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The Next American Civil War
The Populist Revolt Against The Liberal Elite
By Lee Harris
Palgrave MacmillanCopyright © 2010 Lee Harris
All rights reserved.
FREEDOM AND ITS AMBIGUITIES
Today's populist conservatives are up in arms about freedom. In their political narratives they see themselves as champions of a liberty that they are convinced is under attack, and they are quick to invoke memories of our nation's early struggles over freedom in order to justify their glorious cause. They are the true patriots, the real Americans, threatened by the sinister force of America-hating, godless liberalism. To many liberals, needless to say, this attitude is more than a little annoying, since they would argue that they are the real champions of freedom and that the populist conservatives are simply the unwitting stooges of greedy and sinister corporate interests. The same Rasmussen poll that showed that almost half of America thought the protestors were genuinely expressing their own grievances also indicated that 37 percent of Americans believed that the protestors were being manipulated by "special interest groups and lobbyists." At first glance, two such radically different interpretations of the spirit of the town hall protests would seem to indicate that either one or both of these interpretations must be the product of stupidity or bad faith. But there is another way of explaining the violent contrast in the two perspectives, which is to point out that the very idea of freedom is inherently ambiguous, and that it lends itself to radically conflicting interpretations.
If we survey some of the burning issues of our day, it quickly becomes apparent that while Americans may all agree that freedom is of great value as an abstract ideal, they do not agree about how this ideal relates to the concrete social and political issues of the day. In addition, even a brief review of these issues will confirm the astute observation made by the British economist John Maynard Keynes: "The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist." Or of some defunct political philosopher, Keynes should have added. The "hard facts" that practical men of our era offer up in their PowerPoint presentations are frequently only "hard" in the eyes of those who unwittingly share their same unexamined philosophic assumptions—a truth that American foreign policy has repeatedly demonstrated in the last half century as "the best and the brightest" of each generation have amassed mountains of hard facts to justify the most quixotic and self-defeating adventures.
Prior to the invasion of Iraq, for example, American neoconservatives argued that the freedom our people enjoyed could be extended to other nations across the globe—even to a country like Iraq that had no indigenous tradition of democracy or free institutions. The Bush administration acted on the principle that one nation can literally bestow liberty on another nation. The recipe was quite simple really. Topple the tyrannical regime of Saddam Hussein and a free society will spontaneously emerge, like mushrooms cropping up in a shady glade.
Behind this optimism lies a long philosophical tradition that looks upon liberty as the natural birthright of all mankind, a tradition most closely associated with the seventeenth century's John Locke and the eighteenth century's Thomas Jefferson, one that has been enormously influential among English-speaking people, especially in America. When President George W. Bush argued that we all want the same things—among which he included liberty—he was echoing this philosophy of freedom. But there is another English tradition about liberty that takes a radically different view of the subject.
The eighteenth-century Anglo-Irish orator and political thinker Edmund Burke gave the classic formulation of a rival philosophy of liberty when he argued that the unparalleled rights and liberties enjoyed by the English people of his time were not the result of any vague or abstract natural right but were an inheritance from their ancestors. Against those who saw liberty as a universal right of all men, Burke argued that liberty could only flourish among those whose ancestors had fought for it, and who were themselves determined to preserve and cherish the rights and privileges that had been won for them by earlier generations. Liberty was not to be found in bold experimentation, which often destroyed it, but in a kind of political conservationism—that is to say, a careful and alert stewardship over those cultural, political, and religious traditions that were the indispensable condition of the preservation of a free society.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the American conservationist movement sought to protect America's great natural treasures, such as Yosemite Valley and Yellowstone Park, from destruction through pollution and exploitation. A century earlier, Burke's political conservationism aimed to protect Britain's great national institutions, such as Parliament and the Church of England, from reformers who wished to tinker and tamper with them. Behind both conservationist movements, however, was the same insight. Great things that are the work of time, that have arisen organically and through the interplay of many contending and conflicting forces, must be conserved, because once they are gone there is no way of replacing them. For Burke, English liberty was like the Grand Canyon—a serendipitous gift of Providence that no amount of human contrivance could hope to recreate once human folly had allowed it to perish.
