The Past, Reclaimed from Right-Wing Myth

(Photo: Flickr/freshwater2006)

The Tea Party’s name was one of its organizers’ most brilliant choices. Furor at George W. Bush’s bank bailouts and Barack Obama’s electoral victory might have taken any number of forms less charged with history. It could have grown into a movement to Stop Paying Your Neighbor’s Mortgage, as CNBC’s Rick Santelli urged in the on-air rant that galvanized rank-and-file conservatives in early 2009. It could have harked back to the property-tax revolts of the late Carter years or to any of the loosely organized right-wing splinter groups from which so many Tea Party organizers were drawn. Some early organizers proposed to call this the Porkulus movement, with pigs’ heads and free government “pork” as its icons rather than the 1775 “Don’t Tread on Me” flags that soon dotted the protest rallies. 

But with nostalgic restoration as its theme, the Tea Party made a bid for foundational history as well as politics. To wrest back Obama’s America from the brink of “socialism” was to reclaim all that was original and untainted in the American past. You no longer needed to read the libertarian writings of Ayn Rand or Milton Friedman to know that active governments were a standing threat to individual freedom. To understand that being let alone was the original American idea, or so the name and the retro flags seemed to proclaim, all you needed was the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. 

Since those explosive beginnings, the myth that enduring wariness of government lies at the core of the American experience has moved from its hard-right origins deep into mainstream politics. It saturated the Republican Party primary contests and still preoccupies much of what counts as conservative punditry. The sting of defeat in a presidential election they were certain they would win may set the Tea Party conservatives back on their heels, but the historical myths they promoted will not dissipate so quickly.  

In the past year, two of our most distinguished commentators on public affairs have begun the job of reclaiming the American past from conservative sloganeering. In Land of Promise, Michael Lind makes irrefutable the role of government action in the success story of American economic growth. In Our Divided Political Heart, E.J. Dionne probes the ideas that have shaped the nation’s past to show that at every stage commitments to community have been as strong as commitments to individual rights. In turning to history, both writers undertake to recover a core tradition bigger than the right’s fearful, possessive individualism. Both seek to restore values that have been sidetracked, outshouted, and put on the defensive in contemporary America. But in these fractured times, when utopian notions of market freedom have surged into politics and earlier assumptions about society have been shaken so deeply, can getting history right be basis enough for politics? 

Of these two efforts to reclaim a progressive past, Lind’s is the more straightforward: an economic history of the United States that sweeps through its rise to global preeminence with narrative energy, vivid vignettes, shrewd judgment, and a powerful argument. Markets and heroically independent entrepreneurs did not act on their own, Lind insists. From the beginning, it was private economic ambitions in combination with state actions to organize, regulate, and foster enterprise that drove the economy forward. In the new polity, public funds and initiatives created a national currency and a national bank, protection for infant industries, and a vast network of state-financed canals. In the 19th-century era of steam power, governments built tariff walls against imports of foreign manufactured goods, funded a continental railroad system, sold land cheaply to freehold farmers, and promoted the first workable factory systems of standardized, interchangeable parts. 

By the 20th century’s “motor age,” state efforts were inextricably tied to miracles of economic growth. It took government action to forge an efficient national system out of the chaos of panic-prone banks, protect employers from being ruthlessly undercut by exploitative competitors, and rescue capitalism from collapse in the Great Depression. Even in the modern era that Lind calls the “great dismantling,” as income disparities have risen to new extremes and speculative bubbles have soared and burst, the most innovative parts of the new information economy, including the computer and the Internet, cannot be disentangled from the public resources that helped to underwrite them. “Industrial policy is not alien to the American tradition,” Lind writes. “It is the American tradition.”

This is American economic history as the nation’s first secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, would have liked to have seen it written. Lind opens his book with Hamilton’s bold plan to promote American industries by building a public-private industrial park harnessing the Passaic River’s waterpower in Paterson, New Jersey. He closes it just downstream, where the Passaic River flows toward the New York Harbor. There, in the New York Port Authority’s vast trade complex, a modern version of Hamilton’s ambition still dominates the scene jammed with cranes, rail lines, fuel-tank farms, and chemical and pharmaceutical factories. 

The business tycoons who punctuate Lind’s chapters invent and risk, wheedle and persuade, cheat, succeed, and go bust, angling constantly for preferred positions within government-made systems of law, tax advantage, and regulation, just as their successors who fund the anti-government projects of contemporary right-wing politics do today. Lind does not dismiss the conflicts in this long history of public--private economic relationships. Economic actors who felt elbowed out of public advantage by managerial capitalism’s insiders were often harshly critical of ambitious government action. Their laissez-faire countertradition nips at Lind’s narrative, and he swats aside their views more quickly than he might in his eagerness to restore the dominant, Hamiltonian vision. Still, the next time someone tells you that free markets alone made the United States a great economic power, Land of Promise is the book to refute the case. 


