For Better or Worse America Is Progress

At the League, self-styled liberal-progressive Conor P Williams and self-styled constitutional conservative Tim Kowal continue a debate over the “American-ness” of progressivism that, if only certain familiar cranks and leading politicians were not determined to advertise their apparently as invincible as influential misconceptions, I would consider somewhere between closed and ludicrous. This time, oddly enough, a friend and ally of Kowal’s with whom I’ve had several frustrating exchanges more than halfway backed up the counter-position.  For once we were able to move to something like new ground in an attempt to articulate the American Idea more clearly – from my perspective for the sake of the effort to think beyond it.

In a comment under Williams’ post, I referred to that crystalline thought from the historian Gordon Wood that has helped to guide my own investigations on the subject of progressivism in American history. Based on a reading of contemporaneous literature unrivaled in its breadth, Wood sums up the meaning of the American Founding for the Founders themselves:

The illimitable progress of mankind promised by the Enlightenment could at last be made coincident with the history of a single nation. For the Americans at least, and for others if they followed, the endless cycles of history could finally be broken.

(The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787, p. 614)

Not only is “progressivism” deeply “American,” but, we can say, following Wood, that within the history of political ideas, “America” itself stands for progress. Wood lets the historical concrete, the materiality of the idea, fend for itself, but we can make the same observation without reference to political philosophies: Simply as a project of colonization of a “new world,” the settlement of the “virgin” North American continent would already qualify as a new chapter in global “progress,” simultaneously the progress to a new global view.

“New World” must therefore be understood in multiple dimensions simultaneously – world of new ideas, new idea of the world, new geographical world, new order of the ages, etc. Somewhat to my surprise, Mr. Kowal’s friend and co-blogger Tom Van Dyke, with whom I have had numerous frustrating, seemingly dead-end exchanges before, provided support for this view with observations based on the conjunct revolutionary history of America and France, specifically concerning the direct influence of Thomas Jefferson, via Lafayette, on the drafting of the Declaration of the Rights of Man. The documented influence of the American Revolution on the French – to which latter Europeans gave and sometimes still reflexively give principal historical position – tends to confirm America in its world-historical role.

Whether what the Founders-Framers succeeded in constituting was “America” or the other way around is another question. To be clear, I think that America constituted or made the Founders, just as it made the Progressives, but, as concrete historical object and as concept, must be larger and more fundamental than either (and more fundamental also than the idea of “popular sovereignty” that is sometimes put against “limited government” as the essence of American politics). As I argued on the initial thread on this subject, the spirit of innovation, expansion, world-improvement, etc., was virtually identical with the project of the colonization of the New World. It cannot be viewed as mere accident that the spirit of progress realizes itself as an explicitly political movement in America at virtually the precise moment of the completed settlement of the North American continent and the turn outward, nor that the arrival of “Progressivism” in the newly consolidated world power on the rise also coincides with the legal, conceptual, and eventually material destruction of the Eurocentric international order.

In this framework the American Founding becomes a moment of incalculable significance – incalculable for us in part because its meaning still circumscribes us – but to adopt this notion also requires one to break with any claim that the Declaration or the Constitution or even the Founding/Framing period as a whole truly exhausts or could exhaust the meaning of “American.” The Founding and the nation-state or particular national possibility it constituted must be an excrescence of America or “American-ness” or Americanism, not its totality. This idea more foundational than the founding would shape the “constituting power” that preceded the Constitution, as it had to, and that still exceeds it, as a reserve of national potential and identity visible where the law cannot reach, but the whole state and its purposes remain. It is even more fundamental than “popular sovereignty,” which though larger than and different from mere constitutionalism, is also the basis of a mere political belief system or faith, not an absolute historical concept. Many American conservatives, like Mr. Van Dyke, prefer to stop here and give the names of “God” or “nature” to the true source of the law (or right), but to do so freezes our understanding at an 18th Century inflection point of great importance, but which the religious conservative’s own faith, or a commitment to philosophical probity, ought to warn us against idolizing.

Compressing centuries of material progress and its discontents – eventually distilled in the anti-progressive concept of the post-modern – and bringing us  to the present era and its intimations of an ongoing global crisis grasping toward another concept, or no concept at all, I propose the following thesis: The Idea of America is global progressivism up to the transformation of progress itself into new forms adequate to the world that progress has made, against and always co-extensive with the main alternative outcome of progress: extinction.

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Writing since ancient times, blogging, e-commercing, and site installing-designing-maintaining since 2001; WordPress theme and plugin configuring and developing since 2004 or so; a lifelong freelancer, not associated nor to be associated with any company, publication, party, university, church, or other institution.

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Noted & Quoted

TV pundits and op-ed writers of every major newspaper epitomize how the Democratic establishment has already reached a consensus: the 2020 nominee must be a centrist, a Joe Biden, Cory Booker or Kamala Harris–type, preferably. They say that Joe Biden should "run because [his] populist image fits the Democrats’ most successful political strategy of the past generation" (David Leonhardt, New York Times), and though Biden "would be far from an ideal president," he "looks most like the person who could beat Trump" (David Ignatius, Washington Post). Likewise, the same elite pundit class is working overtime to torpedo left-Democratic candidates like Sanders.

For someone who was not acquainted with Piketty's paper, the argument for a centrist Democrat might sound compelling. If the country has tilted to the right, should we elect a candidate closer to the middle than the fringe? If the electorate resembles a left-to-right line, and each voter has a bracketed range of acceptability in which they vote, this would make perfect sense. The only problem is that it doesn't work like that, as Piketty shows.

The reason is that nominating centrist Democrats who don't speak to class issues will result in a great swathe of voters simply not voting. Conversely, right-wing candidates who speak to class issues, but who do so by harnessing a false consciousness — i.e. blaming immigrants and minorities for capitalism's ills, rather than capitalists — will win those same voters who would have voted for a more class-conscious left candidate. Piketty calls this a "bifurcated" voting situation, meaning many voters will connect either with far-right xenophobic nationalists or left-egalitarian internationalists, but perhaps nothing in-between.

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Understanding Trump’s charisma offers important clues to understanding the problems that the Democrats need to address. Most important, the Democratic candidate must convey a sense that he or she will fulfil the promise of 2008: not piecemeal reform but a genuine, full-scale change in America’s way of thinking. It’s also crucial to recognise that, like Britain, America is at a turning point and must go in one direction or another. Finally, the candidate must speak to Americans’ sense of self-respect linked to social justice and inclusion. While Weber’s analysis of charisma arose from the German situation, it has special relevance to the United States of America, the first mass democracy, whose Constitution invented the institution of the presidency as a recognition of the indispensable role that unique individuals play in history.

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[E]ven Fox didn’t tout Bartiromo’s big scoops on Trump’s legislative agenda, because 10 months into the Trump presidency, nobody is so foolish as to believe that him saying, “We’re doing a big infrastructure bill,” means that the Trump administration is, in fact, doing a big infrastructure bill. The president just mouths off at turns ignorantly and dishonestly, and nobody pays much attention to it unless he says something unusually inflammatory.On some level, it’s a little bit funny. On another level, Puerto Rico is still languishing in the dark without power (and in many cases without safe drinking water) with no end in sight. Trump is less popular at this point in his administration than any previous president despite a generally benign economic climate, and shows no sign of changing course. Perhaps it will all work out for the best, and someday we’ll look back and chuckle about the time when we had a president who didn’t know anything about anything that was happening and could never be counted on to make coherent, factual statements on any subject. But traditionally, we haven’t elected presidents like that — for what have always seemed like pretty good reasons — and the risks of compounding disaster are still very much out there.

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