The Emperor Might Need New Clothes

Some months ago my students and I came across a remarkable passage in Madison’s notes on the Constitutional Convention.  The delegates debated some issue about term limits or representation, when one of the lesser known men commented that, in effect, “this constitution will last us about 75 years, after which we will have to make a new one.”*

This comment passed apparently without much notice or fuss.  Perhaps it was a generally assumed idea, or perhaps they simply had enough trouble in the moment to worry about arguing whether or not their document would last past their grandchildren.

This shocked everyone in class because we think of America like any other country, a more or less solid oak in the earth.  Of course, we have also been brought up with political rhetoric from both parties that venerates the constitution (though perhaps different parts of it).   Because Americans share little besides faith in the constitution, if that shakes, we all fall down.

Because American history has many unique aspects, I find getting an interpretive handle on our past very difficult.  I have taught American History for about 15 years and have only some educated and less than educated guesses.  Clearly, however, politically and culturally we are currently shifting in some direction or another at the moment.  How should we make sense of it?

One of the more remarkable periods of positive dynamic change occurred in Greece between the years ca. 800-500 B.C.  We know about the Bronze Age, but sometime after the Trojan War Greece descended into a dark age about which we know very little.  Perhaps Homer was the beginning of the rebirth.  Early on in his The Economic and Social Growth of Early Greece: 800-500 B.C. Chester Starr makes an interesting point.  Definite ideas or concepts like “equality” or “rights” did not guide the Greeks ca. 800 B.C.  Rather, the concept of eunomia, or “traditional right” formed the basis of Greek social and political interaction.  Sometimes they invoked eunomia against abuse of power by tyrants or aristocrats, at other times aristocrats invoked it rightly against the “mob.”  This flexibility surely gave them good ground on which to innovate.

This stands in contrast to our history.  We founded America on ideas, whether because we thought that the best way to go, or because we had no other choice.  We often agreed on the results we wanted, but rarely on the “why” of that result.  Even early colonial America had a great deal of cultural diversity, at least by 17th century measurements.  We have never really had a shared culture to build upon, except perhaps for a vague sense of Protestantism.

Starr goes to demonstrate that the creation of the much admired political unit of the city-state had at least part of its origins in the desire of the aristocracy to concentrate its power.  Later, asPericles of Athens we know, democracy arose in many Greek city-states, a tribute to the aforementioned flexibility.  But many Greek democracies still had their aristocratic imprint.  The outstanding reformer Pericles made Athens more democratic as an aristocrat, as his bust makes clear.

All good things come to end, and the Greek system had played itself out by the time of Alexander, who had little trouble putting it to rest.  Still, all in all, a good run by any measure, one too that makes sense in some clearly defined stages.

In light of Greek history and our own, I offer some some highly speculative thoughts . . .

Theory 1

Since early colonization America has gone through several iterations:

  • Colonial America – 1600-1756
  • Revolutionary America – 1756-1828
  • Jacksonian America – 1828-1860
  • Progressive America – 1860-1929
  • New Deal America – 1929-1965
  • Global Power America – 1965-2001
  • ???

Obviously some of these dates can be disputed and overlap.  Basically, Theory 1 asserts that because America has been rooted in ideas and not culture/tradition, we subject ourselves ourselves to significant shifts every 2-3 generations (the first phase doesn’t really count, as we had no concept of an American “nation” until the mid 1700’s).  We can reinterpret our common language on the fly and create “new Americas” every so often–though of course each era has some connections to past eras.  This ability has its strengths and weaknesses.

This theory, if true, may comfort us now because the the shifting ground beneath our feet will settle again as it has for previous generations.  We’ve done this before, we can do it again.

Theory 2 . . .

proposes more unity for the majority of American history.  Yes, some cultural and political shifts happened over time.  But we consistently maintained faith in the democratic process, and in our reason for being.  Even in the Civil War, the Confederacy broke away not out of a rejection of the American ideal, but out of a belief that they represented the true America.  We had “confidence,” that crucial element of any civilization, even in the midst of our most profound domestic crisis.