At first sight, these two conflicting paradigms of liberty—Locke's and Burke's—may appear to be two sides of a purely speculative dispute, without any serious consequences for the real world. Yet it was the triumph of Locke's concept of liberty over Burke's that was ultimately responsible for one of the longest, costliest, and most controversial of all the wars that the United States has ever fought. Had Burke's view of liberty been dominant in White House circles, Saddam Hussein might still have been overthrown, but there would have been far less extravagant rhetoric about bringing democracy to the Middle East. Indeed, one might argue that the dampening of expectations for democracy in the Middle East reflects a revival of Burke's emphasis on liberty as a specific cultural tradition prized by some societies but not by others.
In 2008, with the election of Barack Obama, popular conservative pundits like Sean Hannity took to the airwaves to argue that under the new administration our liberties were again being threatened, just as in the days of the American Revolution. Suddenly Thomas Paine was a hero again. Self-styled patriots, such as Glenn Beck, began quoting from the feisty Englishman who, after failing in several businesses, had sailed to America in order to use his nimble pen in defense of our war for independence. Yes, they asserted, Paine was right when he wrote in his famous pamphlet Common Sense that "government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one." If the people found their government too intolerable, they had every right to overthrow it and to replace it, just as John Locke argued in his Second Treatise on Government. By the same logic, if the nation under an Obama administration were to become too intolerable, then the people would have a right to rebel against the government, although under such circumstances only these "true-blue patriots" could be relied upon to take the appropriate action. Other Americans might be appalled and even frightened by this attitude, but the patriotic extremists they deplore could quote chapter and verse from the Declaration of Independence to justify their right to rebel.
In the past, Americans have found ways to overturn the status quo without the need for violent revolution. The populist rebellion that made Andrew Jackson president in 1828 was entirely peaceful, yet it transformed the political culture of the United States forever. Could our current populist revolt end up catapulting a new populist hero—or heroine—into the White House?
Mention the name Sarah Palin and you will immediately have a fight on your hands. When John McCain chose Palin to be his running mate in 2008, there was a natural desire on the part of the electorate and the press to know more about this hitherto relatively unknown governor of Alaska and former mayor of the small town of Wasilla. Who exactly was she, and what kind of record had she acquired during her brief career in politics? These were certainly reasonable questions that required forthright answers. Yet far too much of the controversy that surrounded her sudden rise to political prominence was superficial, reflecting cultural biases and focusing on the irrelevant minutiae of her personal life. Even here, buried deeply beneath the blather of the blogosphere, pro and con, lies a genuine philosophic issue. Who should speak for the people? Should it be someone who shares their own values and ideals, including their own prejudices and their own blind spots? Or should the people be represented by someone who is prepared to champion their real interests even if the people do not see where their real interests lie, and even if they disagree emphatically with the person who is claiming to act on their behalf?
This is a debate that goes back a long way. Thomas Paine thought that the job of the representative was simply to speak the people's mind, not to try to improve on it. How could anyone improve on the people's common sense? On the other hand, when Edmund Burke ran for Parliament in the city of Bristol, he frankly told the voters that he would represent whatever views he thought were best for the people of England, and not just the views of those in Bristol who were sending him to the House of Commons. He would do what he thought was right whether or not it reflected the position of his constituency. Surprisingly, Burke was elected despite this bold announcement.
How concerned should we be about the contemporary explosion of populist conservatism? Is a political scourge to be fought tooth and nail? Or should we look upon it as a completely understandable reaction on the part of those Americans who feel that their ideals and values—traditional to the core—are under siege by godless liberals intent on teaching their children about natural selection and unnatural sex? At the very least, the populist revival may be a helpful hint to the enlightened elite that it is always dangerous to push people too far into a corner, since you can never tell when they might decide to fight back. Even when you cannot see why other people venerate their traditions, you cannot hope to curry their favor by making an open display of contempt toward them. A society that claims to be a democracy should show some minimal regard for the will of the common man, at the very least.
GAY MARRIAGE poses another riddle. Its proponents argue that it is a matter of fundamental human rights. For some, a moral right, for others, a natural right. In any case, the defenders of gay marriage draw on a philosophical tradition that asserts the existence of a higher order of rights than those that happened to be written down in the law books of a society. Because these rights attach to individuals outside of, and even prior to, society, no society can legitimately take them away or withhold them. Even if ninety-nine out of one hundred Americans were violently opposed to gay marriage, it would make no difference. No majority vote, no matter how overwhelming, can rob people of those rights assigned to them by nature or by transcendent moral law.