E.J. Dionne’s extraction of a progressive story from the American past proceeds more indirectly than Lind’s. Steeped in the work of recent historians, Our Divided Political Heart is as thoughtful and multidimensional an inquiry into American political premises as one can find from a contemporary observer. Against the modern conservatives’ contention that there is only one genuinely American idea—“don’t tread on me” individualism—Dionne insists that there have been two. Love of individualism and reverence for community have tugged at each other throughout the American past. The patriots who threw themselves into the struggle for independence set in motion a radically new set of rights and freedoms. But as historian Gordon Wood and others have shown, they were equally committed to the public weal, distrustful of self-interest, and worried about the state of public virtue. The Constitution marked an effort to found a vastly stronger government than the rickety confederation of states had provided. 

Throughout the late 18th and 19th centuries, advocates and opponents of energetic government vied with each other for political dominance. Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson championed the virtues of small, restrained government. Whig Party giants like Henry Clay and the Whig—Republican Abraham Lincoln framed the work of governments more boldly and ex-pansively. Late-19th-century Populists, turn-of-the-century Progressives, and 1930s New Dealers envisioned a nation in which individual rights and public goods, more autonomous persons and stronger communities of workers and farmers would flourish. 

The notion of government as alien to “us”—an external, meddling force in the nation’s social life—is a historical fantasy, Dionne insists. At America’s core is not the choice between community and individual freedoms but the continuous quest for “balance.” 

This is a vital and unimpeachable insight, and Dionne is at his best in bringing it to bear on the contemporary scene. He is scathingly critical of Bush v. Gore, Citizens United, and “originalist” Supreme Court opinions that, on the basis of pseudo history, ignore commitments by the Constitution’s drafters to the common good. In decisions like these, the Founders are “invoked as after-the-fact advocates for reimposing on our nation the least democratic aspects of the era in which they lived,” Dionne writes. He punctures Governor Rick Perry’s absurd notion that the states somehow created the federal government and skewers Mitt Romney’s claims to know the tipping point at which government spending’s share of the gross national product snuffs out freedom. He contrasts George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” with the radical individualism of a Republican Party that has all but thrown Bush’s legacy to the ash heap. 

Still, it’s hard not to wish that in this generous and knowledgeable reading of American history, Dionne had drawn his ideas more precisely. Nations are not simply larger versions of smaller, voluntary communities. Unlike the societies of intense, shared values to which many Tea Party sympathizers belong, nations join together people who fervently disagree and insist, nevertheless, that they work things out. You can be committed to some forms of community (closely knit churches) and opposed to others (distant, tax--extracting governments). You can be a passionate advocate of individual freedoms of expression and defend to the hilt the rights of private property, but devotion to one of these categories of individual rights doesn’t necessarily entail commitment to the other. 

Dionne is correct to insist that in our contemporary politics of asymmetrical polarization, the weight has shifted too far toward an angry, property--rights-focused individualism. But amid the current moment’s contending claims and against the nightmare on the right that “socialism” lies just around the corner, is the restoration of our “noble balancing act” a strong enough line for progressives? 

It is striking that Lind and Dionne both find themselves drawn not to moments of turmoil and crisis (the anti-slavery movement’s 1850s, the Populists’ 1890s, or the New Dealer’s 1930s) but to the 1950s. “The glorious thirty years,” Lind calls the era after 1945, when regulated, managerial capitalism, fostered during wartime, spread an unprecedented wave of prosperity across the nation. These were years of the “Long Consensus,” as Dionne styles them, when both individual rights and investment in the collective good substantially expanded. Eisenhower’s era was once the object of progressives’ scorn for its smothering conformity, its Cold War mental vise, its assumptions of gender and racial inequality, and its hostility to most forms of progressive politics. In these accounts it re-emerges as the moment when the main tendencies in American life realized their fullest promise. Perhaps the critics of mass society did not understand how good the postwar mass-consumption moment was. Certainly they did not anticipate the more fractured culture and vastly more unequal economy that lay ahead. 

This re-appreciation of the 1950s fits the larger, restorationist theme that runs through both Lind’s and Dionne’s readings of the past. It is a restoration pitched in radically different terms than the mythical, founding American moment for which the Tea Party longs. But it looks backward with comparable hope. Out of wiser and more honest readings of the American past, it undertakes to extract a consensus, a core tradition worthy of being re-established and refreshed. 

Dionne pins his hopes on the restoration of “balance.” Lind has convinced himself that the crises into which capitalism tumbles as one era of production overwhelms another automatically bring about a corrective readjustment. “American history shows a recurrent pattern: a thirty- to forty-year time of lag between technology-driven economic change and the modernization of political and legal structures to deal with its consequences,” he writes. “The cycle of Jeffersonian nostalgia and partial regression that began with Carter and Reagan will give way at some point to a neo-Hamiltonian era of nation building.” 


