Sunday, October 21, 2012

My (and many of my countrymen's) bizarre, cultic emphases

A commenter considers some of my views on the Electoral College problematic.

He further writes: "I think the great compromise was a poor choice, and so is the bizarre, cultic emphasis on the founders' intent that pervades American discourse, as though some 18th century landowners somehow ate from the tree of knowledge and then chopped it down to deny future generations its fruit — cherries, perhaps."

I can see how it comes across as odd. Perhaps in my defense I'd offer that there are many social visionaries since the founders that I (and many of us) respect a great deal as well. Jacksonian democracy; Emersonian self-reliance; Lincolnian unionism; Wilsonian self-deterimination (*braces himself for libertarian onslaught*); the entrepreneurialism of our Carnegie, Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Ford and Morgans; the solidarity of our Debs, Gompers, and Haywoods; the democratic vistas of our Whitmans and our Deweys; the Rooseveltian new deals; the mountaintops of King and what he saw beyond them; the new federalism of Reagan, Clinton, and Rehnquist; the hope and change of Obama.

In American public life we do like ideas as well as the personalities that promoted those ideas. But I think it really is about the quality of the ideas. There's no personality we've embraced independent of ideas we've accepted. There's nobody we've adopted as The Leader simply because he or she lead us. They've all given us new ideas and new social hopes.

But the commenter is right, the 1770-1800 period seems to have a lot more ideas and personalities floating around with an enduring respect.

I think part of it is that we're not sure exactly what better alternative there is out there. I can think of places that have policy advantages over us. It's not a particularly long list (usually advantages have accompaniying disadvantages). But I can't think of very many that have constitutional advantages over us. I think that's part of the reason why we've done so well over the last two centuries and I also think it's part of the reason why so little has changed in any fundamental way.

It's not cultic, in other words.

There is a sense of awe around that generation. But there's awe because what they said and thought seems to have paid off. No one can seriously point to the record of the United States and fail to conclude that the founding fathers had at least as good a stab at how civilized, liberal society ought to go as just about any other contenders. The system has proven relatively self-correcting and flexible.

Either I have totally drunk the Kool-Aid or there's something legitimate here to respect.

And given how problematic and unstable radical change often proves, it seems entirely rational - the opposite of cultic - to say "I'll just see how the founders' institutions play out, thanks". I'm not sure what's supposed to be so enticing about the alternatives.

And these guys we'ren't just sitting back reflecting. They had an awful lot on the line. And it could have all broken down many times. It's not magic - it's a track record and a good sensible theory behind that track record.


  1. The advantages America has had over the rest of the Anglo American world are really the result of geographic endowments rather than institutional superiority. Those institutions did after all result in a great deal of unpleasantness in the period up to 1865, the results of which still linger. And most of the structure of modern government in the US is based on a quite artificial reading of the Commerce Clause - in fairly clear violation of original intent.

  2. Absalon makes a fine point. With the wealth available here, it could just as well be that success came in spite of our institutions. Isolating these variables, unfortunately, is severely problematic.

    "I also think it's part of the reason why so little has changed in any fundamental way."

    "Fundamental" changes are really hard to do in our system, but I would be curious to read some sort of survey of the sort of changes made in other republics and how they compare with ours.

    At the very least, I would expect if the framers had the sort of impossible foresight that would predict Wyoming's half million people would have the same representation in the Senate as California's 37-and-a-half million, it would have given them pause. Also, obligatory reference to how nobody knew of the problems with simple plurality voting, blah blah preferential voting is better, blah blah more than two parties, blah blah Duverger's Law, etc. You've probably heard all this stuff before.

  3. Daniel (and Absalon):

    You seriously have no idea what you are talking about. The Founding Fathers had two entirely different world views. The Federalist view of a strong national gov't and freedom prevailed for only a very few years until it was consumed by the Sherman compromise.

    The ideas of the Founding Fathers that you support were mere rationalizations and code for slavery, which is why they dead ended in Dred Scott.

    Some of it is complete clap trap. For example the idea of best gov't is the one that governs least is post-Civil War fruit of the freedom of contract pre-Lochner era.

    If the reader wants to become informed, read The Transformation of American Law, 1870-1960: The Crisis of Legal Orthodoxy (Oxford Paperbacks)Morton J. Horwitz and his earlier The Transformation of American Law, 1780-1860

    In sum, the view of Franklin, Washington, Hamilton, and Morris and the rest of the New England was of a national entirely different than the view of the slave holding south.

    The framing issue in the United States was Slavery. Jefferson, for example, worked his ideas backward from his primary goal of perpetuating Slavery.

  4. It seems we do go in pretty big for hero worship.

    Something I found curious in France was that there didn't seem to be any heroic national figure whom everybody revered. People talk shit about Napoleon, about DeGaulle, about anyone you can name. I think this is also somewhat true in Great Britain, though I'm not sure (I think Churchill and Atlee still both have plenty of detractors). I guess the Mexican regard for the heroes of the revolution is similar to what we do?


All anonymous comments will be deleted. Consistent pseudonyms are fine.