Why History Matters to Liberalism

If the Tea Party is to be believed, radical individualism has defined American history. But their story is wrong, and progressives must say so.

By E.J. Dionne Jr.

Tagged conservatismHistoryprogressivism

Progressives should ask why conservatives are so eager to paint themselves as the true heirs of the American tradition, and why those on the left side of politics—usually ready to do battle with the right on many fronts—have not felt the same sense of urgency when it comes to popular understandings of the American story.

I emphasize the word “popular” because many superb American historians, simply by virtue of their efforts to present the American story accurately, have brought home the flaws in partisan readings of our story even as they challenged the conservative claim to a moral and intellectual monopoly on the meaning of the American idea.

But it should not be lost on anyone that it is conservatives who typically carry around copies of our Constitution in their pockets. It is the Tea Party that refers relentlessly to the nation’s Founders. The movement’s very name invokes a key event in Revolutionary Era history to imply that there is a kind of illegitimacy to the current government in Washington akin to that of a king who once ruled the American colonies far from our shores. Representative Mike Pence of Indiana perfectly captured conservatives’ inclination to believe that their entire program is a recapitulation of the nation’s founding documents. “There’s nothing that ails this country,” Pence told a 2010 meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference, “that couldn’t be fixed by paying more careful attention to the principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America.”

Without question, the rise of Barack Obama seemed to encourage conservatives to harp ever more on the nation’s past, which arouses a certain amount of suspicion, given the efforts by some on the right to cast the nation’s first African-American president as “un-American.” Glenn Beck’s historical excursions through the work of W. Cleon Skousen—his books The Naked Communist, The Naked Capitalist, and The 5,000 Year Leap had been old John Birch Society favorites—suggested just how popular the revival of old conspiracy theories had become.

Yet the right’s interest in the American tradition was not confined to its extremists. The intellectual followers of Leo Strauss have been battling for (and over) the American story for two generations. Garden-variety conservative politicians had been invoking the Founders against liberalism since at least the New Deal. FDR’s foes in the Liberty League regularly quoted Thomas Jefferson in their denunciations of Roosevelt’s innovations.

While the right was talking about history, liberals were talking about—well, health-care coverage, insurance mandates, cap-and-trade, financial reforms, and a lot of other practical stuff. One can offer a sympathetic argument here that progressives were trying to govern in a rather difficult moment and didn’t have time to go back to the books. But the left’s default was costly, and it was noticed by an editor of this journal in the spring of last year. “Beyond the circumscribed world of academic journals and conferences,” Elbert Ventura wrote in these pages, “history is being taught—on TV and talk radio, in blogs and grassroots seminars, in high school textbooks and on Barnes & Noble bookshelves. In all those forums, conservatives have been conspicuous by their activity—and progressives by their absence.” Ventura ended with this alarming coda: “If we don’t fight for history, progressivism itself will be history.”

For me, Ventura’s piece was an inspiration. At the time it appeared, I was working on my book Our Divided Political Heart, which was published in late May. American history is at the heart of its argument. Where others have put forward their own perfectly rational reasons for the polarization of American politics, my account is rooted in the idea that Americans disagree on who we are because we can’t agree about who we’ve been. We are at odds over the meaning of our own history and over what it is, philosophically and spiritually, that makes us “Americans.” The consensus that guided our politics through nearly all of the twentieth century is broken. In the absence of a new consensus, we will continue to fight and continue to founder.

The Long Consensus

From the beginning of our republic, Our Divided Political Heart argues, Americans have been torn by a deep but productive tension between our love of individualism and our ongoing quest for community. This balance is at the heart of the American story, and it is closely connected to the other balances we have sought to strike: between the local and the national, the state and the market, the public and the private.

Our approach to politics and policy has been defined by this search for equilibrium since the Populists and Progressives overturned the radical individualism that characterized the Gilded Age. The Populists and the Progressives (and later the New Dealers) laid the foundation for what I call the Long Consensus. It is a view of public life that created the American Century and wrote the social contract for shared prosperity whose underlying values still draw support from a broad American majority.

In the hundred years after Theodore Roosevelt assumed the presidency in 1901, government grew—but so did individual liberty. The state assumed new roles, but individual opportunities expanded. New regulations protected our air and water, the integrity of food and drugs, the safety of workplaces and consumer products—and American capitalism flourished. Workers organized into unions that advanced the interests of those who depended on their own labor, not capital, for their livelihoods. In doing so, labor organizations strengthened a more social form of capitalism based on widespread property ownership and upward mobility. Previously excluded groups were steadily brought into the larger American community to share in the bounty of prosperity and the responsibilities of self-government. The United States continued to welcome newcomers and created the most diverse democracy in the world. G. K. Chesterton observed that the United States sought to make a nation “literally out of any old nation that comes along”—and it succeeded.

