The densely populated coastal corridors from Boston to Washington and from San Diego to Berkeley are where most of America’s big decisions are made.
They remind us of two quite different Americas: one country along these coasts and everything else in between. Those in Boston, New York and Washington determine how our government works; what sort of news, books, art and fashion we should consume, and whether our money and investments are worth anything.
The Pacific corridor is just as influential, but in a hipper, cooler fashion. Whether America suffers through another zombie film or one more Lady Gaga video or Kanye West’s latest soft-porn rhyme is determined by Hollywood — mostly by executives who live in the la-la land of the thin Pacific strip from Malibu to Palos Verdes.
Across the nation, not just in Washington, there are ever more signs of a Republican Party veering to the right edge of the right wing of the political spectrum. With prospects for a comprehensive immigration bill fading, what will it take to bring the GOP back at least to the right edge of the center of the spectrum, to compete to win national elections on its own merits and not just when the Democrats fail or the economy falters?
American history has many examples of a party going off the rails and taking a long time to recover. It was true of the Democrats in the 1890s and again in the 1960s and early ’70s. One rough rule of thumb is that a party has to lose three presidential elections in a row to make it clear that the problem is not just individual presidential candidates and their failures but something deeper, enough to motivate a party to move to expand beyond its ideological base and capture the center. But if that happens in 2016 — if Democrats make it three wins in a row — I am not sure it will be enough for the GOP.
That is because I see at least five Republican parties out there, with a lot of overlap, but with enough distinct differences that the task is harder than usual. There is a House party, a Senate party, and a presidential party, of course. But there is also a Southern party and a non-Southern one. The two driving forces dominating today’s GOP are the House party and the Southern one — and they will not be moved or shaped by another presidential loss. If anything, they might double down on their worldviews and strategies.
100 years ago political parties were inverted on issues of race.
Probably the most bracing aspect of Ira Katznelson’s new history of the New Deal, Fear Itself, is his portrait of the marriage of progressive domestic policy and white supremacy. I knew the outlines of this stuff, but for a flaming commie like me, the extent of the embrace is hard to take:
Far more enduring was the New Deal’s intimate partnership with those in the South who preached white supremacy. For this whole period — the last in American history when public racism was legitimate in speech and action — southern representatives acted not on the fringes but as an indispensable part of the governing political party.
It actually starts much earlier with Woodrow Wilson who forged a “composite of racism and progressive liberalism” which “came to dominate the Democratic Party, and, with it, the content and boundaries of social reform.”
President Barack Obama is set to be officially sworn in Sunday for his second term as president of the United States, ahead of Monday’s public events.
In a small and short ceremony at the White House, he will recite the constitutionally-mandated oath for the third of four expected times during his time in office.
When Obama first took the oath on Jan. 20 four years ago, he and Chief Justice John Roberts tripped up over the wording, raising concerns about whether the constitutional requirements were fulfilled to the letter of the law. Roberts went to the White House the next day and administered it again in full.
This time, Obama will recite it twice on purpose. Sunday’s official swearing-in, conducted again by Roberts, will be the fifty-seventh inauguration of a president in American history.
Is the idea of an American Revolution fueled by outrage over taxation without representation a founding myth?
Scholar William Hoagland says it is and he makes a pretty convincing case. He argues many the nation’s then financial elite benefited greatly by allying themselves with the Founding Fathers. He believes the nation indebted itself to a very few who would benefit handsomely.
The more things change it seems, the more they stay the same.
Herman Husband, others and later Thomas Paine, did not share Washington’s vision of what America ought to be. In what is real irony, the Christian evangelicals of the time were far more egalitarian then their spiritual descendants. They argued against the inside deals, closed agreements and partnership and especially against what they saw as the institutionalization of a corrupt system- one whose remnants we are dealing with today.
In his latest book, Founding Finance: How Debt, Speculation, Foreclosures, Protests, and Crackdowns Made Us a Nation, William Hogeland argues that America was born less from the fight between the founding fathers and the British Crown, which we’ve all heard about, than from the fight between the founding fathers and American economic populists, which we haven’t heard enough about. The much-ballyhooed conflicts among John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton over the federalist project belie their unity against pro-democratic financial and economic measures that would benefit the indebted masses at the expense of financial elites allied with the founders. That we still fight today over similar issues shows how central they are to our national identity. BR Web Editor David Johnson asked Hogeland about who Herman Husband was, why Robert Morris would feel at home working for Citigroup, and how George Washington would greet the Occupy and Tea Party movements.
