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
Austriantrickle-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.
I 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.