In the century of the Long Consensus, the United States became the most powerful nation on earth, its influence enhanced not only (or even primarily) by its advanced weaponry and the martial courage of our men and women in uniform, but also by our economic might, our democratic norms, our cultural creativity, and a moral and intellectual vibrancy that is the product of our constant struggle to preserve liberty while building and rebuilding community. A nation whose intellectual inheritance includes Biblical religion and the Enlightenment, the individualism of Ben Franklin and Walt Whitman, the state building of Alexander Hamilton and Henry Clay, the traditionalism of John Adams, the skepticism toward central authority of Jefferson, and the radicalism of Tom Paine is bound to produce a lively life of the mind. Out of this creative conflict arose the balance of the American system and the achievements of the Long Consensus.

American politics is now roiled because the Long Consensus is under the fiercest attack it has faced in its century-long history. The assault comes from an individualistic right that has long been part of American politics but began gathering new influence in response to the failures of the Bush Administration and the rise of Obama. After the latter’s inauguration, it became the most energetic force in the conservative movement and the Republican Party.

The Long Consensus, of course, confronted challenges from the beginning. William Howard Taft’s resistance in the 1912 election proved ineffectual. The conservative opposition in the 1920s was stronger, and then collapsed in the face of the popular demands for national action that the Great Depression called forth. Many of the ideas the Tea Party and its allies are putting forward now arose first in opposition to the New Deal. These ideas began to gain broader support because of National Review’s journalistic and intellectual efforts in the 1950s, the Goldwater campaign’s political organizing in the 1960s, and the tax revolt in the late 1970s, which strengthened the forces that led to Ronald Reagan’s election. Over that period, conservatives gained a powerful foothold in the Supreme Court, which steadily moved the country toward a pre-New Deal jurisprudence.

But only after the turmoil of George W. Bush’s presidency, the economic calamity of the Great Recession, and the election of Barack Obama did the challenge to the Long Consensus reach full force. With near-complete control of the Republican Party and hegemony within the conservative movement, radical individualism is as close to triumph as it has been at any point since the Gilded Age. It’s worth noting that while Mitt Romney’s history was as a more moderate Republican who was willing to support such policies as a health-care mandate, he moved decisively rightward when he first sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, and moved further right still to win it in 2012.

Whether this effort to turn the nation toward a radical brand of individualism succeeds or fails is now the central question in American politics. And that is why the 2012 election is as exactly important as both sides claim. This really is, to sanitize a famous statement made by Vice President Joe Biden, a big deal.

Conservative Thrust, Liberal Parry

But it’s impossible to understand if an election is historic without grappling with the meaning of American history itself. And for much of Obama’s term, conservatives had the advantage of speaking not simply for an ideology but for the American tradition. In one sense, this is not surprising: Conservatives are, by nature and conviction, more comfortable with the very idea of tradition. American liberals, by contrast, have been uncomfortable with tradition and with linking themselves too closely to the past. Moving beyond the past, after all, is inherent in the very word “progressive.” And liberals, properly uneasy with the misuses of super-patriotism and persuaded that multilateral approaches to foreign policy best serve American interests, have often seen showy expressions of patriotism as a refuge of scoundrels.

As the controversy over Obama’s April 2009 statements on “American exceptionalism” demonstrated—he first said that the British and the Greeks no doubt believed in their own “exceptionalism,” too, but then described what made America special—conservatives are also more instinctively comfortable with declarations of the United States as a chosen nation than liberals are.

Given the default on the progressive side in embracing the American story, it’s not surprising that conservatives have usually held the upper hand in claiming that theirs is the creed more in tune with the “original” understandings of the nation’s Founders—and never mind that, as the legal scholar Garrett Epps has noted, originalism as a matter of law often seems to involve a conservative Supreme Court justice declaring: “Trust me, I knew the Framers, and here’s what they would have said.”

But originalism, in law as in politics, seems designed less to seek inspiration from what the adventurous and enlightened spirit of the Founders might mean for our time than to try to roll back the norms of the twenty-first century and replace them with those of the late eighteenth.

A proper understanding of the founding, as Gordon Wood, the premier historian of the Revolutionary period, has argued, would not treat the Constitution as “fundamental scripture” and would not see those who wrote it as carrying tablets from the Almighty: “Historians today can recognize the extraordinary character of the Founding Fathers while also knowing that those eighteenth-century political leaders were not outside history. They were as enmeshed in historical circumstances as we are, they had no special divine insight into politics, and their thinking was certainly not free of passion, ignorance, and foolishness.”

