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Friday, July 06, 2018

History and Politics

July 4th remains a date to assess where our nation is and where it is going.  This has become an unsettling task in the age of Trump.  A sense of history has always been an important element of the United States' approach to its great crises of the past.  In the era of the Revolution and the Constitution, our leadership was trying to preserve the best elements, as they saw them, of the British Constitution, while also building on ancient Republican traditions from Greece and Rome.  During the Civil War, and again during the Depression and the Second World War, first Lincoln and then Franklin Roosevelt argued that the nation was struggling to prove that modern democracy--its invention--could work.  In each of these cases, those opposed to the tide of history--Tories, Confederates, and conservative Republicans--had their own view of history, as well.

Today, alas, we are burdened with not one, but two false views of history.  The Republican ascendancy is based on the idea that the last 120 years of American history were mostly a mistake, because they favored the state over private interests.  Today's Republican Party, largely dominated by the Koch brothers and their intellectual camp followers, rejects the legacy of the Progressive era, including campaign finance reform and antitrust laws; the New Deal, including workers' rights, financial regulation, and even social security; and the Great Society.  The liberal children and grandchildren of the men and women who gave us those institutions--that is, the Boom, Xer and Millennial generations--have taken them for granted for most of their lives and have not taken the growing opposition to them seriously enough.  The result is a steady growth of inequality and a decline of public services at every level that is having dreadful consequences.

What differentiates this crisis from the previous ones, sadly, is that neither political side has a sound view of history upon which we can build further progress.  To illustrate this, I want to discuss an article on the website Vox, by a young man named Dylan Matthews, entitled, "Three Reasons Why the American Revolution was a Mistake." 

I do not mean to single out Dylan Matthews for criticism--on the contrary, I am discussing his piece because it's such a typical product of elite education today.  He graduated from Harvard, as it happens, in 2012, and seems to have been either a philosophy or a government concentrator.  His piece on the American Revolution represents a new and growing interpretive school in American history, one which essentially critiques the past based upon the values of contemporary universities.  I knew as soon as I saw the title of his piece that it was going to deal with slavery, sexism, and the treatment of American Indians, and I was not disappointed.  "I'm reasonably confident," he writes, "a world in which the revolution never happened would be better than the one we live in now, for three main reasons: Slavery would've been abolished earlier, American Indians would've faced rampant persecution but not the outright ethnic cleansing Andrew Jackson and other American leaders perpetrated, and America would have a parliamentary system of government that makes policymaking easier and lessens the risk of democratic collapse."

Elaborating, Matthews states (wrongly) that Britain had abolished slavery in Britain by 1772--actually, it was centuries before that--and notes correctly that it was abolished in the British colonies in the West Indies in 1834.  He simply assumes that the same thing would have happened if the North American colonies had remained colonies--an untestable and highly dubious assumption--and he ignores that as a result of the Revolution, slavery was abolished in most northern states decades before 1834.  But then he gets to the heart of the matter, describing, from a contemporary perspective, the actual impact of the Revolution as he sees it.

"The main benefit of the revolution to colonists was that it gave more political power to America's white male minority. For the vast majority of the country — its women, slaves, American Indians — the difference between disenfranchisement in an independent America and disenfranchisement in a British-controlled colonial America was negligible. If anything, the latter would've been preferable, since at least women and minorities wouldn't be singled out for disenfranchisement. From the vantage point of most of the country, who cares if white men had to suffer through what everyone else did for a while longer, especially if them doing so meant slaves gained decades of free life?"

This is the way generations of undergraduates have now been taught to think--especially at elite institutions.  We should judge societies of the past by the same standards that we judge academic departments and student bodies today: by their treatment of nonwhitemales.  That algorithm rejects the morality of every known society before the late 20th century and is therefore very pleasing to the Boomer academics who first spread it, since it gives them such a critical role in history.  But it is a profound misreading of how key historical changes in the last three centuries took place.

