Myth-Making for a Conservative Nation
In 1988, Guy Debord observed:
“We believe we know that in Greece, history and democracy appeared at the same time. We can prove that their disappearances have also been simultaneous.”
“To this list of the triumphs of power we should, however, add one result which has proved negative for it: a State, in which one has durably installed a great deficit of historical knowledge so as to manage it, can no longer be governed strategically.”
This absence of historical knowledge manifests itself today. In Fall of 2013, after weeks of partisan gridlock, the US Congress managed to re-opened the Federal government with a last-minute deal. This partisanship, however, is not ideological: it is emotional, it is irrational, and its results are unpredictable.
In response to this minor “accomplishment” President Obama remarked:
“Let’s work together to make the government work better, instead of treating it like an enemy, or making it worse. That’s not what the founders of this nation envisioned when they gave us the gift of self-government.”
The President’s statement seems, on its face, uncontroversial — and that’s a big part of the problem. His statement is profoundly anti-historical, and in the most problematic manner possible, reads present values into the past.
Until 1850 or so, only white men with substantial wealth — such as bankers, factory owners, or plantation owners — were allowed the vote. Renters, subsistence farmers, and the laboring majority — whites and blacks — lacked political representation at the time of the US’s founding. The Constitution made no mention of suffrage until the 14th and 15th Amendments in 1868 and 1870 — almost 100 years after the original Constitution was ratified. In 1875, the US Supreme Court explicitly ruled that the 14th Amendment — which defined citizenship for the first time — did not give women the right to vote. Women didn’t get the vote until 1920. Blacks didn’t get full rights until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
That’s an odd “gift of self-government.” Truly, it sounds more like a long, hard struggle to obtain self-government — IN SPITE OF the Founding Fathers. Indeed, despite being subjects to the Crown, the British managed to outlaw the slave trade, abolish slavery, and enfranchise women before the United States. And despite being subject to the Crown, the British today enjoy many of the same rights — like freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of speech — that Americans consider distinctly American innovations under the Bill of Rights.
Though the myth of Democracy endures, it is plain to see that the Founders feared Democracy, and made provision to prevent its emergence in the New World. That so much time passed before American citizens obtained universal suffrage is testament to the effectiveness of the Founding Fathers’ plans.
In arguing for a new Constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation, Founding Father Elbridge Gerry complained to the Constitutional Convention on May 31, 1787: “The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy.” Founding Father Edmund Randolf also complained about the “turbulence and follies of democracy.” In Convention, Founding Father John Dickinson argued against expanding political enfranchisement: “The danger to free governments has not been from freeholders, but those who are not freeholders.” Dickinson went so far as to claim that a constitutional monarchy was “one of the best Governments in the world.”
Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, in Convention on June 18, 1787, expressed his belief that “nothing but a permanent body can check the imprudence of democracy … you cannot have a sound executive upon a democratic plan.” In The Federalist #10, James Madison wrote: “democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention, have ever been found incompatible with personal security and the rights of property.”
Thomas Jefferson — who did favor democracy — was not particularly effective in pushing his views. He was not even in the country when the Constitution was drafted and ratified.
The attainment of self-government in the United States was no “gift.” President Obama is either unaware of this nation’s history, or perhaps he has no problem brushing it aside in his public statements. Perhaps he is content that the myth of America’s long history of revolutionary self-government is a suitable expedient in the short-sighted calculus of contemporary electoral politics.
Assuming a political narrative where “liberals” oppose “conservatives,” one might think the first black president in the United States would show some slight interest in calling attention to the heritage of liberal reformers and progressives who paved the way for him to attain high office. One might suppose it would be in his political advantage to make it clear for all to see that the rights most “conservatives” today enjoy are the result of the efforts of their political adversaries.
Instead, the President’s choice to ignore this history — and to implicitly endorse the a-historical nationalist myth favored by self-described “conservatives” — obscures real threats to what measure of democracy Americans have gained by long struggle.
“Conservatives” who think they are defending the “gift” of democracy vehemently favor so-called “voter ID” laws — which have the effect of disenfranchising students and the elderly. The ostensible rationale for these laws — that they prevent voter fraud — not only points to a problem that does not appear to exist, but affects a sort of bait-and-switch. These laws brush aside legitimate concerns about election fraud — they ignore systemic flaws with electronic voting machines, irregularities in the 2004 elections which may have been covered up, voting irregularities and questionable legal activities surrounding the contested 2000 election, and ongoing voting irregularities in parts of small town America like Waukesha, Wisconsin.
In addition to enacting “voter ID” laws, “conservative” governors have been purging voter rolls, and continue to push for national policies — such as the failed War on Drugs and mandatory minimum sentencing laws — which have had the net effect of leaving one in five black men disenfranchised.
The “conservatives” perhaps don’t know to what condition their “traditionalist” views are returning this country — and our “liberal” President does not seem particularly concerned with remedying the matter. And for all the lofty speech of “history” surrounding the 2008 elections, the word was routinely used not by way of elucidating the past, but by way of branding what was then the present moment.
All this is perhaps fitting. President Obama’s policies are by and large center-right. With the exception of gay marriage, he has a dismal civil rights record, that includes granting amnesty to CIA torturers, failing to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, extrajudicial assassinations of US citizens, requesting indefinite detention provisions in the 2012 National Defence Authorization Act, negotiating secret treaties, expanding and legitimating Bush-era surveillance programs — despite well-documented evidence detailing what these programs can lead to, violating the sovereignty of foreign nations with drone strikes, prosecuting whistleblowers with a vengeance … and the list goes on.
Mr. Obama’s calls for “unity” are perhaps well-intentioned, but cannot be strategically effective in the absence of historical knowledge among the population. Something closer to a one-party system is unlikely to mend the damage caused by a dysfunctional two-party system. What America needs is not “unity” but a real opposition party — a role that, in the face of “conservative” efforts in the Tea Party Caucus — the Democratic party seems unwilling or unable to fulfill.