David Johnson: How did you come to write the book?
William Hogeland: It comes out of things I had bumped into in my first two books,Whiskey Rebellion and Declaration. I kept coming up against the fact that so many conflicts among Americans during the founding period seemed to be over matters of finance and economics that we’re still fighting over today. I decided that this would be a good time, given the financial crisis and some of the debates of Election 2012 about public debt and private debt, regulation, and so forth, to bring those founding financial issues out very explicitly. So I focused on the founding as a series of conflicts among Americans over finance, if finance can be defined the way my extremely lengthy subtitle defines it: debt, speculation, foreclosures, crackdowns, protests, etc.
DJ: You begin the book with a quote from Edmund Randolph, General Washington’s aide-de-camp and the country’s first Attorney General, speaking to the Constitutional Convention: “Our chief danger arises from the democratic parts of our [state] constitutions.” It should be no surprise to those well-read in American history that our founders were critics of democracy. But you argue that “democracy” in that context means something much more than what we commonly understand. What did Randolph mean by that statement?
WH: When we note, as you just did quite rightly, that the founding fathers were wary of the excesses of democracy, we take it to mean something that’s only partially true—it’s not a full description of what they feared. We think they worried that too much input from too many people might lead to a sort of general instability, possibly mob rule, and so forth. The part we tend to leave out, I think, is the financial and economic dimension. When Randolph was calling the convention to order and saying that what we need to do is form a national government, he was speaking in a specific context of economic and financial turmoil, and everyone else in the room would have known what he was talking about. He meant that the state governments were too weak in resisting the onslaught of democratic approaches to finance, in which the lending classes’ investments would be devalued, laws would be passed by state legislatures to provide what the founders would have seen as excessive debt relief to ordinary people, and a host of other democratic financial policies that the elites of the time, for perfectly cogent reasons, felt would destabilize all good policy. Most people don’t discuss Randolph’s remarks at the constitutional convention, because those remarks are distressing to those who believe in democracy today and wish to connect democratic ideals to the founders.
A New Birth of Reason: Robert Ingersoll, the Great Agnostic and the Founders’ Belief in Separation of Church and State
The idea of the separation of church and state was not always as contentious as it is now.
For a long time it was understood that separation served both the political identity and religious identities of American and America.
When Nietzsche declared that ‘God is dead,’ he was to a large degree correct. The God that Nietzsche referred to was indeed passing. The Church, once repressive and oppressive, was undergoing a transformation. That transformation very much embodied the American ideal. The founders of this country were fleeing religious persecution and in fact, the principles and guarantors of freedom in this country were deemed to be religious rights and not just secular rights. With first hand experience with persecution, they understood God made room for all kinds of believers and non believers. Free will no longer had any fine print attached to it.
This was for the founders a sacred idea. Leviticus 25:10 is instructive:
Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.
America was to be a secular nation where believers of all faiths could worship in peace and without fear of persecution. The Founding Fathers were all Christians of course- but they understood for the higher ideals of the nation to be recognized and preserved for all, the secular state was best suited to preserve the character of the nation, preserving not religion, but the freedom to worship as one pleased, The state would not and cold not endorse a particular religion- the state would and could preserve the rights and freedoms of all men, equally created, to worship as they please.
A miracle, indeed.
Why do some public figures who were famous in their own time become part of a nation’s historical memory, while others fade away or are confined to what is called “niche fame” on the Internet? Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899), known in the last quarter of the 19th century as the Great Agnostic, once possessed real fame as one of the two most important champions of reason and secular government in American history—the other being Thomas Paine. Indeed, one of Ingersoll’s lasting accomplishments as the preeminent American orator of his era was the revival of Paine, the preeminent publicist of the American Revolution, in the historical memory and imagination of the nation.
Ingersoll emerged as the leading figure in what historians of American secularism consider the golden age of freethought—an era when immigration, industrialization, and science, especially Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection, were challenging both religious orthodoxy and the supposedly simpler values of the nation’s rural Anglo-Saxon past. That things were never really so simple was the message Ingersoll repeatedly conveyed as he spoke before more of his countrymen than even elected public leaders, including presidents, did at a time when lectures were both a form of mass entertainment and a vital source of information.
