U.S. Intellectual History Blog

To Make Which World Over Again?

Barack Obama’s election has sent America’s political punditry a-flutter. And shockingly, they all seem in agreement. From the left, right, and center, the consensus is that we have witnessed a revolution in American politics. And yet, we also know that John McCain came fairly close to winning. Thus, would all the declarations about the death of conservatism and the rise of a new America sound silly if that very real possibility had come about? In short, has the election of Barack Obama signaled a genuinely revolutionary moment? And if so, has it brought an earlier revolution—one begun by Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980—to an end? Have we witnessed an ideological shift in America?

Not necessarily, for Americans are quite adept at playing an ideological parlor game. The literary critic R.W.B. Lewis famously referred to this trick as the ‘American Adam.’ The argument runs like this: if the Biblical figure of Adam was the only person to come into the world unburdened by sin, the United States is the only nation to come into the world unburdened by history. The Democratic Review put it succinctly in 1839: ‘Our national birth was the beginning of a new history…which separates us from the past and connects us with the future only.’ Thus, as John Judis explained in early 2008: ‘When [Obama] speaks of change, hope, and choosing the future over the past, when he pledges to end racial divisions or attacks special interests, [he] is striking chords that resonate deeply in the American psyche. He is making a promise to voters that is as old as the country itself: to wipe clean the slate of history and begin again from scratch.’[1] Practically speaking, American Adamism manifests itself in a periodic call to rebuke the present government and its partisanship, and remake politics in the image of the nation’s founding ideals. Obama is the latest American Adam!

Journalist Thomas Friedman captured the essence of this tradition in an editorial entitled, ‘Radical in the White House.’ Friedman wrote, ‘I hope Obama really is a closet radical. Not radical left or right, just radical, because this is a radical moment.’ Of course, something dramatic needs to be done and Friedman thinks that Obama has an opportunity similar to that of FDR, LBJ, and George W. Bush. In all of these cases, moments of crisis turned into opportunities, in the typical American vernacular, to ‘swing for the fences.’ Roosevelt and Johnson largely succeeded, Friedman thinks, in reshaping the relationship between the government and the governed. Bush had his opportunity following the tragedy of 9/11 but instead ‘left us in some very deep holes.’ As for Obama, Friedman observes ‘it is impossible to exaggerate what a radical departure it is from our past that we have inaugurated a black man as president,’ and channeling the Adamistic moment he concludes, ‘it is equally impossible to exaggerate how much our future depends on a radical departure from our present.’[2] Friedman’s advice: confront the immediate problems not the longstanding ideas that caused them; be radical, not ideological.

Such advice echoes the notion that America is radically centrist, rather than radically ideological. After all, the revolution that created the country toppled a king, but left slavery untouched; chose the classic liberal Locke over the budding socialist Rousseau; and looked favorably on religion to moderate the passions unleashed by popular enthusiasm for democracy. The legacy of the Founders is gloriously and frustratingly ambiguous. The statement that best evokes this ambiguity is one that not surprisingly has been claimed by politicians in every age (or republic) on the left and the right, even though it was uttered by the most radical American during the Revolutionary period, Thomas Paine. It was he who declared that ‘We have it in our power to begin the world over again.’

But surely not all worlds remade and begun anew are equal. Has Obama’s appeal to the nation’s founding principles been substantially even (dare we say it) ideologically different that the revolutionaries whom he has succeeded? George W. Bush and the father of the revolution he inherited, Ronald Reagan, appealed basically to the same principles, founders, and spirit that Obama has claimed. And while Obama’s policies will differ from theirs, does it matter that the ideas behind those policies might differ too? Or is it all an ideological sleight of hand, its left and right? Well, I think it does matter. And looking at the first inaugural addresses of Reagan and Obama explains why.

On one level, the addresses take a typical tact: in a time of crisis, presidents need to show calm, confidence, and conviction. Both presidents entered office in the midst of economic crises and foreign policy quagmires. In the face of these crises, both presidents pledged immediate action. Both men called for a national renewal to stem the crisis of confidence that pervaded the country. Both paid tribute to soldiers, fallen and still fighting, as a way to acknowledge that the United States had principles, interests, and allies worth defending. And both appealed to the higher truths of the Founding Fathers. However, here an important difference emerges. Reagan recalled a statement from Joseph Warren the president of the Massachusetts Congress who implored his fellow representatives as they deliberated the federal Constitution to remember that they had the power to ‘decide the important questions upon which rests the happiness and the liberty of millions yet unborn. Act worthy of yourselves.’ Did Reagan like this story because it illustrated both the great vision of the founders and the enormous amount of power the federal government would have over generations of Americans? Contrast that with Obama’s choice to use perhaps the bleakest moment in the Revolutionary War as a way to illustrate the character of American resolve. In the winter campaign of 1776-1777, George Washington, the commander of the seemingly over-matched Continental Army, ordered Tom Paine’s ‘The American Crisis’ read to his men. The line Obama pulled from the essay was not the traditional phrase, ‘These are times that try men’s souls,’ but rather one that is much more quietly heroic: ‘Let it be told to the future world that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it.’ Obama recognized that perhaps the most significant legacy of the revolution was the collective effort it took to fight it.

