A Proposal, and a Second Take On Progressivism, American-ness, and Conservative Rhetoric

I’ve read the comments on my recent post on progressivism with equal parts exasperation and disappointment. I complained that

…today’s conservatives are obsessed with maintaining semantic control over The American Idea: What sort of country are we? For the Right, we’re the Founders and Ronald Reagan and victorious armies and we’re certainly Christian and we all agree that the wealthy’s consumer choices drive prosperity both common and individual. We’re Austrian trickle-down economics and the Gilded Age and rugged individualism. Progressives have different policy goals, so they’re not just our opponents—they’re not our fellow citizens.

I intended the post as an indictment of conservative rhetoric—their infatuation with categorizing who and what is American is as ugly as it is unpromising. It’s hard to have any sort of worthwhile political discussion when one side is determined to undermine the other’s debate credentials. “You think we should raise taxes on the wealthy? WELL! YOUR IDEAS DO NOT BELONG ON THIS STAGE, EUROPE-LOVER!”

Despite my intentions, though, the comments were more or less exercises in illustrating my point. Apparently progressives are a cabal of secretive America-usurpers determined to hide their true intentions and disdain for the Constitution. Or, to put it another way, progressivism has no content, except when it has nefarious (sometimes racist) content that destroys America. Its public content is shifting and empty and its private content horrifying. Fortunately, conservatives are uniquely capable of reading between the lines in progressives’ public arguments and revealing the perfidy that lies beneath.

In short, many of the comments criticizing the post’s argument actually corroborated its thesis.

Look, I’m not a mealy-mouthed centrist. I don’t fetishize compromise—least of all as an intrinsically positive good. I don’t think that the best solutions to America’s common problems are all to be found in inter-party dialogue. I’m not a discourse ethics guy—I’m a pragmatist.

do, however, recognize that this sort of rhetoric—”You, Mr. President, are opposed to our Founding principles”—is the sort of thing that makes serious conversations about our responses to these problems pretty much impossible. What’s more, this particular brand of rhetorical well-poisoning is as historically inaccurate as it is unhelpful. 

Perhaps it would help if I offered an example of early progressive skepticism about the Founding. There were (and are) progressives—much as there are conservatives—who thought that American Constitution-worship was unwarranted. In An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, progressive historian Charles Beard wrote [emphasis mine]:

In the juristic view the Constitution is not only the work of the whole people, but it also bears in it no traces of the party conflict from which it emerged…Nowhere in the commentaries is there any evidence of the fact that the rules of our fundamental law are designed to protect any class in its rights, or secure the property of one group against the assaults of another…Different degrees and kinds of property inevitably exist in modern society; party doctrines and “principles” originate in the sentiments and views which the possession of various kinds of property creates in the minds of the possessors; class and group divisions based on property lie at the basis of modern government; and politics and constitutional law are inevitably a reflex of these contending interests…substantially all of the merchants, money lenders, security holders, manufacturers, shippers, capitalists, and financiers and their professional associates are to be found on one side in support of the Constitution and that substantially all or the major portion of the opposition came from the non-slaveholding farmers and the debtors—would it not be pretty conclusively demonstrated that our fundamental law was not the product of an abstraction known as “the whole people,” but of a group of economic interests which must have expected beneficial results from its adoption? 

Shorter Beard (ha): The Founding was a bunch of rich guys who rigged the U.S. Constitution to benefit their class. The “principles” it contains are just so much cover for their greed (Worth noting: Beard thought that he was simply extending James Madison’s own view of human self-interest, factions, etc. Whether he’s right or not isn’t really relevant to the argument I’m making here—which I suppose ensures that it will be heavily discussed in the comments. Knock yourselves out). Contra many other progressives, Beard actually is skeptical of the Founders. If that’s our standard for who and what counts as American, then he’s un- or anti-American (though I’m not crazy about that standard).

BUT: one man’s view of the Constitution, much like a single passage from Woodrow Wilson, hardly justifies consigning twentieth or twenty-first century progressives to the un-American bin.

Caveat: I’m hardly confident that progressivism (old or new) is right on all counts all the time. I’ve written about its substantive and rhetorical shortcomings here and elsewhere on many occasions. But it’s pretty nonsensical to complain if I don’t include those in a post that’s focused on conservative rhetoric.

Forgive me if I’m coming off as petulant or expecting too much from the commentariat, etc. In an effort to show that I’d like to be constructive, I propose the following:

How about some posts on American-ness, American Exceptionalism, the American Dream, core American ideals, etc?

A Few Prompting Questions:
• Who is/are the constitutive, exemplary American(s)?
• Is the American tradition univocal? Plural?
• What does the Civil War have to do with the American tradition?
• How secular/religious is the American ideal? 
• When cultural, religious, or political pluralism challenges the unity of the American tradition, what is the appropriate response?
• How do American views of the American tradition compare with the ways that other political traditions see themselves?
• What ideas are toxic to sustaining American ideals? 

I don’t mean to kick off a formal symposium—there’s no way that I can commit the necessary time to organize and moderate one. I’d just like to express my interest in more substantive discussion of something that I find really interesting. Think of it as nothing more or less than a casual call for posts. Indulge or ignore as you see fit.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go download my next secret instructions from MartinSheen.net. I can’t let this little fiasco stand between the weary now and the glimmering progressive future. Michael Moore has tasked me with a really crucial mission for next week.


Conor P. Williams on TwitterFacebook, and in much greater detail

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120 thoughts on “A Proposal, and a Second Take On Progressivism, American-ness, and Conservative Rhetoric

  1. “Forgive me if I’m coming off as petulant or expecting too much from the commentariat, etc.”

    I…guess I’m sorry that we had the temerity to disagree with you? But, um, that’s kind of how debate works?

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  2. “I intended the post as an indictment of conservative rhetoric…”

    The conservative heard it. Arf.

    https://ordinary-times.com/blog/2012/09/what-progressivism-is/#comment-354969

    “Not only that, but progressivism’s argument is usually polemical, and often ad hom: As long as there’s an injustice or a scarcity on earth, as long as man himself remains imperfect, if the progressive is permitted to frame the debate where he is the only alternative, he must surely win.

    As we see in the very OP here, which is not an affirmative argument for “progressivism” atall, it’s an attack on progressivism’s opponents. When progressivism is forced to go on the record with an affirmative argument for itself and not an attack on a caricature of its opponents, well, that would be interesting.”

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    • Conor’s point (as I see it) is actually, at bottom, very simple: for conservatives to actually engage progressives in open debate, it requires them to eschew claims that the very ideas put forth by progressivism are un-American and essentially illigitimate.

      Progressivism, on the whole, does not share in the use of that tribalistic rhetoric. Many of it’s claims can actually be demonstrated to be true/false based on a shared empiricism rather than reductive blustering about seemingly irrelevant ideas of American-ness and Founding Fathers.

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        • Heh, Duck. All we hear is how Europe does it better. BTW, Obama calling Ryan’s plan un-American:

          BARACK OBAMA: This vision is less about reducing the deficit than it is about changing the basic social compact in America . . . Ronald Reagan’s own budget director said there’s nothing serious or courageous about this plan . . . There’s nothing serious about a plan that claims to reduce the deficit by spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. And I don’t think there’s anything courageous about asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don’t have any clout on Capitol Hill . . . That’s not a vision of the America I know.

          MARK HALPERIN: I think if a Republican president called the Democratic proposals on something like this un-American, I think the press would be up in arms.

          JOE SCARBOROUGH: They would savage him.

          HALPERIN: They would be up in arms. I think that kind of rhetoric: for the president to say, that what Paul Ryan is doing is not consistent with his vision of America, I think that’s rhetoric that only added insult, injury to the insult of inviting him to sit in the front row.

          SCARBOROUGH: Republicans have said a lot of really, really tough things about Barack Obama. Really tough things. So, it’s not even the words, it’s not the rhetoric. I think the president does believe that the Ryan plan is not the America that he grew up in or the America he wants. I’m just saying, for negotiating reasons, why invite him to sit in the front row and say that his budget is not serious and is un-American when Paul Ryan’s been fighting his entire life for this?

          HALPERIN: I totally agree. It seems like a weird decision to make.