The reason the American Revolution was fought, of course, was that under the British monarchy (especially as exercised vigorously by George III), no one was enfranchised in the modern sense--that is, no one enjoyed political rights merely because of their status as a free human being.  Great Britain was a society of orders in which the nobility had special privileges and held most political power.  The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution enshrined the idea of equal citizenship--and the Constitution did not define citizens as either white or male.  These documents broke fundamentally with the past.  More importantly, the full enfranchisement of males (not only white males, actually, in more than one colony), inevitably put the question of the status of slaves and women on the table for discussion. That is why the northern states abolished slavery during and after the Revolution and why questions of women's rights began to arise.  Matthews' comments about women, moreover, reflect another tenet of elite modern thought: that we should all be viewed as individuals, not members of families.  Most women in the late 18th century were married, and it was very different to be married to a free citizen who could vote, than to be married to a subject.

Matthews then argues that the treatment of Indian tribes would have been better under the British Empire than it was under the new Republic.   This is not easy, as he has to admit, because Indian tribes did not fare a great deal better in Canada than they did in the United States.  But he argues that only the United States resorted to "ethnic cleansing) of the tribes, and regrets that independence allowed the United States to acquire the Louisiana territory under Jefferson and California and the southwestern states in the Mexican War, with consequences for the Indian inhabitants there.  There are, it seems to me, two great historical problems with this argument.

Such arguments--which the vast majority of historians now accept and try to pass on to their dwindling numbers of students--assume that any acquisition of territory by one group at the expense of another is unjust and, implicitly, should never have happened.  Such changes, however, are obviously fundamental to human nature and the human experience. The whole of history, on every continent, is full of war and conquest for as far back as we can document it.  Sometimes war and political change lead to population movements; sometimes population movements (as in the 17th and 18th century American colonies) lead to political change.  This is often a cruel process and I am glad that we have now tried to create international law to bring some aspects of it to a halt.  But it is clearly in inevitable part of history.  Nor is there any evidence that settlers from Europe eventually took over political power and land in the North American continent because they were especially rapacious and cruel.  Indian tribes had been fighting over the same territories for many centuries when Europeans arrived, and some of them had been completely wiped out.

The second question I would like to ask Matthews is--how big do you think the United States should have been?  What do you think North America should look like today?  I don't know anything about Matthews' own ancestry, but a great many of us here in the US--probably a majority--would never have been born (I surely wouldn't have) if the United States had not been created and expanded.  Is our existence a mistake?   Surely, to live with some internal and external peace during our time on earth, we need to be able to accept our history and its consequences, however imperfect it might be?

Lastly, Matthews argues, had we simply become a Dominion like the other settler states of the British Empire, we, like they, would have had a parliamentary system like theirs, which would have functioned more effectively.  It is, again, difficult to test this proposition without knowing exactly how big he imagines the North American dominion to have been.  He argues that it can be much easier to pass legislation under a Parliamentary system--but what is happening in Britain today shows that that is only true when the governing party really has a strong consensus on policy within itself.  He also argues that monarchs, or their representatives the governors general in the British dominions, have played a big role in avoiding political crises in ways which an American President cannot.  What he ignores, of course, is the enormous boost the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the Second World War gave to American ideas of democracy around the world, beginning with the British Empire, where both the Second Reform Act and the British North America Act of 1867 (which made Canada effectively independent) were passed largely as a result of the Union victory in the Civil War.

Views like Matthews'--and his citations show how many contemporary academic historians are pushing them--cannot form the basis for renewing our allegiance to the United States.  They are parallel, in a bizarre way, to the views of the southern slaveholders in 1861 who said that they had to rewrite the American Constitution to make sure that it protected slavery anywhere within the new Confederacy.  They, like he, were arguing that because that document (as they understood, better than he) did not reflect their values on this issue, it deserved no respect.  For those of us who believe that the American tradition, however flawed, still provides the only way forward for our diverse nation, this is frightening.  And it is all the more frightening because it represents a trend among the Left, which, so far, is definitely the losing side in the present crisis.  Like the white Southerners in the Civil War and Reconstruction, the Left today is not moving towards more centrist positions to broaden its appeal.  It is doubling down on identity politics and the rejection of American traditions, just as they did on white supremacy.  And these tactics cannot, in my opinion, provide us with a good way out of the crisis we face today.


Paul Brower said...

On the American Revolution as a mistake -- without it, America would be more like Canada, with a parliamentary system which would have been more attractive perhaps in the 1870s after the British undid their 'rotten boroughs' that planted huge numbers of flunkies of George III in Parliament at the time of the American Revolution. America's Founding Fathers excoriated the British Parliament, an eminently reasonable attitude of the time. But after the American Revolution, the British removed some of the objectionable features of its representative institutions by implementing a Census that apportioned Parliamentary seats more connected to population.