The way these two presidents spoke about the nation’s founding says a great deal about the character of their ideological movements. Reagan set the tone within the first minute of his address when he referred the nation as ‘these United States.’ His notion of federalism flowed from there. He chastised the federal government for piling ‘deficit upon deficit,’ for ‘growing beyond the consent of the governed,’ and for intervening and intruding in the lives of the people and the operations of the states to such an extent that he, its new chief executive, had to remind the federal government who created it in the first place. This litany of sins found expression in one of the most memorable lines of any inaugural address: ‘In this present crisis,’ Reagan intoned, ‘government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.’
Obama did not give us a line so pithy and pliable as that. Nor did he condemn the government he had just vowed to lead. Fittingly, I think, he did not refer to ‘these’ United States, rather Obama spoke about his ‘fellow citizens’ more collectively as Americans, asking them to act like adults, ‘to set aside childish things…[and] to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.’ And rather than blithely imagine that present crises–domestic and international–would be overcome by sheer hope or some invisible hand of the market, Obama went directly after the Reagan-Bush conservative ideology. ‘The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works, whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified.’ And ‘as for our common defense,’ Obama made clear with George W. Bush sitting behind him, that ‘we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.’
In 1981, Reagan identified America’s problem as its federal government, over the next 28 years, his ideology presided over and had little answer for the largest deficits in American history, an enormous financial meltdown, and a war against Islamic militants. Did Reagan create success? Of course, especially when, such as with the Soviet Union, the president used the power that only the federal government has to act boldly. In 2009, Obama has identified America’s problem as the failure of leaders to act responsibly and a collective avoidance ‘to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.’ Where Reagan asked almost nothing of the American people and, it seems, even less of the federal government, Obama counsels that ‘what is required now is a new era of responsibility–a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining our character than giving our all to a difficult task.’
Obama gets a good deal of praise for being ‘pragmatic,’ for his willingness to work across party lines, which in turn means that he’s not ideological. However, I think Americans often miss the ideological verve of their nation’s origins. While it might have been pragmatic for the founders to leave slavery alone, it was certainly ideological to declare that all men are created equal. Moreover, the strong individualism of classical liberalism apparent in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence did not cancel out the equally sincere civic republicanism that brought the founders together in the first place. In short, the American founders were radical for their moment in history, what does it mean to be radical in ours?
We have before us two ideologies: The first asked very little of anyone other than to blame the federal government for their personal and collective problems and to be proud that they were born in America. The other is an ideology that asks citizens to act like responsible adults in a country that is only as great as the people and their political system make it. Should we make our world over again in the image of 18th century or the 21st? This is the decision Obama has placed before us.

[1] John Judis, ’American Adam,’ New Republic (March 12, 2008)
Thomas Friedman, ’Radical in the White House,’ New York Times, (January 21, 2009)

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. A very interesting piece!

    If we are–or at least were until Obama’s inauguration–still living in the world-as-remade-by-Reagan, I have trouble seeing that world as most defined by a renewed commitment to federalism.

    Confining ourselves to the last eight years, we saw enormous increases in the federal deficit and in federal power, from surveillance to No Child Left Behind, the closest thing to a significant domestic achievement by the Bush administration and one that significantly federalized control in an area that Reagan (and conservative Republicans) used to speak of as entirely too federalized already. Bush final tribute to federalism was his refusal to allow the states to set tougher standards for auto emissions. So much for states’ rights.

    Certainly the rhetoric of Reaganism remains: as the GOP tries to regain its bearings these days, nearly every Republican leader proclaims that, if nothing else, the Republican Party must be the party of “small government.” But in practice it’s been years since it has been that in any meaningful sense.

    You’re right to point out that this election was fairly close…though perhaps wrong to say that McCain came fairly close to winning. Especially with the economic melt-down hitting when it did, it’s hard to imagine the election having come out much differently, especially given the relative skill sets of the candidates and their campaigns.