          Read more: http://newsbusters.org/blogs/mark-finkelstein/2011/04/14/halperin-msm-would-savage-gop-president-calling-opponents-budget-u#ixzz266MAjceL

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  3. Narrated AbuHurayrah: The Prophet (saas) said: There will be civil strife which will render people deaf, dumb and blind regarding what is right. Those who contemplate it will be drawn by it, and giving rein to the tongue during it will be like smiting with the sword.

    Sunan Abu-Dawud, Kitab Al-Fitan Wa Al-Malahim (Trials and Fierce Battles) Hadith 4251

    Who is/are the constitutive, exemplary American(s)?

    The newest naturalised American citizens, holding their hands over their heart, taking the oath of allegiance. It’s sound genetics: exogamous relationships are better than inbreeding. With each such person, America is slightly redefined.

    Is the American tradition univocal? Plural?

    Plural.

    What does the Civil War have to do with the American tradition?

    The triumph of federalism. Before the Civil War, the United States was a plural, “these United States.” Not after.

    How secular/religious is the American ideal?

    By separating religion from politics, we’ve simultaneously created a nation where religious freedom can give rise to organic forms of worship and traditions of freethinkers, agnostics and atheists.

    When cultural, religious, or political pluralism challenges the unity of the American tradition, what is the appropriate response?

    How is this even possible? Our motto is E Pluribus Unum: from the many [comes] the one. See above answer about Exemplary American. Our greatest strength is our diversity, which is why the enemies of pluralism sneer when they hear the word Diversity.

    How do American views of the American tradition compare with the ways that other political traditions see themselves?

    Two centuries and a few decades is hardly enough time to develop a tradition. With each amendment to our constitution and important court case, we’re evolving rather more rapidly than we might suppose and not everyone’s happy with the rate of change. The political parties have reversed positions as surely as the magnetic poles have switched over time. If America has traditions at this point, they’re mostly imported. We’re just now beginning to accrete enough of a mythology to create plaster saints of the Founders. Appeal to Tradition is a logical fallacy and you’ll get points taken off in debate for invoking it.

    What ideas are toxic to sustaining American ideals?

    The most-toxic idea is that there are any such ideals to which we all subscribe. We’re an experiment, the prototype for the next few centuries of human existence. I return again to the Exemplary American. Some immigrant from New Guinea will bring his contribution to America, likewise a Xhosa immigrant from South Africa. How can we possibly know what ideals they bring to this country, or what they’ll succeed in passing on to their children?

    Ideals are troubling abstractions. They’re never the real thing. Platonism works well enough for mathematics, which is only an attempt to describe the world. But the world’s not an ideal place. In Parmenides, Unity and Plurality are pulled apart in an almost Buddhist fashion.

    Let me make this somewhat clearer. In object-oriented design, I can establish a taxonomic relationship. Robert is a man. Jane is a woman. Both are human beings. For all of Robert’s attributes to be modeled, excluding those unique to Jane, I can establish this in several ways. I could write up a HumanBeing class, derive two subclasses, one for Male, another for Female. I would then instantiate Robert as an instance of Male.

    But there’s another way to manage this stunt. I could write up an interface and force the Robert class to implement all its methods. The problem with the subclassing strategy is fairly obvious: I’m making all sorts of assumptions about what’s exclusive to Male and Female. What if I only implemented the vote() method on the Male parent class? That’s the way it was in the USA for most of our existence and look how long it took to change it.

    But with the interface strategy, I can have Robert or Jane implement many interfaces. Citizen might be one. Lover might be another. Happily, both Robert and Jane can decide how they want to handle all those methods, or if they want to do anything inside them at all. Yes, it’s true, sometimes the designer does want to use subclassing and not the interface strategy, but if we’re going to get down to what’s meant by Toxic Ideas, there’s nothing worse in my business than Call Super, obliging the child to first do it his parent’s way, then rejigger it to his own ends.

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    • “Let me make this somewhat clearer. In object-oriented design, I can establish a taxonomic relationship. Robert is a man. Jane is a woman. Both are human beings. For all of Robert’s attributes to be modeled, excluding those unique to Jane, I can establish this in several ways. I could write up a HumanBeing class, derive two subclasses, one for Male, another for Female. I would then instantiate Robert as an instance of Male.

      But there’s another way to manage this stunt. I could write up an interface and force the Robert class to implement all its methods. The problem with the subclassing strategy is fairly obvious: I’m making all sorts of assumptions about what’s exclusive to Male and Female. What if I only implemented the Vote() method on the Male parent class? That’s the way it was in the USA for most of our existence and look how long it took to change it.”

      I dunno about anyone else, but this sure cleared it all up for me. The revolution will be digitalized.

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  4. I’m not sure what problem this is intended to solve. OK, so arguendo me and Tom Van Dyke have opposed public policy goals on most major issues, and will never convince each other of the wisdom of our positions. So why don’t people who think like Tom form a political coalition, and people who think like me form another, and people who think differently from either of us either form another or else try and influence existing coalitions, and then we nominate candidates through some reasonably open process and have an election and whoever wins gets a few years to implement their policy vision? I don’t need to convince Tom that my arguments are right, or even that my arguments are acceptably American–I just need to beat him, and have a chance to implement my agenda.

    It’s that second half that’s broken down in recent years, because America’s governing structure makes it almost impossible for anything to get done. But that’s a reason for constitutional reform (I’d start by eliminating the filibuster), which strikes me as unlikely but a hell of a lot more plausible than me and Tom ever agreeing on anything of significance.

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    • I’m not sure what problem this is intended to solve

      Well, look at it this way. If there is really no value you hold in common (even notionally) then, you have a real problem. Let’s say you form a coalition and Tom forms a coalition and the winner bascally gets to make policy. Let us suppose furthermore that because Tom is so different from you, you actually think that policies Tom prefer have nothing going for them. i.e. it is not just that they are on balance ill advised. Their very basic rationale is incomprehensible to you. Maybe it is based on some natural law theory which sounds just like nonsense on stilts to you. You don’t see how anyone who is not already committed to some implausible (as it seems to you) claims will believe in anything like this.

      So, the policies that Tom prefers are not only ones that you find odious, they even lack the grace of being understandable mistakes. You don’t even have the option of saying, “Oh,i can see how someone would go wrong over there” Of course, not all policies you find odious affect you, but of the ones that do, the only reason you do accede to those policies is because you are forced to. Moreover, since the rationale sounds like Gibberish to you, you are likely to feel that such coercion is intolerable. What if nearly half the country felt this way? How long before violence erupted in the streets? If suppose, that you each took turns to implement the policies you wanted regardless of whether their rationale was comprehensible to the other team, how long before you would cease to believe that you could deal with a guy from the other team in good faith outside of political issues, let alone on political matters?

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    • Yes, Dan. Your majoritarianism is a further problem. Obamacare was passed by brute political force. “Progressivism” is disinterested in convincing because of its inherent radicalism. Its strategy is to impose its way and hope people get used to it.

      Like school lunches or health insurance for 26-yr-olds on their parents’ policy. Once you create such entitlements, people become dependent on them, and taking them away is “draconian.”

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      • Here is where we see our two different realities begin to pull apart. I saw a candidate run on health care reform and win election. He took Heritage’s health reform ideas only a few years on the shelf, mixed them with the product of a Republican gov working with a Democratic state house, and added a Democratic dollop of subsidies, then found a way to pay for it and pass it. You see sneak attack brute force and inherent radicalism towards the goal of dependency enslavement. Obama’s approach treats his opponents ideas as worthy of consideration and even implementation. Yours treats his ideas as a threat to our country and not worthy of consideration much less implementation.

        Neither of us will garner 100% of a national vote. Why is only one side willing to acknowledge that all votes are supposed to count, even ones you are convinced are wrong?

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  5. By way of riffing off Conor’s proposed questions, in a way that might inform our understanding of them:

    Do other countries tend to have this conservative strain of claims that “X is un-what-we-are”? I mean with the exception of ethnic claims, so set aside Nazis saying Turkish immigrants aren’t German, French who doubt Algerian immigrants Frenchness, etc. I mean with regard to political proposals/ideas, do Canadians say “ideology X is un-Canadian,” do Dutch conservatives say, “that political belief is un-Dutch?”