Women's right to vote -- American and British women got the right to vote at roughly the same time. That is a wash.

Slavery? I am tempted to believe that Lincoln was going to do in America what the British had done a generation earlier -- compelling slave-owners to sell their slaves to the federal government which would then release them, and let the freedmen settle in the West. In view of the cost of the American Civil War, that would have been a win-win situation. But hindsight is 20/20 in history... In any event, there was no reactionary response analogous to Jim Crow in the British Caribbean colonies.

Perhaps had America been a Commonwealth country (or mostly Commonwealth countries), the outcome of World War I would have been different; a world without Hitler and Stalin would seem a nicer place in which to live.

This said, the American Revolution was practically inevitable once George III tried to micro-manage colonies which had largely been left to their own devices and already had well-working legislative bodies. George III was simply too rigid to do the right thing. Personalities matter in Crisis Eras.

We can all play games of "what if" in history. A not-too-bad President and Congressional leadership doesn't cause us to ask basic questions about the nature of our government. Donald Trump in collusion with a Congress best described as lobbyist-dominated causes liberals at the least (and maybe some conservatives like George Will and Steve Schmidt) to ask such questions. But people who think that Obama was born in Kenya who proudly wear "Make America Great Again" caps do not now ask those questions. I will say no more of that because I don't want to make it an issue of cognitive talent or proclivity.

Jude Hammerle said...

Dear Dr. Kaiser,

What if they gave a culture war and nobody came?

Jude Hammerle

Bozon said...

Great stuff.
This is a whole lot of good fresh raw meat for commentary...
I have to hold back here, and maybe go line by line, but on my site, to begin to do it even rough justice.
There are layers here....
And there are layers of what I call Whig history.
You accuse him of that, which is quite fair, it seems to me.
All the best

David Kaiser said...


I think your argument is completely ahistorical. It was the victory of the colonists on a democratic platform that gave democracy a long-term push in Europe. Without that victory Britain certainly wouldn't have reformed Parliament any earlier than they did. Nor is it clear that Canada would have benefited from the Durham report or the British North America Act. in any case--great historians don't argue with hsitory.

Paul Brower said...

..but arguing that the American Revolution was a mistake is itself 'ahistorical'. It's basically alternative history, a pointless exercise unless strictly for literary reasons. It is ahistorical in the sense that one might speculate on how different European history would have been had Napoleon not invaded Russia or how different the history of Latin America would have been had the revolt of Tupac Amaru II succeeded.

Separation of the American colonies from Britain was a near certainty, as the Colonies already were already capable of self-government and often had to act before the Crown did. By 1770 the questions were when and by what means. George III bungled the situation badly; before him the British Crown largely allowed the Colonies much discretion on day-to-day matters, much in contrast to how Spain did things. Note also that the Colonies were at time becoming different from Britain itself even in ethnic composition. New York was still a 'former Dutch colony', Pennsylvania had a large number of Germans, and of course there were far more African slaves. Add to this, colonial America got large settlements of people from northern England and southern Scotland unsympathetic to harsh treatment by the British Crown, who carried their attitudes with them and maintained them.

...The first attempt to bring Democracy to Europe, the French Revolution, successfully overthrew the Bourbon dynasty, only to end up as the Bonaparte empire... and after 1815, the real rulers of continental Europe turned completely reactionary. Not until 1848 would there be democratic revolutions in Europe, and most of those would fail. The only country to imitate the political structure of the USA was Switzerland, in 1815 the only significant republic in Europe.

The big influence of the American Revolution was on Latin America, and not on Europe. The French Revolution results from an economic implosion, arguably the result of a volcanic eruption in Iceland that messed up food production in western Europe. The Crowned Heads of Europe still wielded nearly-absolute power after their restoration, and to them the word republic was an anathema.

Ed Boyle said...

Very interesting discussion sith pbrowser.

Your main point being though that people rewrite history backwards from a purely self centered perspective, i.e. based on own experience or a limited sort of analysis, marxist, feminist, etc. without really looking at how people really lived, felt from within their perspective. If I were to say, humourously as my father did of course, "why can't women be more like men", i.e. why are they so incomprehensible to us males. This is then of course to be followed by the french 'vive la difference'. Such a limited academic feeling for 'real life' which exists still today outside of ivy league academia, the West generally allows such circularly reinforcing belief systems to take hold. This is why liberal values everywhere are under fire. Distance from practical reality is increasing, we have little view of the future beyond our past solutions, social welfare state, human rights. As these have actually been severely undermined by corrupt poltical business connections and as in last week's post, real existing sexism/racism then the constitution in W's phrase 'is just a #@%* piece of paper'. If it is not followed or believed in then it is relatively useless like in religion. If the church is full of hypocrites, preachers are predators then the church will be replaced with another belief system. We are approaching this point in time. So called common sense on both ends of the aisle are so far apart that a reading of the constitution by one judge or citizen seems nonsense to another. It is well known that people can read into their religious texts whatever they wish. The US constitution is no different. I could argue that it is a nonsense that all men are created equal, even given absolutely equal chances even twins can parts ways to become saint and killer so how much more when differences are so great. Jesus said the poor with always be with us. In communism the laziest farmers took quick advantage of using power to lord it as commissar over hardworking neighbours. The best of intentions, systems will be quickly distorted by corrupt individuals. Only at the beginning did system work due to hard work of founding fathers. This problem of human character always leads to a crisis war which we are now approaching again in our new gilded age. Whoever wins will impose their interpretation of history. If America tears itself apart or collapses a lowest comon denominator solution will be difficult to come to. GI generation ideals taken linearly subjugated world under military, USD. Like communist ideals turning into stalinist terror, good ideas turn bad in wrong hands. This seems such a basic tenet of human nature as to be inevitable. So that any political concept or generalization is useless, left, right, center. Unfotrtunately both sides are now playing to extremes, against all practical daily experience which is all that counts.

Paul Brower said...

The Constitution is more than a #@%* piece of paper, or government can do anything that even a bare and temporary minority can foist upon us. The Founding Fathers chose to impose some permanence on certain norms of politics. Thus it would not be lawful to suppress the opposition or to void the elections of the side that ended up in the minority. The Constitution is a statement of the moral values of the government.

The alternative is that politics is nothing more than power plays, and that at some time the side that wins can entrench itself until the system is extirpated in war or revolution. Thus the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Apartheid-era South Africa, or Ba'athist regimes in Iraq and Syria. With power to entrench the effective majority the regime can alter education and economics at will, and Orwell becomes reality even if his books be banned.

I have no idea of how many Americans would support an authoritarian Leftist regime, which might be a good thing. We are finding out him many Americans support an authoritarian Rightist regime -- just look at the approval ratings for Donald Trump, the most dictatorial or despotic (take your pick) President in American history. With him we have effective government by lobbyists who pull the wires on enough elected legislatures in the federal Congress and most state legislatures.

Demagoguery is the bane of any democracy -- and we Americans have largely been immune to it, either because the government was too weak to have much of a role in the economy or because enough people were wise enough to resist its seduction. But Donald Trump has proved as adept a demagogue as any, even if he has since proved an awful political leader. Much of our defense has been a large Center Left and a large Center Right, both large enough to be present in both main parties, as well as a large middle of the road. But those are largely gone.

Any people that sells out its liberty in the name of economic enhancement will surely lose its freedom -- and will probably find greater poverty than it has ever known before.If we fall for Trump we deserve a Great Depression every bit as severe as that that started the last Crisis. At least the Great Depression forced people to start caring about the plight of others. Our current leadership is clever enough to keep loading the consequences of vile policies upon those that will never vote for that leadership.

I see this threat in an anti-democratic America: we have a heritage of militarism, and that bad systems of all kinds have tended to have a missionary zeal to spread what those systems consider wonderful upon peoples who find such objectionable. Even the Nazis believed that they were doing great good for Humanity as a whole. I can see Donald Trump and those who follow him believing that there can be nothing better than a Gilded Age with authoritarian government or a feudalism with high technology as enforcement of its cruelty.

Evil empires have a way of provoking wars against too many enemies at once or imploding from their own social rot. Let us remember that the Roman Empire, a vile social order from its inception, lasted nearly five centuries despite having fewer resources of treasure and technology than we have.