But if the Founders were not perfect, they were bold and visionary, prepared to think and act anew at a time when much of the world was skeptical about the possibility of republican government and self-rule. Our task is to follow their example, not to engage in an inevitably futile effort to parse every word they wrote and spoke to discover how we should act now. The Founders hugely valued individual freedom, but they were steeped in principles that saw the preservation of freedom as a common enterprise.

And if progressives should challenge the conservative interpretation of our founding moment, so too should they challenge the right’s claims that government played a minimal role in the growth and development of our nation. The Founders, after all, didn’t create a strong federal government for it to do nothing. And those who would claim that the federal government did not become a major actor in American life until the Progressive Era and the New Deal are willfully reading Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, and Abraham Lincoln out of the first eight decades after the Constitution’s ratification. Hamilton envisioned a national government that would be “intermingled in the normal exercise of government” and be engaged in “matters of internal concern.” Clay advocated for what he called the “American System,” so-named to distinguish it from the British laissez-faire system. He famously fought for federal support for “internal improvements,” the roads and canals that would bind the nation together and foster commerce among the states. (Today’s advocates of public works might usefully note that “internal improvements” is a lovelier phrase than the word “infrastructure.”)

Both Hamilton and Clay foresaw a manufacturing future for our nation, with the federal government playing an important role in its development. Hamilton noted that “in a community situated like that of the United States, the public purse must supply the deficiency of private resource.” For his part, Clay disdained those who saw the Constitution as blocking his efforts to protect American manufacturing. “This constitution must be a singular instrument!” Clay declared derisively. “It seems to be made for any other people than our own.”

And of course Lincoln did more than anyone to bind the states together into a nation while also insisting that the Declaration of Independence’s words “all men are created equal” commanded Americans to end the scourge of slavery. At first, he sought to do so gradually—Lincoln was a moderate. But eventually—moved by the exigencies of war and his own evolving views, documented powerfully by the historian Eric Foner—he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. And as a loyal follower of Clay, Lincoln continued to use the federal government on behalf of national development, signing the Morrill Act to create land-grant colleges and establishing a National Academy of Sciences.

This long history of federal activism was broken by the Gilded Age after the Civil War, the one period in our history when radical individualism predominated over tempered American individualism, which always understood that the preservation of individual freedom is, in the end, a communal project. Members of the Tea Party look to a 35-year exception to a 235-year history as the model for our entire national story. Seen this way, the Populists, Progressives, and, eventually, the New Dealers who overthrew the Gilded Age were not radicals breaking with the American past—though they were, indeed, innovative. Rather, they combined innovation with restoration. They were calling Americans back to the tradition of Hamilton, Clay, and Lincoln while also putting these ideas to the service of Jeffersonian and Jacksonian aspirations to greater equality and expanded democracy. Thus did they propose to use, in a formulation made famous by Progressive Era writer Herbert Croly, Hamiltonian means to Jeffersonian ends.

The Long Consensus now under threat from a conservatism that champions a radical form of individualism is not some European import, a radical scheme aimed at undermining traditional American liberties. On the contrary, it is as deeply and profoundly American as Hamilton and Clay, Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and both Roosevelts.

The classic American balance was well described by FDR in his speech before the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco that was the most philosophical address of his 1932 campaign. If “we must restrict the operations of the speculator, the manipulator, even the financier,” Roosevelt declared, “I believe we must accept the restriction as needful, not to hamper individualism but to protect it [emphasis added].” Government’s responsibility, Roosevelt said, “is the maintenance of a balance, within which every individual may have a place if he will take it; in which every individual may find safety if he wishes it; in which every individual may attain such power as his ability permits, consistent with his assuming the accompanying responsibility.”

That balance is what is at stake now.

Obama Discovers History

I confess that no one outside the Osawatomie Chamber of Commerce was as happy as I was last December when Obama chose to make the case for his own approach to governance by going to the Kansas town where Teddy Roosevelt delivered his 1910 New Nationalism speech. Having spent the previous two years working on a book about the progressive idea in American history, I couldn’t help but be cheered by the President’s eagerness to link himself to TR and the longer American story.

It was not the first time Obama had appealed to history. Ventura’s essay in Democracy had, in part, been inspired by a 2005 commencement address by Obama at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, in which he assailed “Social Darwinism” for “ignoring our history” and “our sense of mutual regard for each other, the idea that everybody has a stake in the country, that we are all in it together and everybody’s got a shot at opportunity.”

The same trumpet summoned Obama again in Osawatomie. “[A]s a nation, we have always come together, through our government, to help create the conditions where both workers and businesses can succeed,” Obama declared. “[H]istorically, that hasn’t been a partisan idea. Franklin Roosevelt worked with Democrats and Republicans to give veterans of World War II, including my grandfather…the chance to go to college on the GI Bill. It was Republican President Dwight Eisenhower, a proud son of Kansas, who started the interstate highway system and doubled-down on science and research to stay ahead of the Soviets.”