But something significant happened in 1965.**  In this year we passed the Voting Rights Act, which could be viewed as the apotheosis of what America was supposed to be.  In this year also we dramatically increased our involvement in Vietnam, again, in some ways I think, out of a belief that this was what we were “supposed” to do.  We increased our troop presence initially at least with the general backing of Congress and the population at large.

However, almost immediately after we passed the Voting Rights Act the riots in Watts began.  Rioting continued sporadically in many major cities for the next few years.  Perhaps this was pure coincidence, but I think not, though I would not claim to really understand the reasons for the violence.  But I think that part of the reason might be an intuition that we had “done all we could do,” but that it wasn’t enough.  The supreme confidence we had in our democratic way of life taught us that things would always improve, but now we knew better.  Shortly after our troop surge in Vietnam waves of self-doubt began surging through the country.

The two phenomena are likely connected, though I’m not sure how.

Along with this, the counter-culture “hippie” movement went mainstream into popular culture and eventually most of academia.  Western icons like the Beatles went to India to learn see the world in a non-western way.  We lost confidence in our own culture, and we have not regained it.    We had never agreed fully on the why we did what we did, but we had agreed on what we did.  After this era we could no longer claim this for ourselves, and this makes the modern shift much different than others in our history.  The lack of political flexibility may have hastened the at least seeming collapse of the principles that guided us.  Some of the “vomiting up” of our past in some areas of our culture seems willfully self-induced.^

Recently The Guardian ran a great article about Tory MP Rory Stewart.  Stewart got a great education and attempted on two occasions to serve in difficult postings in Iraq and Afghanistan.  His comments say much about the state of the western world:

Ten years ago he would have listed 10 things Afghanistan needed to build a new state: rule of law, financial administration, civil administration and so on. “And, then you would say, well, how do you do that? Well, I’d say, by a mapping of internal and external stakeholders, definition of critical tasks – all this jargon talk. And I’ve only now just begun to realise these words are nonsense words. I mean, they have no content at all. We should be ashamed to even use them.”

They are nothing more, Stewart now acknowledges, than tautologies. “They pretend to be a plan, but they’re actually just a description of an absence. Saying ‘What we need is security, and what we need to do is eliminate corruption’ is just another way of saying: ‘It’s really dangerous and corrupt.’ None of that actually tells you how it’s done.”

And later,

In some sense I’m a romantic. I like the idea of organic history and tradition. But I think Britain is such a different place now, and changing so quickly, that I’m coming slowly, painfully, to accept that we need to start again.

I emphasize that these comments come not from a reactionary revisionist Liberal, but a member of England’s conservative party.

If we agree that we need to “start again,” in some way, will we agree on where to start from, and where we wish to go?



*My apologies, I have looked back and forth for this comment and cannot find it again to save my life.

**A possible counter-date might be the end of W.W. II.  As Arnold Toynbee regretfully admitted, democracies are not well-equipped to handle something like nuclear weapons, though, so far so good on that score.

^Trump gets rightly accused for excessive negativity, but why does no one focus on the obvious negativity from the Left.  Here is Clive Crook, via Marginal Revolution . . . 

Trump’s critics complain about his relentless invoking of crisis — despite agreeing with him that the system is collapsing. Conservatives keep telling us that the American project is in mortal danger, that liberty itself is at stake. Liberals keep telling us that global capitalism is wrecking everything that’s decent in society, that the U.S. is institutionally racist, and America’s traditional values are so much hypocrisy. I think back to the rapturous reception accorded by the left in 2014 to Thomas Piketty’s “Capital,” which argued, you may recall, that capitalism is an engine of injustice, headed for self-destruction; progressives everywhere nodded wisely in agreement. Here’s what puzzles many of them today: Why does Trump have to be so negative?