Monday, July 28, 2008

The Founders and the Democratic Party of today

During this weekend a new friend, someone whose assistance to the The Denver Group has been crucial, ran a major book sale for the benefit of a library in the area. My friend's efforts put me in mind of some of the books I consider most relevant to what is happening in Democratic Party politics, U.S. politics, and world politics today.

Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different by Gordon S. Woods sits among those at the top of my list. Professor Woods is an accomplished historian with a distinguished faculty position at Brown University. Revolutionary Characters is a collection of essays, revised for the book, that originally appeared in The New Republic and The New York Review of Books. These essays are light reads, erudite but not meant as works of pure scholarship. (Professor Woods' break-through academic book is The Creation of the American Republic 1776-87; in 1992 he published another favorite of mine, The Radicalism of the American Revolution.)

In Revolutionary Characters, Professor Woods offers his take on the distinct personalities of those he regards as the most central founders of this country: George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Paine, and Aaron Burr.

These men and their compatriots achieved one of the most the most radical political reorientations in Western history: the formation of a modern republican democracy, based on ideals that no other nation-state at the time had ever rested, ideals such as each individual's right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The founders wrote many documents, some for the public, some meant to take legal effect, some private correspondence. Many of them spoke with eloquence in private and public settings. But their singularity lies in the fact that that they were much more than talkers. They were doers, and they accomplished what in their time was inconceivable to most Europeans and British colonialists. They questioned the authority of Britain over the American colonies. They asserted that the British parliament brought this questioning upon itself by refusing to take seriously the claims of the colonists even when those claims rested on laws and principles embedded in British culture. And when when Parliament and the British monarchy repeatedly disregarded the colonists' claims, the founders took grave action. They fought for their principles and for this country's independence and won a war that seemed to many at the time to be a lost cause.

Among other merits of Revolutionary Characters is that Woods' essays do not deify or romanticize the founders. He summons up each of them as distinctive individuals, real people who did not always agree with or even like one another. Yet at a certain point in history they shared a common goal - the readjustment of the relations between Britain and the American colonies, and eventually the colonial separation from Britain and the formation of an entirely separate sovereign entity. They achieved this goal without pretenses, often fighting through their own differences and the differing interests of different colonies while simultaneously cooperating to achieve American independence.

The Founders did not, it appears, think that the way to accomplish their objectives was to put on a unity show.

Professor Woods maintains that the founders were able to accomplish what they did precisely because they used their unusual level of education and position in American society of their time so as to combine ideas and politics, theory and practice. In doing so, they managed to accomplish their goals without papering over their differences.

Professor Woods also holds that today's politicians simply cannot act in the principled fashion he attributes to the founders, precisely because the founders created a country founded on the idea of egalitarian democracy, with a large roll for the non-elite general population. Professor Woods argues that such a population cannot handle political figures who act on principle, who combine idealism with pragmatism. In short he thinks that the very polity created by the founders makes it impossible for politicians today to act as they did.

With all respect to Professor Woods - and my respect for his work and scholarship is tremendous, I disagree. I think Americans today are starved for principled political leadership, sick of panderers, and tired of pretenses as opposed to honest talk about everything ranging from whether the Democratic Party actually already has a nominee to whether U.S. foreign policy is mitigating, fostering or leaving unaffected the outbreaks of terrorism around the world.

I think that millions of "ordinary" and "common" Americans yearn for leaders who combine substantive ideas with political savvy. Many of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton's supporters admire precisely this about her. She is a woman of ideas and a woman of tremendous political skill able to take ideas and use politics to put them into practice. And she is a hero to millions of Americans, who seem to recognize this combination in her.

And millions of Americans are disenchanted with a Democratic Party whose top officials refuse to recognize Senator Clinton as a potential nominee for the Party's candidate for President this year. Those same millions are even more disenchanted by the ceaseless parade of half-truths and evasions the DNC's top leaders put forth about the state of the Party, whose support it needs to survive as an institution, and whether it can muster that support both this fall and in the years to come.

It may seem radical to ask Howard Dean and Nancy Pelosi, among others, to act in the principled and high-minded way that Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, Adams, and the other founders did. But as the ordinary people whose lives, liberty and opportunities to pursue our happiness the founders fought for, I think it would be far more radical - and certainly sad - if we did not demand this of Dr. Dean, Speaker Pelosi, and the rest. If we do not demand that that Democratic Party leaders act in the best traditions of the founders, then we are saying that we have given up on the project that they begun: an ongoing republican democracy where citizens and politicians alike may have real and public differences, but where they share ideals of justice and fairness to all.

Even though I hold Professor Woods' scholarship in the highest esteem, I would like to see today's Democratic politicians discredit his pessimism about the possibility of politicians today acting in the spirit and tradition of the revolutionary characters. Moreover, I believe that if Dr. Dean, Speaker Pelosi, and all major Democrats started acting more like the founders and less like Professor Woods thinks politicians now have to act, the great project that is the United States of America would come through with flying colors.


Anonymous minty said...

I enjoyed your article. What keeps rolling around in my mind are the letters between Adams and Jefferson. We as a nation are progressing to a corporatist gentry class that has replaced the landed aristocracy which our forefathers sought to abolish. The American colonies were known as the poor man's paradise. One's future was not determined by one's rank or birth status, but by one's innate ability. As the gulf between rich and poor widens, it is becoming increasing difficult for the poor to elevate their status regardless of ability. If one is born poor, statistically they are likely to remain poor in higher numbers than ever before. We no longer put forth our best and brightest, but the well connected and financed. By promoting the well connected and financed, principles becomes secondary. Therefore, I would suggest that it is not that the "public can't handle it", but rather those pathways to opportunity are rapidly closing. Historically this is not a new phenomena in this country. This was also the case during the "Gilded Age". The following social upheaval, the rise of labor unions and incorporating the legal progress of Teddy Roosevelt's administration through LBJ's has been reversed. Senator Clinton championed the original philosophical ideals of our forefathers. Therefore, she spoke to the millions of people in this country who still believe in our original ideals and pragmatic approach to solutions.

The DNC is not having a unity show, but a purging ritual. We will have a coronation this year. This will be completed by sworn oath taking to enter the stadium to "hear Obama's historic speech" along with "retreats" for indoctrination of campaign workers to spread the "Good News".

During the Gilded Age, there was a great social work movement. This movement was geared to helping the poor and disenfranchised of mostly new immigrants living in squalid conditions and working in sweat shops. Our current "New Movement" isn't about helping others, but only helping Obama get elected. Despite the soaring rhetoric to bring forth the "Brave New World", his history and actions only indicate a thirst for position and power.

July 28, 2008 at 9:46 AM  
Blogger CognitiveDissonance said...

Heidi, I couldn't agree with you more. The very reason so much of this country is so pessimistic about politics, and probably why such a small number vote, is the lack of ethics in our politicians. Most of them seem to care more about their power and endless re-elections than actually doing the work of the people. They are all too often willing to sacrifice the public good on that altar (FISA being only the latest example).

I, too, believe that is why Clinton struck such a chord in people. In the beginning of her campaign, many people had heard only the right wing smears. But after watching her and listening to her for months, they realized the rarity she is. One of the things I mourn this election year is that there are so few like her in politics. If they are allowed to take this election from her, who will rise up in the future to continue the battle? I don't see anyone on the horizon.

July 28, 2008 at 3:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Thank you for your work and brilliant writing !

July 28, 2008 at 6:36 PM  

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