Yes, he acknowledges, the country had “grown and changed in many ways since Roosevelt’s time.” But “what hasn’t changed—what can never change—are the values that got us this far.” And then spoke the communitarian Obama: “We still have a stake in each other’s success. We still believe that this should be a place where you can make it if you try. And we still believe, in the words of the man who called for a New Nationalism all those years ago, ‘The fundamental rule in our national life—the rule which underlies all others—is that, on the whole, and in the long run, we shall go up or down together.’ ”

Over the most recent eight months of his presidency, Obama has clearly decided to move away from a Washington-centered strategy that sought to discover common ground with opponents whose core commitment to break with the Long Consensus made the quest for common ground impossible. Many who broadly sympathized with Obama—including many contributors to this journal—were frustrated when Obama seemed to abandon the task of making a broad argument to the country about what motivated him, how he saw the nation’s history, and where he wanted the nation to move. In the process, he ceded vast ground to his opponents, leaving it to them to interpret the meaning of the American story, to define the American Idea, and to describe the promise of the American tradition. Surprisingly for a candidate who had been so visionary during his presidential campaign, Obama had fallen down on a task that Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan did so well: to offer a running and persuasive argument to the American people about what he was doing and why.

As President, Clinton offered an arresting metaphor explaining America’s tradition of balance. “Take a penny from your pocket,” Clinton once said. “On one side, next to Lincoln’s portrait is a single word: ‘Liberty.’ On the other side is our national motto. It says ‘E Pluribus Unum’—‘Out of Many, One.’ It does not say ‘Every man for himself.’”

“That humble penny,” he would continue, “is an explicit declaration—one you can carry around in your pocket—that America is about both individual liberty and community obligation. These two commitments—to protect personal freedom and to seek common ground—are the coin of our realm, the measure of our worth.”

And Reagan spoke to his foes as well as his allies in seeing the United States as “a shining city on a hill,” a special place that would model a new kind of society built on self-rule and freedom. But it’s striking that hidden behind Reagan’s metaphor was also a calling to America’s commitment to community. The original reference to us as a city on a hill came from John Winthrop’s address to the Puritan settlers of New England entitled “A Model of Christian Charity.”

“We must delight in each other,” Winthrop had declared, “make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our community as members of the same body.” Winthrop also offered a classic—and counterintuitive—account of how our differences bind us together in community. God created differences, Winthrop argued, so that “every man might have need of others, and from hence they might be all knit more nearly together in the Bonds of brotherly affection.” It’s not hard to imagine Rush Limbaugh denouncing Winthrop’s words as “socialistic.”

At Osawatomie and then in his State of the Union address earlier this year, Obama bound himself to this broader American communal tradition. It was a declaration that no longer would he leave American history to the Tea Party.

History’s Calling

To suggest at a time of crisis that Americans need to return to their history flies in the face of the assumptions of those who would define our problems in terms of the global military balance of power, the necessity for new departures in domestic policy, the need for innovation in the marketplace, or the imperative of balancing the federal government’s books. All these things are important. All are subjects this journal takes very seriously. But it is precisely at moments when so much is at stake that we need both inspiration and instruction from those who came before us.

The Tea Party was right in having an intimation about the importance of the past. If progressives read our nation’s history differently, our disagreement rests not on the question of whether our story is a noble one—on this we agree—but on why the United States has, to this point, been successful. Our success arose not from the fact that our institutions were perfect from the outset. They were not. The genius of America, as de Tocqueville noted, has always rested on our capacity for self-correction and renewal. Americans have been saved from the idea that it is possible to create a perfect world. But we have been saved by the idea that we can create a better one.

The Founders of our nation were daring, but they were also balanced, moderate, and temperate. They had confidence that government could be made to work and that it could accomplish great things, but they were always wary of deifying the state and those who ran it. They hugely valued individual freedom but were steeped in principles that saw the preservation of freedom as a common enterprise. They were influenced by the Bible and the Enlightenment, by liberalism and republicanism.

Those who came after them always understood the imperative of keeping competing goods in balance—and also the need to keep pushing the American system in a more democratic and egalitarian direction. Our history is one in which populists of various stripes have always challenged elites, in which private wealth was always seen as carrying a social mortgage, and in which public action must always be subject to accountability and searching criticism. We cannot learn all we need to know from our history. But we can learn how to keep faith with a promise that we still have an obligation to keep.

Read more about conservatismHistoryprogressivism

E.J. Dionne Jr. is the chair of Democracy’s Editorial Committee, a Washington Post columnist, a Georgetown University professor, and a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Also by this author

Undermining the Democratic Idea

Click to

View Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus