Saturday, August 22, 2020

The Optimistic View of American History

 Obama sums it up:

I'm in Philadelphia, where our Constitution was drafted and signed. It wasn't a perfect document. It allowed for the inhumanity of slavery and failed to guarantee women -- and even men who didn't own property -- the right to participate in the political process. But embedded in this document was a North Star that would guide future generations; a system of representative government -- a democracy -- through which we could better realize our highest ideals. Through civil war and bitter struggles, we improved this Constitution to include the voices of those who'd once been left out. And gradually, we made this country more just, more equal, and more free.  . . .

Last month, we lost a giant of American democracy in John Lewis. Some years ago, I sat down with John and the few remaining leaders of the early Civil Rights Movement. One of them told me he never imagined he'd walk into the White House and see a president who looked like his grandson. Then he told me that he'd looked it up, and it turned out that on the very day that I was born, he was marching into a jail cell, trying to end Jim Crow segregation in the South. What we do echoes through the generations.

Whatever our backgrounds, we're all the children of Americans who fought the good fight. Great grandparents working in firetraps and sweatshops without rights or representation. Farmers losing their dreams to dust. Irish and Italians and Asians and Latinos told to go back where they came from. Jews and Catholics, Muslims and Sikhs, made to feel suspect for the way they worshipped. Black Americans chained and whipped and hanged. Spit on for trying to sit at lunch counters. Beaten for trying to vote.

If anyone had a right to believe that this democracy did not work, and could not work, it was those Americans. Our ancestors. They were on the receiving end of a democracy that had fallen short all their lives. They knew how far the daily reality of America strayed from the myth. And yet, instead of giving up, they joined together and said somehow, some way, we are going to make this work. We are going to bring those words, in our founding documents, to life. I've seen that same spirit rising these past few years. Folks of every age and background who packed city centers and airports and rural roads so that families wouldn't be separated. So that another classroom wouldn't get shot up. So that our kids won't grow up on an uninhabitable planet. Americans of all races joining together to declare, in the face of injustice and brutality at the hands of the state, that Black Lives Matter, no more, but no less, so that no child in this country feels the continuing sting of racism.

To the young people who led us this summer, telling us we need to be better -- in so many ways, you are this country's dreams fulfilled. Earlier generations had to be persuaded that everyone has equal worth. For you, it's a given -- a conviction. And what I want you to know is that for all its messiness and frustrations, your system of self-government can be harnessed to help you realize those convictions.

You can give our democracy new meaning. You can take it to a better place. You're the missing ingredient -- the ones who will decide whether or not America becomes the country that fully lives up to its creed.

Note that "North Star" was Frederick Douglass's abolitionist newspaper.

I am of course a sucker for this kind of rhetoric, pioneered by abolitionists, of invoking the spirit of the nation's founding while calling on it to do better. It went on through the Progressives and the Civil Rights movement and so on down to Obama, its greatest contemporary practitioner. 

I say again that this, not cynicism or talk of revolution or attacks on the Revolution and the Founding Fathers, is the only way for the Left to win elections in America. There is no need to "recast" the nation's history or find some entirely new way to tell it; what is needed it to pick up this strain of the song and carry it on.


David said...

FWIW, I've been reading a book about La Violencia, a period in Colombia roughly from the 40s to the 60s during which the political system broke down and about 200,000 people were killed. What has most struck me is that its beginnings lay in that same four-way split into far right, center right, center left, and far left that seems to trouble ours and many other modern societies. And the key was a presidential election during which the far left gave up accepting an alliance of compromise with the center left, and ran their own presidential candidate in a three-way race. The united right of course won, and took this as an opportunity to destroy the whole left once and for all. They failed, and the period ended decades later with a new compromise of exhaustion.

In this sense, I agree with John's general point that the far left's acceptance of compromise holds the key to this election--along with maybe some of the center right realizing just how crazy they've allowed the far right has become. (The Colombian far right in this period was similar to ours, by the way, full of conspiracy theories and dark talk about the end of civilization--all with a 1940s Hispanic inflection, of course, with lots of praise of Franco, fear of the Masons, and some Opus Dei-type church involvement).

G. Verloren said...


"I am of course a sucker for this kind of rhetoric, pioneered by abolitionists, of invoking the spirit of the nation's founding while calling on it to do better."