    The U.S. is probably the most self-consciously created country/nation (if we in fact constitute a nation*) in the world. We have a much clearer founding moment, with a fairly specific set of ideals surrounding it, than do other countries. Even if we take a relatively new country created in a specific moment–as is just about to happen in Kosovo–there is, underlying statehood, a long-standing nationhood. It seems to me that could mean two non-exclusive things. One, by having a long national history, probably with numerous changes of form of government, and different distinct political eras, it would seem to open up a broader region of what are considered legitimate political ideas, since multiple political ideas have already been part of that group’s definition. Second, for nations that are gaining independence–a nation-state of their own–at a particular moment in time, it seems the political ideal underlying it is primarily just national independence, with little more content than that, so that the political identity of the new nation-state is something of an empty vessel, non-exclusive of various structural/ideological forms that it could take (although a strong and monolithic religious character could limit that open-endedness, I suppose).

    The U.S., by contrast, was motivated not by an idea of national independence, since both ethnically and politically they mostly considered themselves British, right up until the final break, but independence justified via political theory, and then a reorganization of their governing structure that also was heavily based (or at least justified) by political theory.

    So does that make us uniquely susceptible to these claims that “X is un-what-we-are”? Or is that same tendency as pronounced in other countries, and I just don’t know that it is?

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    * In case I’m losing anyone there, nationality technically refers to a particular group of people, whether they have a state/country of their own or not. For example, Jews, or Armenians. Nationality is usually defined as having a distinct ethnic identity, common history and traditions, generally a common language, and so on. Whether the U.S. constitutes a nation is disputed. It certainly doesn’t have the attributes of a distinct ethnic identity, and the common history is, in global comparison, very brief. But it does have–despite conservatives’ complaints about progressives, perhaps–a common basic political understanding, leading some to classify it has having civic nationality.

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        • So what would be un-French? Jaybirds’ example could be read as suggesting nothing really is. Chris argues things can be, but gives no examples (this is a request for some). He also emphasizes the cultural–is it possible to distinguish between the cultural and ideological in this context? (I suspect that superficially it is, but the distinction may break down as one digs deeper.)

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        • Many things came to an absolute end with the rise of the French Revolution. France had been a Catholic nation, the Revolution was the beginning of the end for that attribute. Marianne replaced La Vierge. Do you realise France under the kings didn’t have a national flag? There was the fleur-de-lis and royal blue, but that wasn’t a flag, it was a standard.

          Nor was France a single thing. There was a king, a rather strong sort of absolute monarch, but there was no nation, no national ethos, and at ground level, there was no popular support for the idea of France. Many supposedly French people could barely understand each other’s speech.

          I distrust any word which ends in -ness or -ity. They’re Humpty Dumpty words, meanings determined by those who utter them.

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    • The U.S. is probably the most self-consciously created country/nation (if we in fact constitute a nation*) in the world.

      Well, there’s Israel. Where a significant fraction of the population thinks it shouldn’t exist at all, a larger fraction thinks it should expand to “Biblical” size, and while there’s general acceptance that it’s a homeland for Jews, there’s disagreement about who counts as a Jew.

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      • Mike,

        It’s certainly true that Israel was created as self-consciously as the U.S. In fact probably far more so, since it was a long-term project that engendered a lot of pre-creation discussion and in addition a lot of purposeful choosing to move far from home to a specific place where the state would be created. But does it fit my category of a state whose founding principle is predominantly national, rather than having a broader, more philosophical vision? I know that there are elements there that think certain things are un-Jewish, but do they also see those things as un-Israeli? Does that distinction actually make sense in that context?

        Not arguing, genuinely asking.

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        • My guess is that Jewish and Israeli are almost entirely conflated, for two reasons:

          1. The mess caused by the occupation. The existence of Israeli Arabs demonstrates that there is a distinction, but they’re completely outnumbered by Palestinian Arabs who are not and never will be Israelis.
          2. The hostility of its neighbors, almost always expressed as against the Jews rather than against the Israelis.

          In better times, the questions you raise would be more likely to be asked.

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  6. Conor,

    I was working on a post discussing some of this but I will just mention a point here: You never differentiate between liberals and ‘progressives’. You talk about ‘progressives’ as a group but what makes them different than standard liberals? Since you don’t describe them as a separate group, the conservatives you are knocking are going to assume it is a codeword and default to a liberal / conservative dynamic. That’s at least part of what you saw in the comments in your first post.

    Here’s a hint: Progressivism is about forward-thinking and change. The modifier is liberalism or conservatism which describe the pace of that change and the methods. So are you talking about Liberal Progressivism?

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    • Are the two really separate groups, though? Could you identify some people who identify themselves as progressives but not liberals, or liberals but not progressives? It seems like a pretty marginal distinction, and for the sake of this conversation the two can probably be treated as equivalent (since you probably won’t get a lot of agreement over what constitutes “liberal” vs “progressive”).

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      • There is a difference, which mostly resolves a logical inverse. Where the Liberal says “we could have a better society if only we could rectify some inequality” the Progressives says “We would have a more just society if only everyone had to play by better rules.”

        While it’s true, we would have a better society if it were most just, the Progressive does not ask the government to favour any one party at the expense of another. But this is all semantics: Liberals don’t ask for favouritism either. Liberal has becomes such a dog whistle word, so has Socialism, nobody dares use either word correctly. Of course, when Liberals point out Conservatives these days aren’t very conservative when tearing out entirely necessary rules, they still insist on being called what they aren’t.

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      • What it will come down to is the division between statists and anti-statists. Especially as Conor’s wish for cooperation comes true to save the powerful State. Right and Left will find common cause for the sake of the State, and they will call it the enlightened Center, or something like that. All who are outside this enlightened Center who fight against statism will be seen as obstructionists, extremists, narrow-minded, ideological, etc., and the State machine will attempt to marginalize them. Within the political realm there will be the facade of disagreement over minor differences, but the underlying solidarity will resist threats to State power. The State, unfortunately, has effectively removed any meaningful limits to power and control, and those who benefit from a powerful State have become so numerous that the battle has begun as a small faction stands against a powerful State. In the age-old battle between Domination and Freedom, Domination is winning at this point in time, but the consequences of domination, as always happens, are beginning to cause serious economic problems, and problems of militaristic activity to manufacture the need for safety and security, thus blinding Americans to civil liberty violations.

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    • I’d like to second Mike’s comment. I was thinking about responding with a request for some clarification as to what our non-conservatives/non-libertarians here at the blog see as the distinctions between liberal, left, and progressive. I might just be slow, but even after reading this blog for a while, I don’t feel like I’ve gained an understanding of that taxonomy, and I’d love a post by any one of the folks who are non-conservative/non-libertarian giving their take on it, for my own education.

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      • I (correctly or not) look at liberal as a view of government’s role, it’s proper structurs, and specific conception of justice and how it is to be arrived at.

        Progressivism I see as dealing much more with values and ideals, and the evolution of the humanistic project (e.g. changing conceptions of what humanity refers to, and how it can be more positively realized ).

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      • As an example then, progressivism is the name for what informs me that human beings need good health/education/work in various degrees to have more realized/fulfilled lives.

        Liberalism would be the view that such things are best obtained (and in fact are obtainable) through certain structures like universal healthcare, various ecnomoic policies, etc.

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        • Ethan,

          I look at liberal or conservative as the modifier i.e liberal progressivism or conservative progressivism. IMO most people in the United States are progressive, the question is just what that progressivism looks like.

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          • Traditionally, I thought the core of conservatism was that the nature of human beings remains fixed. For instance, via the bible, humanity will always be “fallen,” ergo we should have x kind of criminal justice system.

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          • “English historian A.J.P. Taylor explains, ‘Toryism rests on doubt in human nature; it distrusts improvement, clings to traditional institutions, prefers the past to the future. It is a sentiment rather than a principle.'”

            Perhaps this is a difference between American conservatism and British Toryism that makes the latter incompatible with the formulations of American progressivism, even while American conservatism remains capable of accomodating it still.

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            • A lot of American Conservatives like to make the same complaints about liberalism. They seem themselves as the true realists while liberals are naive and childlike for wanting to improve things.