    However, this election was certainly not a popular-vote blow-out. But not all sea-change elections are. In 1980, Reagan got only 50.7% of the popular vote (though he beat carter by almost 10 points, due to the performance of John Anderson and other minor party candidates). And polls as late as two days before the election suggested that Reagan and Carter were essentially tied.

    FDR thumped Hoover much more thoroughly (57.4% to 39.7%), though the shape of the New Deal was famously unclear even during the long transition after FDR’s November victory.

    Finally, I’m a bit wary of the idea of a “radical center,” which has been very popular among the chattering classes for more than a decade. What’s interesting is seeing the term move from being used by those who support a kind of “beyond left and right” form of change, like Ross Perot and his Reform Party, to being invoked by tribunes of the conventional wisdom of the powerful, like Tom Friedman. At this point, it seems to me that the term is mostly used by people who don’t want change but hope to preserve the status quo by selling it as somehow “radical” (or maybe I’m letting my general disgust at Tom Friedman cloud my sense of the term’s current status). At any rate, I’m unconvinced that there’s much of a self-consciously radical-centrist grassroots constituency (whatever such a thing would look like) out beyond the Beltway.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful response, Ben. I agree with much of your analysis and realize that I did not write clearly enough. I too find the Reagan Revolution, if one can call it that, utterly conflicted. I am tired of hearing these periodic calls to revolution–Reagan, Gingrich, even W–and the constant claims that these revolutions are acting in the spirit of the founders.

    I want to suggest, and failed to do so clearly enough, that Obama might actually be radical by doing something the founders would admire–he is assessing what the nation and its people need at this moment in history and attempting to push both slightly ahead of the ‘arc of history.’

    It seems to me that Reagan and presidents through to W attempted to claim the revolutionary spirit of the founders–even of Paine–but did so by bizarrely interpreting the spirit of the founders. It seemed Reagan wanted to make the world over again in the image of 18th century because the ideas that were good enough for the founders must still be good enough for his generation.

    The questions that I am struggling to craft go something like this: are all claims to the revolutionary spirit of the founders the same? Of course not, but what distinguishes them from each other? Has Obama illustrated that there is radicalism in the American founding but it is not merely rhetorical?

    I agree that Friedman’s argument is fairly useless. How can one be radical but not be left or right? Perhaps Obama will bury the radical centrist thing and illustrate how important it is to be ideological and take a position that doesn’t merely echo the founders but captures a radical spirit that made the revolution worthy of that word.

    Thanks again Ben.

  3. Three other thoughts (off the top of my head)…

    1) In the long run I suspect how we see Obama will depend on how we see Bush. To greatly simplify a complex issue: was Bush a continuation of what came before (even if he was a sort of catastrophic and unusual variation of it) or a departure from what came before? Was 2001 a revolutionary departure (however brief) or not?

    2) I’m in the middle of a project on Leo Strauss and the Straussians that has me reading a lot of things written by Strauss students in the 1960s, many of which are thoughtful and interesting (though I can’t say I find myself agreeing with them much). Your thought about the revolutionary spirit of the founding fathers made me think of a 1964 piece by Harry Jaffa on “The Nature and Origins of the American Party System.” Except at a few revolutionary moments, Jaffa argues, both major US parties at any given time tend to stand for very similar things. However, somewhat paradoxically, all major U.S. parties see themselves and their opponents in similar ways: “each of our great parties has always in its inception, and in its moment of greatest victory, identified its opposite as the party opposed to the regime of liberty.”

    3) I’ve always been fascinated by the political cultural status of the Revolution. It’s certainly a less vibrant site of public memory than WWII or the Civil War. And in so many ways U.S. political culture doesn’t feel like revolutionary political culture, as, say, post-Castro Cuban, or Soviet, or French political culture does. The place of the American Revolution in mainstream political discourse is, as you suggest, somewhat flexible. It is, almost by definition, what binds us all together as Americans. Yet, at any given time, many ideological positions can try to lay more exclusive claim to its legacy. What the Revolution rarely is, at least in the mainstream, is revolutionary, in the sense of being useful for suggesting the occasional need for some radical change in regime. It is usually used in the opposite way: to indicate values which we must fulfill or to which we must return. To find the memory of the Revolution used to suggest the need for new, radical change you need to go to the further reaches of the right–such as the militia movement–or, less commonly, the left, such as the Liberty Tree Foundation for a Democratic Revolution.

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