My problem is I can't help but feel that at it's an inaccurate invocation, done out of ignorance at best and out of cynical bad-faith manipulation at worst. America was very intentionally founded not as a Democracy, but as an oligarchic Republic.

The founders weren't the common people, they were the wealthy elites who wanted a more decentralized system that better favored their interests over those of the crown. In England itself, such wealthy elites took the form of feudal lords with landed titles; but in the colonies no such titles existed, and thus the wealthy elites took the form of merchant "barons", who rather than extracting resources from the populous through levies and royal taxes, instead did so through rents and Smithian economics. The specific mechanism was new, but the end result was the same - the working class did all the labor, and the ruling class took all the wealth. At the end of the day, what real difference does it make what you call the person coming to take away the bulk of your crops and coin?

The founders were never all that interested in Democracy - heck, they didn't even really want Independence for the longest time. What they wanted was a new "Magna Carta" of sorts, granting them certain aristocratic privileges and greater influence over decisions of state. They didn't want the common rabble to have that influence - they wanted it for themselves! And they very deliberately made sure not to give any of it to the farmers when the revolution was complete and it came time to draft the Constitution. Nothing prevented them from sharing the power Democratically... except they didn't really want to. They fought for their own self interests, not for anyone else's!

Which is why I can't take this sort of rhetoric seriously. It's a romanticization and mythologization of people who were, at the end of the day, just making a power grab for themselves, and who merely dressed it up in pretty language and sentiment in order to get the commoners to fight a war on their behalf.

G. Verloren said...


I mean, just read the complaints listed in the Declaration of Independence. What great evils and acts of tyranny did the king commit? Well...

...he didn't pass certain laws that the wealthy elites wanted... and he didn't let them pass those laws themselves... and he called legislative bodies together at places they found inconvenient.... and he dissolved certain representative bodies... and then he chose not to replace said bodies...

...and (again) he didn't pass certain laws that the wealthy elites wanted (this time regarding increasing immigration)... and (again) he didn't let them pass those laws themselves... ditto for laws establishing judiciary powers... and he didn't let the wealthy elites appoint judges themselves or decide their salaries... and he created new state offices that the wealthy elites didn't like...

...and he kept standing armies in the colonies during peace time (as if it would make sense to wait for the French, Spanish, Natives, etc, to declare war before sending troops across the Atlantic to defend the colonies?)... and he didn't give the wealthy elites control over the military... and he upheld royal law over colonial law... and he quartered troops (which was standard practice, and who were there to protect the colonies in event of war)... and he didn't give the wealthy elites the power to put said troops on trial, but instead subjected them to military trial (again, standard practice, even today!)...

...and he set trade policy that the wealthy elites didn't like... and he imposed taxes that they didn't like... and he didn't give them jury trials like they wanted (despite having no legal obligation to do so)... and he extradited some of the wealthy elites back to England to face trial (again, standard practice even today)... and he struck down some colonial laws... and some other ones...

...and then when the revolution itself actually kicked off, he essentially stripped the wealthy elites of what legal powers they ostensibly still had and sent troops in to reestablish order, which seems like an obvious response and a silly thing to raise as a grievance... oh, and he also captured ships and burned towns, which again seems perfectly predictable if you start a rebellion and go to war...

...and he hired some mercenaries to wage his war, how monstrous! Have you ever heard of such a thing? And he impressed some sailors and required those colonial subjects who were not part of the rebellion to enforce the laws of the crown against the rebels! Unthinkable! And he made a deal with some of the Native Americans to get them to fight on his side! What mad, barbarous tyranny!

I mean... seriously, there are really only TWO grievances in there that are of any actual concern to the common man - quartering of troops, and impressment. The rest are basically trumped up complaints about the king exercising his legal rights as he saw fit, and the rich landowning colonial aristocracy being upset that they weren't being freely given more power with which to enrich themselves.

I don't know about you, but I think it's best if we stop pretending early America was anything other than a self interested power grab by the untitled rich.

John said...

@G- America was founded as kluge, an unstable compromise of a democracy and an oligarchic Republic. That's why we got a legislature with two houses, one oligarchic and one intended to be more democratic. To my mind the system quickly evolved away from oligarchy toward a system in which elites, to win, had to mobilize voters. One of the means they used to do that was racism, but they used it because it worked to get them poor white votes.

American voters had the power to discard every single one of their leaders, which was at that time nearly unique in the world. They sometimes used that power for awful ends, but it was the people who did it, not an oligarchy.