It does not say ‘Every man for himself.’”
“That humble penny,” he would continue, “is an explicit declaration—one you can carry around in your pocket—that America is about both individual liberty and community obligation. These two commitments—to protect personal freedom and to seek common ground—are the coin of our realm, the measure of our worth.”
And Reagan spoke to his foes as well as his allies in seeing the United States as “a shining city on a hill,” a special place that would model a new kind of society built on self-rule and freedom. But it’s striking that hidden behind Reagan’s metaphor was also a calling to America’s commitment to community. The original reference to us as a city on a hill came from John Winthrop’s address to the Puritan settlers of New England entitled “A Model of Christian Charity.”
“We must delight in each other,” Winthrop had declared, “make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our community as members of the same body.” Winthrop also offered a classic—and counterintuitive—account of how our differences bind us together in community. God created differences, Winthrop argued, so that “every man might have need of others, and from hence they might be all knit more nearly together in the Bonds of brotherly affection.” It’s not hard to imagine Rush Limbaugh denouncing Winthrop’s words as “socialistic.”
At Osawatomie and then in his State of the Union address earlier this year, Obama bound himself to this broader American communal tradition. It was a declaration that no longer would he leave American history to the Tea Party.
To suggest at a time of crisis that Americans need to return to their history flies in the face of the assumptions of those who would define our problems in terms of the global military balance of power, the necessity for new departures in domestic policy, the need for innovation in the marketplace, or the imperative of balancing the federal government’s books. All these things are important. All are subjects this journal takes very seriously. But it is precisely at moments when so much is at stake that we need both inspiration and instruction from those who came before us.
The Tea Party was right in having an intimation about the importance of the past. If progressives read our nation’s history differently, our disagreement rests not on the question of whether our story is a noble one—on this we agree—but on why the United States has, to this point, been successful. Our success arose not from the fact that our institutions were perfect from the outset. They were not. The genius of America, as de Tocqueville noted, has always rested on our capacity for self-correction and renewal. Americans have been saved from the idea that it is possible to create a perfect world. But we have been saved by the idea that we can create a better one.
The Founders of our nation were daring, but they were also balanced, moderate, and temperate. They had confidence that government could be made to work and that it could accomplish great things, but they were always wary of deifying the state and those who ran it. They hugely valued individual freedom but were steeped in principles that saw the preservation of freedom as a common enterprise. They were influenced by the Bible and the Enlightenment, by liberalism and republicanism.
Those who came after them always understood the imperative of keeping competing goods in balance—and also the need to keep pushing the American system in a more democratic and egalitarian direction. Our history is one in which populists of various stripes have always challenged elites, in which private wealth was always seen as carrying a social mortgage, and in which public action must always be subject to accountability and searching criticism. We cannot learn all we need to know from our history. But we can learn how to keep faith with a promise that we still have an obligation to keep.
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