An anti-author­ity creed

The Washington Post Sunday - - OPINION - GE­ORGE F. WILL georgewill@wash­post.com

Amer­ica is a creedal nation and the creed is, as Robert Penn War­ren wrote, the “ burr un­der the meta­phys­i­cal sad­dle of Amer­ica.” It is a re­cur­ring source of na­tional in­tro­spec­tion, dis­con­tent, self-in­dict­ment and pas­sion­ate pol­i­tics. We are in the midst of a re­cur­rence.

The tone of to­day’s pol­i­tics was an­tic­i­pated and is vindi­cated by a book pub­lished 30 years ago. The late Sa­muel Hunt­ing­ton’s “Amer­i­can Pol­i­tics: The Prom­ise of Dishar­mony” (1981) clar­i­fies why it is a mis­take to be alarmed by to­day’s po­lit­i­cal ex­cite­ments and ex­trav­a­gances, a mis­take re­futed by Amer­ica’s past.

The “pre­dom­i­nant char­ac­ter­is­tics” of the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary era, ac­cord­ing to Gor­don Wood, to­day’s pre­em­i­nent his­to­rian of that pe­riod, were “fear and frenzy, the ex­ag­ger­a­tions and the en­thu­si­asm, the gen­eral sense of so­cial cor­rup­tion and dis­or­der.” In the 1820s, Daniel Webster said “so­ci­ety is full of ex­cite­ment.” Of the 1830s, Ralph Waldo Emer­son wrote, “ The coun­try is full of re­bel­lion; the coun­try is full of kings. Hands off! Let there be no con­trol and no in­ter­fer­ence in the ad­min­is­tra­tion of this king­dom of me.” As the 20th cen­tury dawned, Theodore Roo­sevelt found a “con­di­tion of ex­cite­ment and ir­ri­ta­tion in the pop­u­lar mind.” In 1920, Ge­orge San­tayana wrote, “Amer­ica is all one prairie, swept by a uni­ver­sal tor­nado.” Un­usual turmoil is not so un­usual that it has no pat­tern.

By the time Hunt­ing­ton’s book ap­peared, Amer­i­can had had four of what he called “pe­ri­ods of creedal pas­sion” — the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary era (1770s), the Jack­so­nian era (the 1830s), the Pro­gres­sive era (1900-20) and the 1960s. We are now in the fifth.

The Amer­i­can Creed’s val­ues are lib­eral, as that term was un­der­stood un­til lib­er­al­ism suc­cumbed to 20th­cen­tury statism. The val­ues, ex­press­ing the 18th cen­tury’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with de­fend­ing lib­erty against govern­ment, are, Hunt­ing­ton said, “in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic, demo­cratic, egal­i­tar­ian, and hence ba­si­cally anti-govern­ment and anti-author­ity.” The var­i­ous val­ues “unite in im­pos­ing lim­its on power and on the in­sti­tu­tions of govern­ment. The essence of con­sti­tu­tion­al­ism is the re­straint of gov­ern­men­tal power through fun­da­men­tal law.”

What made the Amer­i­can Revo­lu­tion a novel event was that Amer­i­cans did not declare in­de­pen­dence be­cause their re­li­gion, eth­nic­ity, lan­guage or cul­ture made them in­com­pat­i­ble with the Bri­tish. Rather, it was a po­lit­i­cal act based on ex­plicit prin­ci­ples. So in Amer­ica more than in Europe, na­tion­al­ism is, Hunt­ing­ton said, “in­tel­lec­tu­al­ized”: “We hold these truths to be self-ev­i­dent.” Who holds them? Amer­i­cans. Who are Amer­i­cans? Those who hold those truths to be self-ev­i­dent.

Amer­ica is an in­her­ently “dishar­monic so­ci­ety” be­cause the ideals of its creed are al­ways im­per­fectly re­al­ized and al­ways en­dan­gered. Govern­ment is nec­es­sary but, Hunt­ing­ton says, “ the dis­tinc­tive as­pect of the Amer­i­can Creed is its anti-govern­ment char­ac­ter. Op­po­si­tion to power and sus­pi­cion of govern­ment as the most dan­ger­ous em­bod­i­ment of power are the cen­tral themes of Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal thought.”

In 20th-cen­tury Europe, the ide­olo­gies that pro­pelled change— Marx­ism, fas­cism — were, Hunt­ing­ton noted, ut­terly un­like those that an­i­mated the 18th cen­tury. “In the United States, in con­trast, the themes, slo­gans, and con­cerns of one creedal pas­sion pe­riod strongly re­sem­ble those of an­other.” Ide­olo­gies minted since the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary era, such as Marx­ism, have had slight im­pacts on Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. Al­though many in­tel­lec­tu­als con­sider Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal the­ory un­so­phis­ti­cated, it is more cen­tral to po­lit­i­cal prac­tices than the­ory is in other coun­tries.

Af­ter the Found­ing, there was, Hunt­ing­ton thought, a change in Amer­i­cans’ “dom­i­nant con­cep­tion of hu­man na­ture.” The im­age of man as in­her­ently sin­ful, dan­ger­ous and in need of con­trol by clev­erly con­trived po­lit­i­cal in­sti­tu­tions yielded to a much more be­nign im­age of man as es­sen­tially good and po­ten­tially per­fectible. But, Hunt­ing­ton wrote, “ both views were used to jus­tify lim­i­ta­tions on govern­ment.” If men are bad, govern­ment should be weak lest men put it to bad uses. If men are well-in­ten­tioned and rea­son­able, strong govern­ment is not nec­es­sary to con­trol them, so “govern­ment should be weak be­cause men are good.”

Pe­ri­ods of creedal pas­sion in­volve re­turns to first prin­ci­ples — hence the Tea Par­ty­ers’ ori­en­ta­tion to 1773. “Amer­i­cans,” Hunt­ing­ton be­lieved, “ be­come po­lar­ized less over the sub­stance of their be­liefs than over how se­ri­ously to take those be­liefs.” To­day, the gen­eral con­ser­vatism of this cen­ter-right coun­try and es­pe­cially the Tea Party im­pulse de­mand re­newed se­ri­ous­ness about the creed’s core skep­ti­cism about govern­ment. Mod­ern lib­er­al­ism’s hand­i­cap is its un­hap­pi­ness with this core.

“It has been our fate as a nation,” wrote his­to­rian Richard Hof­s­tadter, “not to have ide­olo­gies but to be one.” It is an ex­cel­lent fate, even if — ac­tu­ally, be­cause — the creed pe­ri­od­i­cally, as now, makes Amer­ica in­tensely dishar­monic.

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