Column: History 101 for Lefties





Mr. Carpenter is a writer and doctoral candidate in history at the University of Illinois.

Novice visionaries of the Left, many of whom signed on with Ralph Nader in 2000, live in an imaginary America. They live in a nation where stridently stated radical visions can lead to revolutionary realities. Experienced visionaries live in a nation where that tactic means profound disappointment, because we’re a profoundly unrevolutionary people.

11A brief review of America’s tenaciously conservative past—a splash of cold-water in the face—might be helpful to the (barely) surviving Left in reassessing not so much its goals, but its designs to achieve them.

Even in its infancy, America made excuses for its recent and unruly actions against mother England. Solid, industrious Americans, certainly, were not the excitable type, like those mad Frenchmen across the seas who were destroying everything sacred. Our “revolution” was somehow more civilized, more thoughtful—not even revolutionary, really, in the sense that only irrational passion rules in such times. This view soon took the form of historical myth, an “invented tradition,” and speedily morphed into a living truth. As soon as we completed the dirty work of what was, of course, a revolution, we settled in as conservatives.

The underlying cause was America’s roots in early liberalism (not the modern variety), in addition to new-found notions of a “republican,” virtuous people. Seventeenth-century Lockean convictions of individualism, restrained government, and supremacy of private property were, and are, the rudiments of the American character. Even when presented with disheartening evidence that the principled triad of liberalism often suffers from internal conflict, the American character resists change to preserve ideals. In short, we prefer the consequences of inequality to iconoclastic alternatives. The Left is bucking more than two-hundred years of a doggedly conservative mindset.

The sad history of the post-Reconstruction era is another in the current of classical liberalism, which is to say conservatism, winning out over a brief reign of progressive action. By the Civil War’s end, 620,000 men had perished in what had become the North’s struggle for political and social rights for all … men, at least. In fairly short order, however, the North was consumed by a drive for more economic, less social, progress. It was equally wary of continued federal involvement in guaranteeing black citizens’ rights, so the North withdrew, leaving the South and former slaves—now new prey—to fend for themselves. We are still coping with the consequences.

If ever there was a time to justly reject classical liberalism, it was the Great Depression. The system was in disrepair, perhaps beyond repair. Yet, by and large, Americans stuck with it. Even leading and comparatively radical intellectuals of the era remained attached to the fundamentals of classical liberalism, largely because a revolutionary urge was absent among distressed workers. Truly Left-oriented intellectual leadership had little base to build on, and knew it.

The Left is right, of course, when it says America is plagued by the sins of poverty, racism, and hegemonic corporatism. It was also right about the disturbing phenomenon of Al Gore’s inability to mop up the floor with a vacuous governor from Texas who showed no natural talent for leadership. But that such a man from Austin could be viewed by so many as a reasonable prospect for highest office only attests to yet another generation of conservative sympathies.

As an industrializing nation, America excused the sins of poverty, racism, and corporatism as the price to be paid for economic progress. As a postindustrial nation, we again excuse them as the price to be paid. Both eras—the industrial and postindustrial—have consciously dismissed today’s social sins for tomorrow’s pocketbook progress. Imposed inequality springs from the tenets of classical liberalism, and Americans presume the latter cannot be had without the former. Some might disapprove of our history, but they can’t change it.

Though the Left is, I believe, disingenuous when claiming the two major parties are the same, it nevertheless offers a needed vision of America that embraces hope and new beginnings—those grounded in social justice and the rejection of impersonal, economic might as the sole objective. The Left plays a much-needed role, extolling us to heed the “better angels of our nature.”

We live in a country in which conservative foundations cannot be denied or dismissed. For now, the most the Left can hope for, the best it can achieve, is defensive action—slowing a government whose activism promotes plutocracy and leaves all others behind.


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Simon Kornblith - 7/19/2004

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Simon Kornblith - 7/19/2004

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Simon Kornblith - 7/19/2004

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George Gibson - 6/22/2001

I'm an amateur, but I'd like to recommend a book that certainly opened my eyes about revolutionary movements in the U.S. and elsewhere. Adam Zamoyski's "Holy Madness" details the world-wide reaction against the revolutionary and nationalist movements of the 19th Century: while he seems a little catty at times, I found myself convinced by his portrayal, especially after his description of the U.S. Civil War and Reconstruction prompted me to do some reading and I found that his slighting references to U.S. history were well warranted.

One cavil I have with this article is the opportunity for revolutionary change that our founding documents preserve for each generation. This cuts both ways, of course: the Declaration of Independence did as much to inspire the Oklahoma City bombing as it did the Gettysburg Address. Nevertheless, the fact that we have put so many of our ideals in writing has helped many American social movements over time: incautious rhetoric about "inalienable rights" sowed the seeds of emancipation and later progress in civil rights, and the most ardent believer in "original intent" would have difficulty arguing that when the Constitution mentions "we the people" it means only those to whom the franchise was limited in 1789.

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