Hope that history will eventually swing back to progressive principles has a long history on the left. The 2012 election is not the first time that conservatives have overplayed their hand and suffered for it. But cyclical readings of politics downplay the amount of ideological work and intellectual struggle our history has contained. Slavery ended not because of Southern planters’ inability to compete with the North’s emerging industrial-wage economy but rather at the climax of the abolitionists’ long, socially divisive assault on slavery’s morals and premises. The reforms of the Progressive and New Deal eras were not simply acts of readjustment or rebalance from the preceding era’s excesses. They were made possible by the muckrakers’ exposure of corruption and hidden interests, early-20th-century sociologists’ revelations of misery and exploitation, and the insistence on imperatives of social justice by reformer Jane Addams and her generation of progressive writers. 

Similarly, the modern Republican Party’s embrace of an anti-statist agenda that would have dismayed its founders has been a feat of ideological struggle as conscious and successfully managed as any in American history. What intrudes between Lind’s “glorious thirty years” and our own times is not simply a transformation of economic structures but an equally profound shift in ideas. Confidence that economic management could tame the business cycle rode high in the postwar era of the “long consensus.” By the end of the 1970s, the economics profession had split into such deeply competing camps that agreement on the bases of macroeconomics had become almost impossible. Theories of mass society and the social construction of personality were challenged, on both the left and the right, by libertarian philosophies in which only individuals and their desires were truly real. As the language of class receded from public discourse, social theorists talked less about the necessities of collective action than about the problem of the “free riders” who leeched on the labor movement’s energy. In debates over public regulation, law professors heralded the ways in which markets automatically sorted out problems of monopoly or pollution better than the bungling hand of government. 

In the dominant language of politics, the term “choice” proliferated everywhere. Governments, rather than fostering deliberative choices, “interfered” in them, as the reigning metaphors had it. “Public choice” scholars emptied meaning from the idea of public goods until it became merely a front for legislators’ self-interest. Educational reformers on both the right and left embraced “parental choice” of schools as the era’s panacea. Markets, whose institutional structures progressives had once done so much to bring out of the shadows, were now elevated as life’s purest realms of freedom.  

With the re-election of Barack Obama and a Senate Democratic majority retained, the political options have now been rearranged in progressives’ favor. But that older, fractured vocabulary of society and selves remains. To replace it with a lasting progressive alternative will take an intellectual struggle as determined and inventive as any in our past. 

Progressives need to reargue once more, for our time, the case for progressive taxation (not just a “fair” tax code). They need to explain, as the Children’s Bureau’s feminists did in the early 20th century, but for today, why “entitlement” is a positive term. They need to make anew the abolitionists’ case that some things cannot in justice be left to markets. They need to show, with the urgency Progressives and New Dealers showed when archaic readings of the commerce clause stymied their legislative initiatives, why a democracy whose every decision is tried over again in the courts is the shadow of what democracy might be. The intellectual capital of the progressive years has been slowly exhausted. It has to be made again, in a different setting, for our own times. 

The America that Lind and Dionne sketch out is a society for which any American would yearn. A society that holds its largest competing ideals in better balance, Dionne writes. A society whose nurses and health workers have access themselves to decent health care, Lind proposes. Lind salts his closing chapters with the kind of inventive policy propositions that his New America Foundation so abundantly generates. More investments in infrastructure. Better control of health-care costs. Extension of the Earned Income Tax Credit to the middle class. Immigration reform still more heavily weighted toward skills. A federal research and development bank not unlike the one that Alexander Hamilton once envisioned.  

In the wake of the November election, some of these may now be on their way. Repeal of the Affordable Care Act is off the table. Immigration reform is virtually a political certainty. But despite the encouragement progressives can draw from the aging of the conservative voting bloc and the growth of a more diverse and socially moderate electorate, the larger task remains. A still broader and enduring progressive agenda will require reinvigorating the larger ideas of public interests and common welfare that have been whittled down severely over the past 40 years. 

The genius of the conservative intellectual movement was to reshape the very terms in which society was imagined—as a fortress of individuals and families, under siege by an alien and unsympathetic government. “Let markets do their work.” “Don’t tread on me.” From those premises, conservative intellectuals were sure that the right public policies would follow. 

 This is still the terrain on which progressives must now struggle. “We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people,” Barack Obama declared on re-election night.  That “common bond is where we must begin.” The words caught the more realistic—and interdependent—vision of society that progressives need to make still more vivid in the imaginations of Americans in our new age. A more honest, searching history is part of that task. Lind’s and Dionne’s books are major contributions to the job of rebuilding progressive politics. But it will take more than better history to get us to a more secure progressive future.

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