              Of course as a liberal, I don’t see any problem with wanting to improve things. Conservatism looks like nothing more to me than a defense of the status quo and of pain and misery and oppression by people who are in control. The why bother to try and change things attitude bugs me. Liberals reforms will not produce 100 percent results but they can be positive. I don’t see why failure to achieve perfection is seen as a good argument about trying to solve inequity.

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      • Actually, could we ask the liberaltariat here to make some kind of chart, or graphic to show how it all works out? Maybe a Venn diagram? I am not trying to be snarky here, as even as a former Democrat, I never really understood the pecking order/taxonomy once you get past the centrist area.

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      • The subject of liberalism is freedom – originally a doctrine of individual rights. The subject of leftism is the people – originally all of society other than the representatives, supporters, and operatives of the old (royal) regime. The subject of progressivism is history. If you believe that history is or ought to be progress to an ever wider, fuller, and more just expansion of rights encompassing all people and in all ways – i.e., materially and spiritually, as individuals and also as members of social, civil, ethnic, religious, national, etc. groups – then it’s not difficult to be a left-liberal-progressive.

        It can be difficult to sort out because people at any given moment may find themselves in disagreement on every particular term and aspect of the above, and because they may often be attracted to “liberalism” for its leftism, or to leftism for its progressivism, and so on. Especially in America, it also means that people may turn to so-called conservatism out of a perception of its more successful expression or realization of liberal, left, or progressive ideals.

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          • The claim that my use of “rights” was facile is facile, or perhaps uninformed as to the history of political philosophy. I’m sorry to have to be the one to inform you, again, that the Founders were leftists avant la lettre, and just barely, that they were original liberals, and for the most part great believers in progress. It’s actually a quite conservative, as in standard and ought-to-be non-controversial, analysis, not a political justification of anything – except perhaps in regard to what really bothers you: resistance to your attempted appropriation of the American Founding for your parochial political purposes.

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            • Your arrogation of the Founding for leftism repeats the prevailing myth that John Locke dropped to earth one day in 1688* . Your use of “rights” is a magic wand to cover your policy preferences in fairy dust: since you reject any coherent theory of “rights’ except political contract or rhetorical assertion, a “right” is whatever you say one is, no more or less.

              ____

              *But he did not. For example:

              Declaration of Independence: “All men are created equal; they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”

              Robert Cardinal Bellarmine [c. 1600]: “All men are equal, not in wisdom or grace, but in the essence and nature of mankind” (“De Laicis,” c.7) “There is no reason why among equals one should rule rather than another” (ibid.). “Let rulers remember that they preside over men who are of the same nature as they themselves.” (“De Officus Princ.” c. 22). “Political right is immediately from God and necessarily inherent in the nature of man” (“De Laicis,” c. 6, note 1).

              Aquinas [c.1250]: “Nature made all men equal in liberty, though not in their natural perfections” (II Sent., d. xliv, q. 1, a. 3. ad 1).

              &c.

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              • Not sure why you attribute those views regarding contractual or assertoric rights to me. You may be operating either from assumptions or perhaps a misreading of earlier exchanges colored by your assumptions. Nor do I see why whatever my views might be is particularly relevant to this description of the historical moment relative to the question Mr. Hanley asked about the differences between liberalism, leftism, and progressivism. If you believe you have discovered the origins of liberalism/liberal rights in Aquinas, bully for you, but there are plenty of competitors for the title of “First True Liberal,” and it doesn’t really bear on the central argument.

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                • Well, of course. “Progressive” claims all that is good and blames everything bad on “conservatism.” As we determined at the very beginning, What is progressivism? “Conservatives suck,” he replied.

                  As for your “rightstalk,”

                  If you believe that history is or ought to be progress to an ever wider, fuller, and more just expansion of rights encompassing all people and in all ways – i.e., materially and spiritually, as individuals and also as members of social, civil, ethnic, religious, national, etc. groups – then it’s not difficult to be a left-liberal-progressive.

                  the same goes double, if one can read that far without his eyes glazing over. Progressivism is not a coherent philosophy, it’s a rhetorical method.

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                  • That’s simply not true. The Progressives also pushed Prohibition. Nobody thinks we should return to that era. One of the most progressive men of his era, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. would admit the 18th Amendment was a serious mistake.

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                  • Your comment, TVD, suffers from a contradiction that is caused in part, I think, by your false assumptions about what my aim must be. I was trying to keep things brief, to the point, and easy to understand for the ungrateful Hanley, who was the one who requested definitions, but, as we know, not only dislikes me, but likes to remind me that he dislikes me. Now, it’s odd that on the one hand your eyes “glaze over” but on the other you identify my description of a particular ideological stance as “all that is good.” I didn’t blame anything on anyone, and even suggested that what we call conservatism in contemporary politics is perceived by its supporters to do a better job of realizing those classical left-liberal-progressive ideals (or ideal complex of ideals). The reason it sounds like “all that is good” to you, I think, is that you do in fact share the same philosophical horizon as your designated adversaries, and are attracted to the same value statements. The reason your eyes begin to glaze over is that you wrong think your precious values are being appropriated by someone else. Either that, or you’re just being impolite, for the usual reasons.

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                    • For my own [fairly obvious] reasons, I skip over your discussions with some other folks hereabouts so I don’t really know a lot of what you’re saying here specifically about them. And I do address my remarks to you as one of the sharpest knives in the drawer on the left side of the aisle.

                      However, the left here seems to toggle between rejecting the Founders and claiming to be the inheritors of the values. I’m like, whatever.

                      And you did pretty much associate all that is good about rights with left-liberal-progressivism in this excerpt.

                      ,i>If you believe that history is or ought to be progress to an ever wider, fuller, and more just expansion of rights encompassing all people and in all ways – i.e., materially and spiritually, as individuals and also as members of social, civil, ethnic, religious, national, etc. groups – then it’s not difficult to be a left-liberal-progressive.

                      And I’m like, whatever on that, too. I think progressivism sees the masses but not the man, the policies and not the persons. A lot of big ideas and theories under the rubric of “rights,” and a self-exemption from the law of unintended consequences.

                      For example, we have hungry kids in school. Voila. the government shall feed them, problem solved!

                      But the problem was not the hungry kids, the problem was parents who made no effort to feed them. Instead of addressing the real problem, “progressivism” institutionalized it and has likely made it permanent: parents are no longer expected to feed their own damn kids, and cutting school lunch programs [and now breakfasts!] would be draconian, a crime against “the children.”

                      And so it goes, in a thousand other facets of our lives, the infantilization of America.

                      Instead we discuss “conservative rhetoric” as if that has anything to do with anything. And so,

                      …progressivism’s argument is usually polemical, and often ad hom: As long as there’s an injustice or a scarcity on earth, as long as man himself remains imperfect, if the progressive is permitted to frame the debate where he is the only alternative, he must surely win.

                      As we see in the very OP here, which is not an affirmative argument for “progressivism” atall, it’s an attack on progressivism’s opponents. When progressivism is forced to go on the record with an affirmative argument for itself and not an attack on a caricature of its opponents, well, that would be interesting.”

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                    • Can’t say I’ve noticed much rhetorical restraint, TVD, on the part of conservatives on the attack, so can’t say I’m much impressed with the attack on progressives for supposedly excessive indulgence in “ad hom” or “polemical” styles of argument. I suppose if I thought real hard I might be able to come up with one or another policy that conservatives supported that was almost as horrifying as school meal programs. In my completely objective and totally scientific opinion, the most offensive demented lying a-holes are overwhelmingly disproportionately on the right today in America, for solid historical reasons, but that doesn’t mean that I think BlaiseP’s treatment of the Founders is particularly well-considered or for that matter well-founded, or that Mr. Williams shouldn’t have listened a little harder to the voice telling him he was being “petulant,” as well as to some of the other things it was probably whispering to him about the way he was approaching this discussion. An ideally left-liberal-progressive (llp) approach generally looks for a widening circle of agreement.

