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.
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.