John Locke might well be appalled by this application of his theory of natural rights, but he would have to acknowledge that the line of argument is recognizably his own. The eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant would have felt the same horror, but he too would have been familiar with the concept of moral rights that trump all other considerations of the general will or of public utility. On the other hand, during roughly that same century, both Samuel Johnson, the Tory reactionary, and Jeremy Bentham, the radical reformer, would have considered all such talk as rubbish.
Johnson, for one, dismissed all chatter about natural rights as sheer cant—one of his favorite words of opprobrium—by which he meant lofty but insincere language designed to masquerade the genuine but ignoble selfish motives of those who employed it. When a man claimed something as his natural right, all he was really saying, shorn of its vague metaphysical abstraction, was: "I want what I want. Give it to me." Take those rebellious Americans, for example. When they declaimed about their natural right to be exempt from taxation, they were simply using pretentious language to justify their basic stinginess and lack of political responsibility.
Jeremy Bentham, the father of utilitarianism, had the same attitude. He thought we Americans, with our highly touted love of liberty, were appalling hypocrites. The whole theory of natural rights and moral rights was an unnecessary fiction. Bentham, like Johnson, would have seen the debate over gay marriage as simply another political contest, or naked power struggle, between two contending parties. The proponents of gay marriage want to change their society to suit them; the opponents want to keep the traditional society that they are accustomed to. Liberty, in the abstract, has nothing to do with it. It is all merely a question of which party gets its way. Instead of being concerned with finding the greatest happiness for the greatest number—the maxim of utilitarianism—both parties are only interested in pushing their own agendas. While Johnson would no doubt have come down on the side of traditional marriage, Bentham, who was no friend to tradition, might well have come down on the other side.
IMMIGRATION CAN be added to the list of burning issues deeply implicated in two contrasting concepts of freedom. To one side are those Americans who recall that we are a nation of immigrants and who are prepared to welcome all those who wish to come here, seeking to enjoy the freedoms that ordinary American citizens too often take for granted. On the other side are those who insist that an essential aspect of freedom is the freedom to decide who else will become members of your community. A country club, a university, or a business corporation that is not free to select and reject applicants would thereby lose all claims of autonomy and self-government, and the same logic can easily be extended to an entire society.
You cannot ask an individual to care about the fate of everyone in his community and then deny him the right to decide who gets to join it. Or, more accurately, you can try, but you are bound to fail. A genuine community can only exist when the people in it have something they share in common—values and traditions that define their identity, and by so doing, separate them from those whose values and traditions differ from theirs. If a community cannot maintain its borders, it will inevitably lose its established character—a shattering experience for those who are happy with their time-honored way of life. From the perspective of the outsider, this loss of cultural identity may be a good or an indifferent thing. But to those on the inside, it will invariably be perceived as a threat to their core values and traditions, generating bitterness and often violent resentment. One may, of course, regret this fact about human nature, but it would be dangerous to ignore it. Liberal cosmopolitans, while yearning to embrace all mankind, frequently find themselves the bitter enemies of their next-door neighbors.
OTHER ISSUES COULD be added, but these examples should be sufficient to show that Americans are deeply divided over our shared heritage of freedom. It is of supreme importance to grasp that this conflict over liberty is not the result of either bad faith or stupidity on the part of the various antagonists. Each side is genuinely championing freedom—but only as they see it, which is simply another way of saying that the concept of freedom is complex, multi-faceted, and even at times disturbingly self-contradictory.
In the American Civil War, both sides were profoundly convinced that they were fighting for freedom. We take this for granted today when we think about Lincoln and the North, who fought to bring liberty to the slaves. But those who sided with the Confederacy were no less certain that they too were fighting for freedom, in this case the freedom to create a government of their own choice and to preserve their traditional way of life. They saw themselves as the new Sons of Liberty, prepared to struggle against the tyranny of the vastly richer and more powerful North.
The disquieting truth is that there are many different kinds of freedom, and that not all of them are compatible with one another. In order to free the slaves, the North was forced to impose military rule on much of the defeated South for over a decade. On the other hand, if the Confederacy had won and had established its independence and autonomy, it would have meant the continuing enslavement of millions of men, women, and children—and their children's children as well.
Excerpted from The Next American Civil War by Lee Harris. Copyright © 2010 Lee Harris. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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