                      The point of the eye-glazing paragraph that you’ve now quoted twice was precisely to associate a broad and positive statement of of rights with llp-ism. However, I don’t think we are in a position actually to assume that it encapsulates “all that is good about rights.” I don’t believe that we can at this time assume or still assume that history “is or ought to be progress” and so on. There is much reason at least to suspect that the idea is at best incomplete, and that like other dreams of reason it tends to give birth to monsters. If that’s so, what we might need from conservatism would be a more complete separation from the left-liberal-progressive inheritance instead of the stubborn embrace of the American Idea, which as generally understood embodies that inheritance as one of its primary expressions.

                      You might say that to progress beyond progress(ivism) we would need to penetrate more deeply into the foundation of the Founding.

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                    • Yes, conservatives suck. Stipulated. After that, some generic blather about “rights.” Check. An example of how progressive statism misidentifies a problem, then virus-like, inserts itself into people’s lives, creating a culture of dependency. Ignore. Back vs. conservatives, ad hom, a wave in the direction of the Founders—hard to tell if for good or ill—and voila, progressivism declares itself the last man standing.

                      What is progressivism?

                      Well, it’s not so much a philosophy as a rhetorical technique.

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  7. “The profound crisis of our era is, in essence, the conflict between the Social Engineers, who seek to adjust mankind to conform with scientific utopias, and the disciples of Truth, who defend the organic moral order. We believe that truth is neither arrived at nor illuminated by monitoring election results, binding though these are for other purposes, but by other means, including a study of human experience. On this point we are, without reservations, on the conservative side.”–William F. B.

    Perhaps this points toward progressive conservativs and progressive liberals being differentiated largely based upon the methods of their empricisim (conservatism being more experiential/individual/phenomenological, and liberalism being more statistical/scientific/cold and calculating).

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  8. • Who is/are the constitutive, exemplary American(s)?

    Answer: That NewDealer guy is pretty swell and easy on the eyes.

    Serious Answer: I think everyone who wants to be American is an exemplary American

    • Is the American tradition univocal? Plural?

    Answer: Plural but we tend to see the other side as the uncle or aunt who never married and has given into their eccentricties because they don’t have an anchor. There is also a long trend of groups working themselves into being seen as American. Some groups had easier journeys than others.

    • What does the Civil War have to do with the American tradition?

    Answer: It is the only conflict where the loser’s wrote the history books and we will forever argue about the cause. I see it as the Slaver’s Rebellion. Many Southerners would disagree. Who you sympathize with in the Civil War says a lot about a person’s politics.

    • How secular/religious is the American ideal?

    Answer: I think of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution as being documents of the Enlightenment and very secular ideals but there was a Founder split. Madison and Jefferson were proponents of religious liberty and no Church interference. Adams disliked Jews and Massachusetts did not allow Jews to be full citizens until the 1850s. President Tyler:

    ” …The United States have adventured upon a great and noble experiment, which is believed to have been hazarded in the absence of all previous precedent – that of total separation of Church and State. No religious establishment by law exists among us. The conscience is left free from all restraint and each is permitted to worship his Maker after his own judgment. The offices of the Government are open alike to all. No tithes are levied to support an established hierarchy, nor is the fallible judgment of man set up as the sure and infallible creed of faith. The Mohammedan, if he were to come among us would have the privilege guaranteed to him by the constitution to worship according to the Koran; and the East Indian might erect a shrine to Brahma if it so pleased him. Such is the spirit of toleration inculcated by our political institutions. The fruits are visible in the universal contentment which everywhere prevails. Christians are broken up into various sects…but each and all move on in their selected sphere, and worship the Great Creator according to their own forms and ceremonies. The Hebrew persecuted and down trodden in other regions takes up his abode among us with none to make him afraid…and the Aegis of the Government is over him to defend and protect him. Such is the great experiment which we have tried, and such are the happy fruits which have resulted from it; our system of free government would be imperfect without it.”

    This goes back to the dual nature of our founding though. Some colonies were founded on religious principals like Masachusetts and Maryland. Others were founded on principals of commercial adventure or religious liberty like New Amsterdam/New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island. This gives the U.S. both religious and secular overtones. We have descendents of both. There are still plenty of people who want the US to be a “city on a hill”

    • When cultural, religious, or political pluralism challenges the unity of the American tradition, what is the appropriate response?

    Answer: Unlike European nations, I always thought that America was brilliant at Assimilation and making various groups keep their distinctions but still be part of civic life. Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Shiks, Hindus, etc can be just as American in their pastimes and interests as Episcopalians, Methodists, and Southern Baptists. Keep in mind that Catholicism is the biggest bloc of Christian identity in the United States and the founding fathers would be shocked by this.

    • How do American views of the American tradition compare with the ways that other political traditions see themselves?

    Answer: I have no idea

    • What ideas are toxic to sustaining American ideals?

    Answer: Bigotry, Nazism, Fascism, Forced Conformity.

    The idea that All Men are Created Equal is not mere rhetoric. It is our mission statement. We were far from perfect at it in 1776 and still have a way to go but I see the march of American history as always going towards achieving that goal. Maybe we will never reach that day but I would like to think that one day we can have a nation that truly holds it as a self-evident truth that all men (as in people) are created equal and endowed by their creator certain unalienable rights….

    See you brought out the corndog in me….

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    • When you say “idea that All Men are Created Equal is not mere rhetoric” what document did you read? Not the US constitution, Slavery was written full into it. Native Americans were completely forgotten. Woman were given nothing. The list does on. The phase “All men created equal” was pure propaganda created to ensure the lower classes would fight and die so the elite didn’t have too. Today, we are closer to this reality in our society but for the last thirty years, this concept has been falling to the wayside as the real elite gain total control of the government. Last I check, the elite do not any longer fight our wars but do enrich themselves from the companies that do the business. Let us not forget the war on blacks … I mean on drugs and the police state we have created that puts over one in three balck men between 18 and 30 into the criminal system. Amazing, the elite make money off the now privatized jail system.

      The joke that all men are created equal has been, and remains a tool of the elite.

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  9. Relative to the main points of the article, the Founding “Fathers’ were extremely bias and extremely supportive of the wealthy class so the basic constitution was written to favor their interests above all other amerikans – how could they not have done this? They- the elite slaveholders had seen that the world was moving away from slave labor to semi-slave wage labor. The slave owning elite had to both organized and guided the rebellion (yet did almost none of the fighting/dying – of course; just like the civil war) so their economic interest would be maintained.

    Note that slavery wasn’t just written into the constitution as if it was just an ordinary commerce issue in the country but this institution was both in need of protection from the non-elite and made beyond attack by the vast majority of voters (again, this later part is still the same flaw in the constitution.) For the elite that mostly controlled the debate and wrote the document, slavery’s protection (through advantage given to the elite) was the primary bases of the document. The non-slave elite still recognized that they too could benefit but they did throw in some objections that the slave owning elite did address.

    Relative to the elite’s non-democratic control of the masses the entire idea of the Senate was created. The job of the senate was to keep a check on the House – this idea was pure slave owner’s creation. The fact that the elite would then control the selection of BOTH the senate members AND president via the Electoral College was again, needed so the elite could put a check on the non-slave lower classes. Then, for good measure, these slave owning elites even defined how much of a non-voting slave would be counted towards House representation! Again, more power to the slave owning elite to guarantee its non-democratic control of the government. These slave owners were not just the primary (at the time) representatives of the wealthy class (again, mostly slave owners) but also the main drivers of all the constitutional law and required interpretations to create an active government.

    This country has been fighting slavery and its effects since its beginning and hence, fighting the elite’s primary control of the government to this day. Today, the elite (the top 0.01%) still have the main say over the government (now by money/banking) – once again, the elite uses divide and conqueror – this isn’t just a clever saying but what the elite have done through race, religion and class. This has created a lower class that always votes against its best economic interest to save its perceived more valued philosophic beliefs. The republicans have become so obvious in this regard that only fools and the mentally challenged tend to fail in seeing this so obvious action. Luckily, like during the Confederate war upon the Untied States, race is still a powerful wedge issue – Romney’s lie about welfare work rule removal by President Obama is a classic case of this evil strategy. The democrats are, too, but do tend to address interest other than the elites.

    The current elite will continue this practice and maintain real control of the government as long as a constitution based on slavery/elite privilege is maintained in its current form. Hell, some on the right are taking about returning the senate selection back to the Electoral College!