Traveling across the continent when most Americans did not, he spread his message not only to urban audiences but also to those who had ridden miles on horseback to hear him speak in towns set down on the prairies of the Midwest and the rangelands of the Southwest. Between 1875 and his death in 1899, Ingersoll spoke in every state except Mississippi, North Carolina, and Oklahoma.
Known as Robert Injuresoul to his clerical enemies, he raised the issue of what role religion ought to play in the public life of the American nation for the first time since the writing of the Constitution, when the Founders deliberately left out any acknowledgment of a deity as the source of governmental power. In one of his most popular lectures, titled “Individuality,” Ingersoll said of Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin
The lecture below was delivered to the plebe class at the United States Military Academy at West Point in October 2009.
My title must seem like a contradiction. What can solitude have to do with leadership? Solitude means being alone, and leadership necessitates the presence of others—the people you’re leading. When we think about leadership in American history we are likely to think of Washington, at the head of an army, or Lincoln, at the head of a nation, or King, at the head of a movement—people with multitudes behind them, looking to them for direction. And when we think of solitude, we are apt to think of Thoreau, a man alone in the woods, keeping a journal and communing with nature in silence.
Leadership is what you are here to learn—the qualities of character and mind that will make you fit to command a platoon, and beyond that, perhaps, a company, a battalion, or, if you leave the military, a corporation, a foundation, a department of government. Solitude is what you have the least of here, especially as plebes. You don’t even have privacy, the opportunity simply to be physically alone, never mind solitude, the ability to be alone with your thoughts. And yet I submit to you that solitude is one of the most important necessities of true leadership. This lecture will be an attempt to explain why.
We need to begin by talking about what leadership really means. I just spent 10 years teaching at another institution that, like West Point, liked to talk a lot about leadership, Yale University. A school that some of you might have gone to had you not come here, that some of your friends might be going to. And if not Yale, then Harvard, Stanford, MIT, and so forth. These institutions, like West Point, also see their role as the training of leaders, constantly encourage their students, like West Point, to regard themselves as leaders among their peers and future leaders of society. Indeed, when we look around at the American elite, the people in charge of government, business, academia, and all our other major institutions—senators, judges, CEOs, college presidents, and so forth—we find that they come overwhelmingly either from the Ivy League and its peer institutions or from the service academies, especially West Point.
So I began to wonder, as I taught at Yale, what leadership really consists of. My students, like you, were energetic, accomplished, smart, and often ferociously ambitious, but was that enough to make them leaders? Most of them, as much as I liked and even admired them, certainly didn’t seem to me like leaders. Does being a leader, I wondered, just mean being accomplished, being successful? Does getting straight As make you a leader? I didn’t think so. Great heart surgeons or great novelists or great shortstops may be terrific at what they do, but that doesn’t mean they’re leaders. Leadership and aptitude, leadership and achievement, leadership and even excellence have to be different things, otherwise the concept of leadership has no meaning. And it seemed to me that that had to be especially true of the kind of excellence I saw in the students around me.
I was thinking about punctuated equilibrium in terms of our changes this last decade just last night; don’t worry, that’s just a coincidence and Ezra is not my astral twin. Others are probably thinking this as well because so much has happened.
We have experienced drastic changes the past decade, and a combination of technology, demographic destiny, and climate will continue to force change in the coming decades. That’s why it’s incumbent on our government to get the tax equation fixed and for Congress to set a new economic steady state, to let the bean counters across America know that they don’t have to worry about new tax structures every other year on top of everything else they have to account for. They might as well get it done now rather than later.
Step back and take an accounting of these last few years: The United States of America, a land where slaves were kept 150 years ago and bathrooms were segregated as recently as 50 years ago, elected and reelected our first black president. We passed and ratified a universal health-care system. We saw the first female Speaker of the House, the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice, and the first openly gay member of the Senate. We stopped a Great Depression, rewrote the nation’s financial regulations, and nearly defaulted on our debt for the first time in our history. Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, Maine, Maryland, Washington and the District of Columbia legalized gay marriage, and the president and the vice president both proclaimed their support. Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana. We killed the most dangerous terrorist in the world and managed two wars. We’ve seen inequality and debt skyrocket to some of the highest levels in American history. We passed a stimulus and investment bill that will transform everything from medical records to education and began a drone campaign that will likely be seen as an epochal shift in the way the United States conducts war.