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    • I think all that talk about “elites” shows part of the disconnect many have with liberal progressives. The US didn’t have any elites when it was founded. By English London standards, our Founding Fathers were nobodies. None of them were wealthy enough to have gotten invited to a good ball. Nor where they powerful enough to control anything, because unlike European nobility, they couldn’t establish a position based on rents, or popularity based on not-collecting rents, because no farmer was going to pay them money for the privilege of pushing a plow when land to the west was free.

      So instead of having the “elites” control the US economy, the founders lost what little position they had, with new states (and eventually almost all states) allowing poor, unpropertied “serfs” to claim legal title to any land they developed and farmed, despite all outstanding deeds, claims, and grants held by the elites, land companies, the government, or the King of Spain.

      Many liberals progressives adopted the goals, model, and rhetoric of European progressives who were trying to overthrow European nobility and the property systems in Europe, without having the slightest clue that Americans had already done that. Marx and Engles came to call America “the graveyard of communists” because every revolutionary and agitator they sent here disappeared, to be later found running a small business, having found their post revolutionary home where the elites had been overthrown and ordinary people freed to freely own property and businesses, to trade, speculate, own stocks, and conduct all other transactions reserved in Europe for landholders, nobility, aristocrats, and merchant families.

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      • The Founding Fathers were wealthy enough to go to London balls. They were some of the wealthiest men in the world at that point: George Washington had more land under cultivation than anyone in American history and arguably the world at that time. He was surely one of history’s greatest land speculators.

        And let’s not have any of this unhistorical nonsense about how the Founders lost their positions. At the time of the Revolution, the good land east of the Alleghenies was all taken and the West was a No Man’s Land. The French and Indian Wars resulted in the land west of the mountains being ceded to the native peoples who’d fought for the British against the French.

        The original land grants made to the colonies would become the thirteen states. You haven’t been paying attention, Brother Likko’s been laying out how this worked, legally, with Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee.

        The King of England had been overthrown by Cromwell’s Army and Parliament brought in new blood to replace him. Locke’s father had fought for Cromwell.

        Give up on all this hagiography. It’s provably wrong from top to bottom.

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      • Slaves/indentured servants?

        Do you want to provide any evidence with regard to your claims that the founding fathers were not wealthy by British standards, or in support of the implicit claim that not being an elite by English standards made them none elites by Americna ones?

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      • Um, aside from all the historians who like Barbara Tuchman who talk about how poor our Founders were compared to even minor nobles in Europe, Mount Vernon was only 8,000 acres. If it was five or ten times bigger it might’ve made a nice Scottish summer estate, perhaps with a cottage, for someone in London. After the Revolution Washington had title to 18,000 acres that unfortunately had 13 squatters living on it. For years he kept having to meet with them, trying to get them to recognize his legal ownership. They kept telling him to go get f**ked. So he took them to court and spent years fighting unpropertied nobodies because our legal system was not geared toward the “elites”. He eventually won, but instead of paying him any back rent they just moved next door and built new farms. He finally sold those vast holdings for $12,000.

        And he was one of the rich Founders. Samuel Adams made kitchenware – by hand.

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        • Or am I thinking of Paul Revere instead of the beer brewer?

          In any event, making a teapot would disqualify any European from ever attending a ball except as a serveant who walks around offering people canapes and wine.

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        • According to Business Insider, so hardly a lefty rag, George Washington had a net worth of about $525 million in today’s dollars. Granted there are all sorts of assumptions that go into this sort of thing and the numbers can be altered somewhat, but to argue that he and the other founders weren’t elites stretches credibility.

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          • When we get to the subject of land and ownership thereof, we get to the heart of the ‘we built that’ culture in the US.

            Because people did build that. Even while we were still a colony. The British Crown, and later the US government gave land in exchange for debt of all sort — exploring, surveying, breaking road, maintaining a ferry crossing, serving in the military, running a tavern for pony express riders.

            The US government sold land and water/mineral rights until after the Civil War, in large part to finance itself; and the economic difficulties in the early 1900’s benefit from being viewed through the lens of a government without enough land in the bank to sell and without another mechanism for funding itself.

            So yes, those hard-working colonists, pioneers, trappers, loggers, and railroad men built that.

            And it was subsidized by land grand/gifts/cheap sales by the government.

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        • 52,000 acres is hardly worth noting, as many pioneers and random speculators had land claims in the hundreds of thousands of acres, and sometimes in the tens of millions of acres. By property values, Washington probably couldn’t have broken into the top 200 landholders in Scotland, and they were the minor players. By employees and land, he wouldn’t rate as an “elite” in Eastern Kentucky. My uncle used to have morning coffee at Clancy’s hamburgers just across from Cumberland Gap, and the person he had coffee with every morning employed many times the number of employees that George Washington ever had, and they were real employees paid above minimum wage for construction, not agricultural slaves. My uncle’s radio station was sold to a local entrepreneur who employed far more people than George Washington in the KFC franchises he owned, and probably owned more land than Mount Vernon. My brother ran around with the grandson of another hillbilly local who definitely owned the timber and mineral rights to more land than Washington ever possessed, and his awesome richness caused a Lexington bank to open a branch in a mobile home across from his house, just for him.

          So yes, by Eastern Kentucky hillbilly standards Washington was moving towards being rich, but he still had a long way to go to be a local mover and shaker. And he was one of the rich Founders. Most of the rest of them were real nobodies. One even ran a printing press. John Hancock was an exception, having inherited a shipping business, three slaves, and a thousand acres. He was one of the richest men in the colonies, but in London would’ve been a minor merchant.

          Rich, titled, European nobility didn’t come here. They sent people here to oversee their grants and holdings. That’s why none of the Founders have “from the House of …” attached to their biographies. Most came up from nothing, or next to nothing, or from a father or uncle who’d come up from nothing, working as a farmer, lawyer, tradesman, merchant, or surveyor. European “elites” could search their entire family tree and not find a person who’d held a real job. They didn’t labor.

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          • 200 landowners in Scotland had more than 50,000 acres? I really don’t think all of Scotland is that big.

            Being noble did not automatically mean you were rich. Yes, a nobleman could own many thousands of acres (although they were more likely English than Scottish) but these were rarely in just one estate; a nobleman could own several estates of much less acreage each, and the total number might equal what Washington owned in Mount Vernon alone.

            Nor does “elite” necessarily mean rich either. The Founding Fathers were selected by their legislatures or assemblies and sent to the Continental Congress because they were men of means, who were leaders in their various colonies. They certainly weren’t a bunch of nobodies who got together for a do-it-yourself revolution.

            And I don’t think a comparison to a 20th century businessman is relevant to 1776.

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            • Scotland could have 2,000 landowners with more than 50,000 acres. There’s 640 acres in a square mile, so Mount Vernon, for example, at 8000 acres, was only 12.5 square miles, which would make a square 3.5 miles on a side. People out West would laugh if you claimed that was a large holding. Heck, people back East would laugh. Most of Washington’s land claims were in the boonies (the frontier, such as West Virginia), which was woods with no road access. That kind of land, once you run roads to it, is still selling for a little over $1,000 an acre. If you took all his holdings back then and sold the same land at today’s prices, he still wouldn’t be very wealthy by anything other than West Virginia or Eastern Kentucky standards.

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          • It’s worth noting you were trying to get off with that Mount Vernon story and the squatters, as if Washington wasn’t a prosperous squire. If he lacked letters patent, making him some Lord this or Duke that, the colonies had been settled for many decades and Washington did marry into Virginia aristocracy.

            The Founders didn’t really need nobility. Nobility arises from the old feudal system of raising an army, where Lord this or Duke that controlled his own land and Kings needed support from their vassals. By the late 1700s and the Restoration, most of that was irrelevant.

            The American aristocracy wanted nothing more than representation in Parliament and would have settled for it had Lord North been wiser. Had King George ennobled a few Americans, they could have gone to the House of Lords. as was the case in 1707 when Scotland sent representative peers to Parliament.

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        • Wikipedia:

          The 1787 delegates practiced a wide range of high and middle-status occupations, and many pursued more than one career simultaneously. They did not differ dramatically from the Loyalists, except they were generally younger and less senior in their professions.[13] Thirty-five had legal training, though not all of them practiced law. Some had also been local judges.[14]

          At the time of the convention, 13 men were merchants: Blount, Broom, Clymer, Dayton, Fitzsimons, Shields, Gilman, Gorham, Langdon, Robert Morris, Pierce, Sherman, and Wilson.
          Seven were major land speculators: Blount, Dayton, Fitzsimons, Gorham, Robert Morris, Washington and Wilson.
          Eleven speculated in securities on a large scale: Bedford, Blair, Clymer, Dayton, Fitzsimons, Franklin, King, Langdon, Robert Morris, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and Sherman.
          Fourteen owned or managed slave-operated plantations or large farms: Bassett, Blair, Blount, Butler, Carroll, Jenifer, Jefferson, Madison, Mason, Charles Pinckney, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, Rutledge, Spaight, and Washington.
          Many wealthy Northerners owned domestic slaves: Franklin later freed his slaves and was a key founder of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. Jay founded the New York Manumission Society in 1785, for which Hamilton became an officer. They and other members of the Society founded the African Free School in New York City, to educate the children of free blacks and slaves. When Jay was governor of New York in 1798, he signed into law a gradual abolition law; fully ending slavery as of 1827. He freed his own slaves in 1798.
          Broom and Few were small farmers.
          Eight of the men received a substantial part of their income from public office: Baldwin, Blair, Brearly, Gilman, Livingston, Madison, and Rutledge.
          Three had retired from active economic endeavors: Franklin, McHenry, and Mifflin.
          Franklin and Williamson were scientists, in addition to their other activities.
          McClurg, McHenry, and Williamson were physicians, and Johnson was a college president.

          Family and finances

          A few of the 1787 delegates were wealthy, but many of the country’s top wealth-holders were Loyalists who went to Britain. Most of the others had financial resources that ranged from good to excellent, but there are other founders who were less than wealthy. On the whole they were less wealthy than the Loyalists.[15]

          They were rich elites, pretty much like a random selection of people who live in Manhattan now are rich elites. You get a few super millionaires, a few (relatively) high earning merchant-businessy types, stock owners, and some poorer workers (farmers in 1787, people who rent in Washington Heights in Manhattan.)

          On the whole, I’d say the founders were elite and were “haves” not “have nots” but they weren’t as rich as traditional European nobility, no. (Only Wall-Streeters and people who move paper around today are as wealthy as European nobility.)

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      • > The US didn’t have any elites when it was founded.

        This statement actually boggles my mind. I can’t even figure out how one could parse the word “elite” such that any community, ever, wouldn’t possess elites, not to mention America. At the time of the founders.

        Well, barring some neopaleo tribal associations or something.

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        • According to historian Michelle Bachmann, the Founders were dedicated to eradicating slavery.

          I can’t find the actual research, but I’m confident that Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings had lengthy discussions on the matter.

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        • Because “elites” don’t sail their families across an ocean in a leaky boat to go live in the wilderness and fight off indian attacks, that’s why. They hire people to do that for them.

          The only “elites” in the colonies were British generals and the occassional governor who were treating it like service in India, trying to build a reputation so they could return back home and get invited to better parties. What elites we had were siding with the British Crown, because their elite status depended on remaining loyal to the existing heirarchy.

          In essence, your saying that the UAW and UMWA unions are run by landed aristocrats, because every social group has to be run by landed aristocrats.

          That’s a problem with progressive liberal thinking. They;ve spent so much time reading class-warfare and social revolution rhetoric written in Europe, for Europeans, that they can’t imagine that it didn’t apply here in exactly the same way. When conservatives who study colonial history listen to such people babble on, they sound like they’re Uzbeks screaming about the injustices of living under the rulers of Tajikistan or something. So we watch them strap on their armor, mount their horse, and go tilting at imaginary windmills from 18th century Europe, wondering if we should try to clue them in or just get some amusement out of their pointless and misguided flailings.

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          • “In essence, your saying that the UAW and UMWA unions are run by landed aristocrats, because every social group has to be run by landed aristocrats.”

            No, in essence what I’m saying is that “elite” != “landed aristocrat”.

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          • huh…the brit elites sent plenty of their kids off the various wilderness paradises to make their fortune. Mostly it was the younger kids they didn’t have enough room for but it was a central frickin feature of the brit empire to send of all sorts to make oodles in the colonies.

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          • And the early shareholders who came over lost control over time, long, long before the revolution. One of my favorite books on Colonial Law discusses how this process took place in various colonies. Almost all started out with a type of corporate governance and very centralized control, much like you’d expect if you’d signed on with a large overseas operation. As more people are born, and the people become more established, the centralized top-down control gives way to local control. The company loses control and the people start taking over, demanding the same rights that any freeborn English villager would expect.

            The people who came over didn’t bring the entire British legal system, nor the full range of government. As they grew and came to need better organization, they’d make things up based on the elements of law they were familiar with from the old country, which was poor-man’s common law and custom. Even prior to the revolution, our legal system was very much different from the British, and didn’t recognize many rights beyond those that all the people had assumed for themselves.

            During the rebellion, those higher up in the British power structure sided with Britain, and what we were left with was the equivalent of middle-management and some local entrepreneurs and farmers, the richest of which controlling perhaps several hundred “employees”, much like a local Applebee’s franchise owner. One of the reasons we so highly regarded loyalty was that we were fighting an empire whose third or fourth-tier players could buy and sell everyone in our entire Continental Congress several times over, just with their throwing-around money. We required leaders who couldn’t be bought, because the Crown and its minions could buy anyone who was for sale, such as Benedict Arnold.

            Yet even the leaders of the revolution lost what little control they had, with Western states walking all over their land claims and asserting that anyone who builds a farm becomes the legal title holder to the land. The Supreme court struck that down twice, and the states kept passing it, and then the court just gave up and accepted it as the law of the land. That allowed anyone to become a legal landholder, even seizing land from George Washington himself.

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            • I think you’ve got some kind of fixation on the word “elite”. For you it seems to mean “people who think they’re soooooooo much better than everyone else, the big smarties, well who do they think they are?” when a more objective definition would be more like “people of substance in a community who are the usual suspects when important committees are struck to deal with governing issues”.

              And you keep jumping back and forth between the 18th and 21st centuries as if the two were completely comparable. You should compare Washington to his contemporaries, not to a more prosperous 20th century person.

              More than being elite, the Founding Fathers were gentlemen, a word that meant a great deal back then. It meant that they were the right sort, rather than nobility or lower royalty, it meant that locally they were part of the elite.

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              • Probably because it is part of the on-going culture wars but the American left and right seem to use elite in different ways.

                The American right would consider me part of the elite because: I am part of the professional class, have multiple graduate degrees, spent some time in culture/art, lived in their most hated cities, and have a fondness for what is often called the “highbrow” in terms of art and culture.

                However they would not consider Sheldon Adelson, Herman Cain, or Clarence Thomas to be part of the elite despite their riches and/or positions of power.

                It is a very odd definition of the word when an elitist/elite is a single professional living in a major city but Justice Thomas is not because he likes to park his RV at Wal-mart.

                Everything in the U.S. is resentiment it seems.

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              • The mistake you’re making is assuming that the elites that existed at the time were our Founding Fathers. By the standards of the empire they belonged to, they were not even close to being elite. They would’ve been considered good little worker bees, wilderness plantation owners, and middling merchants. They lacked the power and status held by their Loyalist contemporaries even in the Colonies, like Sir Robert Eden, 1st Baronet, who was appointed governor of Maryland at the age of 28 (and who was the ancestor of the Earl of Avon, who became British Prime Minister). Another notable was Lord Fairfax, who was born in a castle his family had owned since the 1630’s. His holdings in Virginia were somewhat more than Washington’s, coming to some 5.2 million acres. He hired George Washington to survey his land.

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                • And your point is – what? That they didn’t compare with the handful of landed British aristocracy involved in the colonies at the time? Fine, they weren’t as wealthy as dukes.

                  But how much of Fairfax’s land was arable and under cultivation as opposed to vast swathes on a map that contained non-productive land? (And castles could be damned uncomfortable places.)

                  But until you compare the FF’s to their contemporaries in their own communities – not the appointed governors or royal officials – you’re not telling the whole story.

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                • The point is that the colonials had been left largely to their own devices long before the war and had come up with an indigenous method of government largely outside European control, and the Founding Fathers had not been the people in charge of maintaining what little control the British did extend. When the British Crown realized the mistake and tried to come down with an iron fist on the lowly rabble, the Founders were the target, not the means.

                  This becomes very important regarding the type of government they created, and especially important regarding the type of property systems and level of government control over private activities. The Founders didn’t exert control over much of anything because they’d never lived under a system where the daily activities of the peasants was dictated by feudal barons, lords, dukes, the crown, and vast and complicated ministries that demanded bribes and favors for permission to open a business or to gain title to a piece of land. They had never had to maintain a dozen different courts with jurisidiction over a particular trade (as was common in Britain).

                  As a result of the Founders outsider status and commoner origins, the government they created is set up to handle the big functions of government that any peasant could guess at (like war and a primitive tax system) but it didn’t duplicate the intrusive levels of control or assume the absolute powers over everyday activities that European governments held.

                  When European socialists were talking about the need to rebel against the elites, they were talking about eliminating a system that maintained a class of people that the US didn’t even have, and eliminating power and control that the colonial governments never held and that the US government didn’t even know to replicate.

                  George Washington and his peers weren’t our version of European nobility, they were what would’ve been left if the nobility all died off in a plague and nobody remembered what they’d actually been doing to be in charge, leaving the peasants to happily go on about their business without any feudal overlords.

                  Oftentimes progressives act like they never got the memo, and apparently they didn’t. Their worldview needs control by elites for their struggle to make any sense, so they fight against shadows and imaginary windmills instead of realizing that they are already in charge, and have been for centuries.

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  10. It should also probably be noted that, at least to my knowledge (which is admittedly limited) progressivism originally grew out of a marriage between American pragmatism and more rigorous empiricism.

    I would argue that it was, in some ways, a reaction to both aristocratic armchair analysis well as the brutality of quantification as demonstrated by the industrial revolution. It is about methods and results, but not without a healthy dose of humble skepticism and human compassion.

    And I wouldn’t claim this formulation as necessarily belonging solely to either Libs or Conservs/Dems or Repubs.

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    • ” progressivism originally grew out of a marriage between American pragmatism and more rigorous empiricism.”

      This is a really complicated subject. (It becomes important if you want to debunk claims of people like Beck who say that Woodrow Wilson and other early 20th century “progressives” were history’s greatest monsters.)

      First, I think it’s important to note that “Progressivism” is really best thought of as an early 20th century (maybe late 19th) view that is quite distinct from contemporary liberalism. Lots of liberals like to call themselves “progressives” because the term “liberal” took on a negative connotation of hippyism, but that doesn’t mean modern liberals share that much in common with old-school Progressives.

      From what little I know, old school Progressivism was heavily influenced by Hegel, fairly explicitly. (Though Hegel has a sort of influence on James and Peirce, too.) Hegel rejects more traditional Lockean accounts of the social contract and the role of government. (Weird stuff, but hard to explain.) But I don’t think you’ll find evidence of explicit references to James and Peirce by early progressives.

      I think modern liberals (who call themselves “progressives,” misleadingly) do accept Lockean traditional accounts of the social contract, the innate rights of people, etc. They just think some transfer of wealth away from the top is necessary to keep a Lockean society running and just. (I think Rawls shows how we enter into a social contract that justifies transfer of wealth to build certain institutions in a traditional Locke-style social contract. Hegel deals with this all very differently.)

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  11. There is a difference between aesthetics appearance and conceptual substance. It is possible to construct a Neo-Classical building, but it is impossible to actually BE a Classical architect; what Vitruvius meant and understood a building to be in Ancient Rome is far different than what we mean today.

    And so it is with political camps; I can embrace Teddy Roosevelt’s ideas about commerce and conservation, but to drape myself in his ideology and carry his flag isn’t really possible.
    Thats why we have these jarring events where someone proudly calls themself a Progressive, then gets reminded of some Progressives who were racist or some other evil.

    I don’t mind Liberal, since it is recent enough to have its own identity without having to reach back into history and borrow one.

    But we also need to point out that it is the Liberals today who are “conservative”, in defending the New Deal; its the Conservatives and Libertarians who are “liberal” in that they are proposing something untested and new.

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  12. • Who is/are the constitutive, exemplary American(s)?
    • Is the American tradition univocal? Plural?
    • What does the Civil War have to do with the American tradition?
    • How secular/religious is the American ideal?
    • When cultural, religious, or political pluralism challenges the unity of the American tradition, what is the appropriate response?
    • How do American views of the American tradition compare with the ways that other political traditions see themselves?
    • What ideas are toxic to sustaining American ideals?

    In the order you ask…

    -I have somewhat of an issue with the idea of the exemplary citizen, because to define all too often leads to some degree or another of violation and oppression of those seen as not fitting the mold. As such, I’d actually cast the concept in opposition to its external enforcement: the skeptic, the trouble-maker, the civil disobedient, the stubborn questioner of authority. If your response to anything that smacks of being molded in someone else shape for their interests is “F*ck You!”, you’ve passed the only test I’m comfortable giving.

    -The American tradition to me isn’t really a matter of pluralism or a single unambiguous thing, but rather the long term struggle between those who would want it a certain way (and between each other for differing views of that single definition) and those who just want to live. It’s the ongoing process of (hopefully) realizing there should not be an establishment of uniformity.

    -The Civil War was actually only in part the type of struggle I describe. Northern industrialists vs Southern land wealth, with the latter defining itself by slave labor while the former deliberately did not define itself as particularly giving a damn about slavery until the end. That it resulted in the end of de jure slavery was a side effect, though obviously a welcome one. Primarily the war did two things: established federal supremacy and shifted the balance of the ruling class.

    -Having had at least the sense to not establish an official church, consistency would suggest a default general secularism, as otherwise would involve forcing ways of life on non-believers. That isn’t to say we’re consistent though, far from it…

    -The claim of pluralism challenging unity seems to slip towards a mindset that thinks the answer to difference is to abolish it. Provided you are not being harmed (and no, “knowing their behavior continues harms my soul!” does not count…), the right response is to leave each other be.

    -I’m not going to claim I know for sure.

    -Failing them coming with an explicit threat (as in “Step One: kill the Americans. Step Two…”), calling ideas toxic and attempting to crush them is itself toxic.

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    • I wish to answer all of these questions myself (and feel obliged to, actually, because they will put into words a lot of intuition images that flash through my mind when I think about this stuff) but I have a dinner date tonight (my stories are on, you see).

      In the absence of answering the questions myself, I’m going to run with what B-psycho has put down here. I agree with it about 70%.

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  13. ” Who is/are the constitutive, exemplary American(s)?”

    Jesus, Winston Churchill, James T Kirk, Neil Young, the guy who invented the telephone, the guy who invented the internet, Arnold Schwarzenegger, George Orwell, and Barack Obama.

    “• Is the American tradition univocal? Plural?”

    Both. Neither. Maybe both and neither. I am a pluralist about the answer.

    “• What does the Civil War have to do with the American tradition?”

    Lots, given that it happened in the American tradition.

    “• How secular/religious is the American ideal?”

    Not sure. How secular/religious is a double cheeseburger that can do a topless lap dance while shooting fireworks out of its red white and blue plastic “easy open” top while chanting “USA, USA”? I’d say divine and transcendent. Mystical even. Maybe secular.

    “• When cultural, religious, or political pluralism challenges the unity of the American tradition, what is the appropriate response?”

    A.) Legalizing guns some more! B.) Complaining about the state of education that is always worse than it is thought to be no matter how bad it is thought to be. C.) Thunderdome.

    “• How do American views of the American tradition compare with the ways that other political traditions see themselves?”

    The American tradition sees itself as an American tradition. Other traditions do not. They are unexceptional.

    “• What ideas are toxic to sustaining American ideals?”

    Nihilism. It’s not even an ethos.

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  14. For a serious answer on the exemplary Americans:

    Anne Hathaway, Roger Williams, Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Eugene Victor Debs, Hubert Humphry, Jane Jacobs, William Brennan, Harry Blackmun, Martin Luther King, Pete Seeger, Walt Whitman.

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